Editorial: Journalists shouldn’t be afraid to contextualize evil


The New York Times has received significant criticism for a profile about a neo-Nazi the paper published Saturday. (Photo via Flickr)

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

What was unusual in the response to a recent New York Times story wasn’t its negativity so much as where the hate came from.

With figures on the political right, from President Donald Trump to Joseph Curl of the Washington Times, frequently deriding The New York Times as “failing” and “very, very (very) biased,” the Times’ editorial staff is likely used to conservative critics. But the paper had to deal with more anger from the left this weekend after printing a profile, titled “A voice of hate in America’s Heartland,” which told the story of a neo-Nazi living an otherwise normal life in an Ohio suburb.

“I’m both shocked and disgusted by this article,” one Twitter user said in response to the article. “Attempting to ‘normalize’ white supremacist groups — should [n]ever have been printed!”

While criticisms of how the Times handled such a story are justifiable — Richard Fausset, the story’s writer, himself agreed it needed more work before publishing — it would be preemptive to break out the torches and pitchforks just yet. Before we boycott the paper, we should recognize it’s vital journalists continue to pursue stories like this one, but they should do so with more context and sense of purpose — two elements notably missing in the Times’ piece.

In Fausset’s companion article to his profile of Ohio’s Nazi next door, the reporter laments how he was unable to pin down his subject’s “Rosebud” — the seed that motivated his transition from mainstream society to horrific, fringe fascism.

Perhaps there was nothing in his subject’s story to indicate predilection to extreme bigotry. But Fausset’s editors probably should have waited to publish his article until after a more convincing central narrative could be established and the story was framed more responsibly. And the piece was irresponsible in failing to correct or contextualize the subject’s inaccurate and anti-semitic quotes.

That being said, it’s difficult to square such a criticism of the Times’ actions with calls from concerned voices on the left to immediately cease all media coverage of political extremists in our society. Claims that such coverage, regardless of how it’s presented, “normalizes” racism in America ignores that the ideologies of fascism and white supremacy are already normal in many parts of the country.

A neo-Nazi doesn’t have to dress in the uniform of an SS officer or drown puppies for fun to espouse an ideology of hatred. It’s part of journalists’ job to investigate where, how and why extremist ideologies infect even the most outwardly innocuous parts of our culture. And that’s just what the profile that appeared this weekend in the New York Times set out to do, even if it ended up off the mark.

Newspapers and journalists shouldn’t be afraid to write about the ugly and malevolent in society. And while reporters need to remember to tread carefully when writing about issues surrounding extremism, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be allowed to make the attempt.

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