The New York Times is just the latest mainstream news outlet to normalize white supremacists when the truth about America’s socio-cultural realities are what we need the most.
By now you have heard about the New York Times’ awful profile of William Anthony Hovater, the white supremacist who—hold the phone!—watches television shows and shops at big box stores with his white supremacist wife, Maria Harrison. Over at The Establishment, Katherine Cross provides one of the most insightful reads of the myriad problems with the piece, via the work of Hannah Arendt. In short, the article (written by a guy who admits he didn’t really know what he was doing, or going for, or ended up with) glamorizes, normalizes, and minimizes bigotry, provides no sociocultural context for it, and makes no attempt whatsoever to challenge any of Hovater’s odious beliefs and claims.
There are now enough “Nazis! They’re Just Like Us!” trend stories penned by agog white journalists to warrant a trend story about the trend stories. The mainstream media is absolutely enamored with everyday Nazis. Can you believe it?, they all seem to say, We might run into an actual, real-life racist at Costco!
Of course you might run into a real-life racist at Costco, something that would be far less of a surprise to media gatekeepers if society in general took the lived experiences of people of color seriously. Everybody poops, and racists buy bulk toilet paper, too. Hell, most of us white folks are going to run into a racist or five at Christmas dinner.
Journalists do not need to go looking for Nazis, next door at Target or anywhere else, when the practical effects of culturally ingrained, systemic, and institutionalized white supremacy are all around us. From the White House to the state houses, our government is chock full of politicians, officials, and bureaucrats who create, enforce, uphold, and perpetuate laws, policies and norms that oppress and marginalize people of color, sometimes expressly and deliberately. Voter ID. “Broken windows” policing. Stop and frisk. Immigrant detention. Immigrant child detention. The myth of the Black “welfare queen.” Redlining. Predatory lending. The school-to-prison pipeline. Cuts to children’s Medicaid. Mandatory minimum drug sentencing. The prison industrial complex. I could go on.
Is it so hard to believe that William Anthony Hovater likes sitcoms when our attorney general is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions? Is it shocking that William Anthony Hovater eats at Applebee’s when Donald Trump built his political career on false, racist narratives about President Obama’s birth certificate, when state lawmakers openly seek to disenfranchise communities of color, when bureaucrats license immigration prisons as child-care facilities, when police who murder people of color are protected instead of punished, when mass incarceration has become the modern extension of slavery?
The William Anthony Hovaters and Maria Harrisons of the world are not uniquely responsible for the existence of racism and the perpetuation of hatred and bigotry; they are hardly its only proponents. Most of us need only to look to the nearest city hall or county seat or state capitol or boardroom or courthouse or police headquarters or school administration office or yoga studio to find the true “everyday” upholders of white supremacy and white privilege—often our own selves, or our own neighbors. We don’t need a copy of Mein Kampf on our bookshelves to be part of systems and institutions that disproportionately harm communities of color. We simply need to be compliant and complacent. We can be the kind of white people who claim we “don’t see” color. We can be the kind of white people who name our high-end luxury home goods store “Plantation” and claim it has nothing to do with slavery.
Assignment editors simply don’t need to send another white reporter out to try and understand how an individual racist got to be so racist (spoiler: White people believe it is economically, socially and politically advantageous for white people to perpetuate white supremacy!), without challenging, contextualizing, and, yes, condemning the practices and effects of racism. This widespread cultural, economic and political complicity in racial oppression is well documented; there are myriad experts and academics who have built careers understanding the ways in which bigotry manifests, is perpetuated, persists. There are people who simply understand bigotry because they have experienced bigotry. They should be holding the pen—or sitting at they keyboard, or holding the reporter’s notebook.
It is a shame that the New York Times couldn’t get this story right, and that it repeatedly failed, in attempts to mitigate the fallout, to acknowledge the truth: This story should have been spiked. And this is not the first time that a New York Times reporter has struggled to adequately contextualize quotidian hatred. Earlier this fall, another Times reporter took a hard swing and and a miss with a story about “doxxing” Nazis and Nazi sympathizers that suggested it might be as bad to out someone for being a Nazi as it would to out them for being transgender. I mean, the mind boggles.
If it were clear that there was a single source for this tomfoolery, it would be an easy fix. But on some really big stories—stories meant to serve as touchstones essential to the mission of this country’s paper of record — the Times doesn’t seem to be assigning people who have a confident and cogent understanding of history, people who are capable of conveying that understanding to readers, and who are being supported and coached by editors who demand stories that take a multifaceted approach to controversial or difficult social issues. I don’t think this problem—a failure to take a holistic view of socio-cultural reality that values and centers the experiences of marginalized people — is unique to the New York Times, but the paper’s far-reaching platform make this failure correspondingly greater. And as legacy publications and mainstream broadcast outfits become increasingly consolidated — troublingly, under right-wing ownership banners—I don’t have a great deal of hope that the deep institutional changes that need to happen will happen.
The good news is that there are a number of strong, reliable independent media outfits that are doing this whole first-draft-of-history thing right, or at least closer to right. They are the publications and outlets that hire trans folks, people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, working-class and poor folks and trust them to report on issues that affect their lives. They hold themselves accountable to their readers. The ones I read, listen to, watch and trust most: ProPublica, Reveal/The Center for Investigative Reporting, Rewire, Mother Jones, Democracy Now!, the Marshall Project, the Texas Observer, Colorlines, the Establishment and … well, y’all can read the DAME logo up at the top of this here column, right?
I’m not suggesting you abandon your legacy favorites. To the contrary—I think you should do whatever you need to do with your budget to support your local daily newspaper and keep a live subscription to a major national magazine, too. But it is essential to supplement mainstream narratives with independent voices so that when the New York Times lands on your doorstep, or in your inbox, with a monologuing Nazi, you’re able to talk back when a reporter won’t.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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