Forgive them, Twitter, for they have sinned.
Just as we were all nearly finished cooling down from Sarah Sanders’s plagiarized pecan pie, the New York Times went and published a story about an Ohio neo-Nazi, and the social-media sphere had a conniption.
In “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” Richard Fausset introduces us to 29-year-old Tony Hovater, a welder who lives in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. We learn that the outwardly unassuming Hovater, an erstwhile heavy-metal drummer, recently married, and that in his spare time he spews bigoted bile and stumps for Jew-bashing, white-supremacist, fascist organizations.
“It is small in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one of the segments of the white supremacist movement that’s grown over the last two years,” she said.
It was midday at a Panera Bread, and Mr. Hovater was describing his political awakening over a turkey sandwich. He mentioned books by Charles Murray and Pat Buchanan. He talked about his presence on 4chan, the online message board and alt-right breeding ground (“That’s where the scary memes come from,” he deadpanned). He spoke dispassionately about the injustice of affirmative action, about the “malice directed toward white people” in popular media, about how the cartoon comedy “King of the Hill” was the last TV show to portray “a straight white male patriarch” in a positive light.
He declared the widely accepted estimate that six million Jews died in the Holocaust “overblown.” He said that while the Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler wanted to exterminate groups like Slavs and homosexuals, Hitler “was a lot more kind of chill on those subjects.”
“I think he was a guy who really believed in his cause,” he said of Hitler. “He really believed he was fighting for his people and doing what he thought was right.”
Fausset’s profile popped up on the Times site at midday on Saturday. It didn’t take long for the nitpickers and naysayers to come Twittering in.
The chorus didn’t direct its bile at Hovater so much as at the Times, which, in publishing a story that depicted a white nationalist in his banal surroundings without Explicitly Stating That He Is a Bad Man, committed the unforgivable sin of “normalizing” a Nazi.
By golly, it’s downright un-American!
Bess Kalb, a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live, was among of the first to flog, using Twitter’s newly engorged character allowance to share, “I don’t mean to sound intolerant or coarse, but fuck this Nazi and fuck the gentle, inquisitive tone of this Nazi-normalizing barf journalism, and fuck the photographer for not just throwing the camera at this Nazi’s head and laughing.”
Kalb was just getting warmed up.
Get ready to read a fucking sentence. It's a sentence about a Nazi. Are you ready? Lay the fuck down.
Quick reminder: It's about a fucking Nazi. A Nazi. Nazi. It's a sentence about a Nazi.
"In person, his Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother."
— Bess Kalb (@bessbell) November 25, 2017
Another fault-finder, Daniel Dale, blared his klaxon to the tune of, “Sure, let’s just let the Nazis talk in the NYT about how Jews are running finance and the media, why not.”
There is a genre of profile journalism that lets the subject hang themselves by their own words. But sometimes the words are not obviously inaccurate enough to everyone that it's dangerous to just let them stand by themselves. This story is a total victory for an actual Nazi.
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) November 25, 2017
Dale, the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Toronto Star, was far from the only journalist who hungered to chew out a fellow member of the tribe.
ESPN anchor Jemele Hill went only slightly easier on the perps: “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.”
Of course, sad though the fact may be, journalists heaping disdain on one another by the virtual ton is kinda what Twitter is all about.
The most revolting aspect of the weekend’s shit show is the stone throwers’ low regard for the average reader (presumably, some of the same people who read their stuff).
If a story that refuses to instruct us precisely how to evaluate the subject at hand — as opposed to allowing us to come to our own conclusions — is a failure, then what of journalism that provokes or challenges our beliefs?
It’s roads like these that lead to the end of the First Amendment.
What if the Daily Stormer were to run a weekly “Nazi Next Door” feature? Would it look anything like Fausset’s story?
Would you read it?
And where do we draw the line between something a reporter “normalizes” and something in our own culture that, as hard as it is for us to admit, has become commonplace? Or mundane? Or omnipresent? Or ubiquitous.
The bottom line is that the internet, itself a colossal blob of context, is unlike Sarah Sanders’s pilfered pie, in that it cannot be viewed from above.
Instead, each of us must bring our own context to bear on the accurately rendered depictions we encounter.
Here are two examples of context that no one in their right mind person would demand to consider with respect to a story about a white supremacist in Dayton, Ohio — but which are pertinent all the same.
Think of them as companion pieces to Fausset’s story.
The first is a widely anthologized poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anthony Hecht. It is harrowing:
The second is a poem by another Pulitzer winner, C.K. Williams. It, too, is harrowing — but also affirming, if you stay with it (note, you’ll need to scroll down nearly to the bottom of the page, then click to listen):
Click this link to follow Richard Fausset on Twitter. And click the link below to read his Hovater profile in its entirety:
…And because this is the Times we’re talking about, click this link to read Fausset’s ruminations on his subject:
…And in case you forgot this is the Times we’re talking about, click this link to read a not-sorry from the Gray Lady’s national editor, Marc Lacey: