The First Amendment and Nazis next door in Trump's America.
Image via National page: New York Times
The world was introduced to the “Nazi Next Door,” Tony Hovater, in The New York Times on November 25th, 2017, in a story that begins with a casual lunch conversation between a Nazi sympathizer and reporter Richard Fausset. They talk about Hovater’s wedding registry, his wedding plans, and his favorite TV shows (ironically, ‘Seinfeld’ is one of them). Just another day in Huber Heights, Ohio.
For many, the story that went on to portray the life and ideations of a right-wing extremist and white supremacist caused outrage, so much so that The New York Times’ National Editor, Marc Lacey, published a response linked at the top of the story online.
“[Lacey] said, ‘As journalists, what you write and what you publish is thought through, reviewed, read by numerous sets of eyes.’ If several people at the Times thought it passed the test, why apologize? You obviously thought the content and context was appropriate and non-abrasive, so why backpedal? There wasn’t an apology, only a ‘regret,’” said social media expert Rich Bracken, who grew up in the South and witnessed firsthand many instances of racism, bigotry and separatism.
“The purpose of journalism is clearly to inform, but also to provoke, not gratuitously, but to find empathy and meaning in others' experiences and lives.”
Bracken went on to argue that racism, prejudice, and hate have no place in the media at all.
“Covering these groups in any way—and actually, any sort of terrorist attack, mass shooting, or other attacks, don’t deserve any airtime—and absolutely shouldn’t be called by name. I don’t need to hear what they wore at Applebee’s and that these two people who push hate are wildly in love.,” he said. “What we need to be talking about are solutions to problems that are centuries old, have cost lives and have damaged our society for far too long.”
One of the many hot-button topics of discussion has been whether the “normalization” of Hovater’s beliefs could continue to propagate that this sort of belief system is becoming more mainstream, and even influence others to “accept” an America that is spiraling back in time into racial segregation.
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Dr. Melissa Hamilton , Senior Lecturer of Law and Criminal Justice at The University of Surrey, believes that the article conceptualizes Hovater as “intelligent, socially adroit and raised middle class amid the relatively well-integrated environments of United States military bases” and was put off by the way Fausset repeatedly highlights the trappings of his “Americana, apple pie domestic life.”
“As a reader, I was left with the impression that this rage against racial and ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and the disabled was simply a household affair, representing a mere quirk in an otherwise reasonable individual,” she told VICE Impact. “Perhaps the author did not know the right questions to ask here….the article could also have connected with emerging research showing how the recent uprising of conservative populists after the last election tends toward extremism.”
Dr. Hamilton said that “Searching for Motives in Mass Shootings” by Elif Batuman for The New Yorker was spot-on in its critical analysis about how the media and the public talk about mass shootings, and when it comes to how to teach these perspectives in classrooms Dr. Hamilton believes that it’s important to teach her students that our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion are important to emphasize, not penalize.
“As a reader, I was left with the impression that this rage against racial and ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and the disabled was simply a household affair, representing a mere quirk in an otherwise reasonable individual."
“Some Western countries have criminalized joining certain extreme groups. I would hope for the U.S. not to do that. But none of those rights are absolute,” she said. “It’s also important to consider reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. Invoking violence, creating public disturbances, and otherwise facilitating lawlessness should not be tolerated. “
Last week, while teaching a class on policing public disorder, she highlighted the difficulty police have these days when they are called upon to protect alt-right extremist groups who are lawfully protesting.
“It must be hard when officers are extremely offended by the messages, and they may be labeled racist themselves by seeming to support the protesters,” she said, adding, “The editor’s removing the link to the website selling swastika armbands was responsible.”
Brett A. Schwartz, a professor at Deerfield High School In Illinois and Executive Producer of StoryScreen, had a different take on the article entirely.
“The purpose of journalism is clearly to inform, but also to provoke, not gratuitously, but to find empathy and meaning in others' experiences and lives,” he said. “Many readers charged that the Times was ‘normalizing’ white nationalism or neo-Nazism, but, as a teacher and as a Jew, I find the charges facile, and perhaps dangerous.”
He continued, “President Trump and his lead political strategists, including the now-ousted Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, have fostered a climate in which white nationalism has become more mainstream or ‘normalized.’ That is the what Faussett sought to profile. To do what journalists do, which is to shed light, and the lack of an outright political bias in this reporting is not regrettable, in my opinion, but it makes the piece come alive, as the reader dwells on the mundane, everyday details of this neo-Nazi's life.”
One might consider Hovater's routine "normal" a result of the political climate ushered in by a president that panders to a once-fringe movement and seeks to eviscerate all social norms. This, said Schwartz, includes the belief that Nazism and white nationalism have no place in a democratic America.
“These are the ideas that I'd love my students to engage with. The nuanced perspective that humanizes a man who is on the wrong path and that we need to understand better. De-humanizing him and his fellow white nationalists does not lead to heightened understanding,” he said. “Living in New York after 9/11, we were told not to ask the question ‘why’ people did this to us.’ But by actively rejecting that question, we cast aside the ability to provide a better understanding for Americans, losing an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and learn how to fight not just with missiles, but with minds.”
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Ani Zonneveld, Founder and President of Muslims for Progressive Values, thinks that what the story should have done, and what would be more reflective of responsible coverage, would be to structure the story to describe how "normal" racism and extremists are, NYT should have structured the story to describe how common racism and extremism is among people who may seem normal, as well as how the current political climate is allowing individuals to be open with these ideologies, thus normalized.
“Full transparency of their mishap was an important step in displaying how the media should be taking complete responsibility for the influence they have on society. All media outlets should be doing this and more often,” she said.” The end goal in Richard Fausset's mind, was to answer ‘What makes a man start a fire?’ and it’s an important one to attain. Although, they did not necessarily meet this goal.”
“These are the ideas that I'd love my students to engage with. The nuanced perspective that humanizes a man who is on the wrong path and that we need to understand better. De-humanizing him and his fellow white nationalists does not lead to heightened understanding.”
While some of these ideations are taught through generations, the media is still a powerful influence for some when it comes to perception, especially when it comes to people or groups that don’t normally enter our own respective, personal worlds.
“Educators need to make clear that extremist ideologies are not dead nor foreign, so students can be aware of its current existence and the possibilities that come with it,” said Zonneveld. “Failing to do so results in the majority being ignorant to the reality or commonality of these issues and they will continue to thrive.”
When asked to point to an example of a story that got it right, publicist and communications expert Danielle Killian said Mother Jones ran a similar profile before the election that was “better.”
“It is written from the professor’s perspective, alerting us to maintain a bit more intellectual distance than an average human interest story. The subject is given only a first name, not elevated to the status of leader or given ‘a movement,’” she said. “As a publicist, it is not an easy form of story to ‘land’ in a mid-tier publication, let alone the Times. Both the story format and the fact that the story ran in Times, not his hometown paper, gives credibility to the subject.”
There is no arguing that the piece did make something of a celebrity out of a small-town, Applebees-frequenting man, spreading his ideations out on the dining room tables and laptops of so many Americans over the past few weeks, and it is a point of view that has, over the past year, incited incidents of violence.
If you want your voice to be heard -- one way or the other -- send suggestions to your local and national editors, or any publication you think needs more coverage like this, or got their coverage wrong. And, be sure to let them know when you feel they’ve gotten it right, and that you’d like to see more stories covered in a thoughtful way.
Ensuring that free speech can flourish is a core component of a healthy democracy. Organizations like PEN America or the Committee to Protect Journalists work diligently to ensure a free and open press, and need your support.