The New York Times’ profile on Tony Hovater, a self-described white nationalist, received criticism from readers as well as media outlets. The main criticism was that the story supposedly “normalized” hate in its various forms — racism, bigotry and ideologies such as Hovater’s. But the notion that the Times attempted to somehow condone or make hate okay may be faulty.
The article describes Hovater’s lifestyle and interests in practical, perhaps humanizing terms. Although it is not explicit in the original article, its author Richard Fausset later wrote that he had “hoped” to answer the question of “what, of any of this, explained Mr. Hovater’s radical turn?” but that he was not able to do so. The Times’ National Editor Marc Lacey also wrote that the point of the article wasn’t to “normalize” anything. Here are two ways the criticisms may fall short.
1. Does the Times “normalize” hate?“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
– Albert EinsteinIf we want to address hate, we must understand it. So we’d want to understand how people who harbor hateful ideologies live, and why they believe what they believe. While Fausset’s article is slanted (which we discuss below), it does help us understand white nationalism in a way that many news articles on the subject don’t.
Hate often comes from objectifying others, and not understanding all aspects of humanity. This can lead to seeing one group as superior and others as inferior. So, understanding Hovater’s life and views may help us lessen hate. On the other hand, dismissing or objectifying him may move us further away from understanding and critically evaluating hateful ideologies.
One of the criticisms we analyzed, from Vox, said the Times “is taking some deserved criticism for publishing a gentle profile of an Ohio Nazi.” This could imply the Times should have written a “harsher” article, but to what avail?
Esquire additionally suggested the Times should have “killed” the story. Would choosing not to profile a white nationalist lead to less hate and greater understanding? Probably not.
2. The nature of the criticisms“In time we hate that which we often fear.”
– William ShakespeareIt’s natural to respond to hate with fear or anger, but both are narrow in scope and thus act as a type of fuel to the same fire. While the criticisms we analyzed made valid points, some were also sarcastic and disparaging. For instance,Quartz wrote, “Criticizing the New York Times has become something of a national sport in recent years …” And after quoting Lacey admitting the paper’s error in linking to a site that sells swastika armbands (which it later corrected), Esquire wrote, “Big of you. The rest of us came to this conclusion in 1945.” Esquire added:
However, the newspaper is digging in and, in doing so, making itself and its reporter look even worse in their defense. National editor Marc Lacey goes completely off the diving board before noticing that the pool pretty much has been drained.
Sarcasm and disparaging or dishonorable opinions aren’t the hallmark of responsible reporting. They also participate in the problem of hate by limiting the way we approach and understand a subject.
How the Times’ article fell shortThe Times’ piece was slanted in that it overemphasized aspects of Hovater’s life that one might consider normal and acceptable, and potentially downplayed the destructive elements of his ideology. Because of its slant, the profile doesn’t help readers distinguish how Hovater’s white nationalism may be cause for concern in a measurable sense.
At the end of the day, destructive acts are bad — it’s what our justice and criminal systems measure and deliberate on. The protests in Charlottesville, for example, weren’t inherently bad. A person running into a crowd of people with a car is destructive, and we can measure this objectively within our legal system because it has to do with the violation of rights.
The Times’ depiction of Hovater’s views may inspire us to condemn them, but it doesn’t specify whether he is encroaching on others’ rights and, if so, how. If Hovater hasn’t violated others’ rights, the article doesn’t provide a clear depiction of that either.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News