The New York Times is getting some severe online backlash from media figures this weekend after it attempted to portray how ordinary people in America’s communities could harbor white supremacism.
On Saturday, the Times published a story online headlined “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland” that details the relatively pedestrian existence of Tony Hovater in New Carlisle, Ohio. The story aimed to unpack how Hovater’s disturbing views on race do not dominate his life or turn him into a universal pariah in his community — a noble journalistic attempt to try to add texture and complexity to an ascendant group of American voters of whom many readers don’t have first-hand experience.
But the reaction to the piece has been sharp and unsparing. Critics in the media have been arguing that the piece “normalizes” the neo-Nazi ideology and gives the story’s protagonist too much ink in the nation’s most prominent newspaper to spread his viewpoints.
Here’s just some of the reaction online:
Somehow the NYT's post-election paranoia that it didn't understand Trump's America has led to its publishing an deeply sympathetic portrait of a white supremacist.— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) November 25, 2017
Here's a good rule of thumb, newspapers: If you can imagine a Nazi reading the article and going "This is a great article", DON'T PRINT IT!— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) November 25, 2017
The journalist in me understands that your job sometimes is to explain why awful people are so awful. It’s a delicate process. It’s a fine line between explaining and giving hateful people a platform that normalizes their hate. Swing and a miss, here https://t.co/KkEE2rmhTv— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) November 25, 2017
The problem with this article isn't that it's about a Nazi but that it doesn't add anything to our understanding of modern Nazis. Of course racists shop at supermarkets and play in bands and enjoy Seinfeld and own cats. That evil is also banal is not new. https://t.co/bOIQU4pOzu— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) November 25, 2017
It is definitely responsible to profile a Nazi as if he’s just an odd curiosity and not part of a violent and dangerous movement. https://t.co/0gJuaCpd0v— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) November 25, 2017
The author of the story, Richard Fausset, tried to explain his mission in a companion “Times Insider” published alongside the profile. Fausset acknowledged that he had not found all the answers in his quest to understand what motivated Hovater’s radicalism, but he still wanted to offer readers a snapshot of what it is like to speak with an avowed white supremacist.
“Sometimes all we can bring you is the words of the police spokesman, the suspect’s picture from a high school yearbook, the acrid stench of the burned woods,” wrote Fausset. “Sometimes a soul, and its shape, remain obscure to both writer and reader.”
the nyt reporter who profiled the ohio nazi basically confesses he didn't get much. and that the intvws didn't connect any dots for him. sometimes you gotta know when to kill a story. https://t.co/1VyuN0hNal pic.twitter.com/dRbte68N01— Charlie Warzel (@cwarzel) November 25, 2017
Update: The Times responded to the criticism on Sunday, saying that the paper “agonized over the tone and content of the article” but attempted to “describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”
“We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story,” wrote national editor Marc Lacey. “What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.