LOIS BECKETT: This is On the Media. I’m Lois Beckett, a reporter with Guardian US, sitting in for Bob and Brooke for a special hour on covering white supremacists.
When it comes to this issue, reporters have been tripping over the same stumbling blocks for decades, by treating extremists as too normal, failing to convey the danger they represent, or by portraying them as shocking aberrations, erasing their connections to mainstream racism and sometimes just by covering them at all, giving fringe groups a huge publicity boost. Now, I want to look at why we’re making those mistakes, so let’s talk about Richard Spencer.
RICHARD SPENCER: We have bold ideas.
RICHARD SPENCER: They, they’re just inherently exciting.
LOIS BECKETT: You know Richard. He’s the “dapper white nationalist” who got his supporters to give the Nazi salute after the election.
RICHARD SPENCER: Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory.
LOIS BECKETT: Then he got punched in the face.
RICHARD SPENCER: It’s Pepe has become kind of a symbol. [LAUGHS]
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LOIS BECKETT: Before 2016, Spencer was a fringe racist, giving lectures to handfuls of students on college campuses. After the election, all that changed.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Richard Spencer.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Richard Spencer.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Richard Spencer.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: White nationalist Richard Spencer --
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LOIS BECKETT: In early 2017, I asked Spencer himself why he thought he had received so much coverage. He said, and I’m quoting him precisely here, “I’m very good looking, I’m very intelligent, I’m very compelling when I speak.” This was a phone interview, so he couldn't see my face. And I had a lot of reactions. The main one was, how did this guy become famous?
As a journalist, your own identity often influences your reporting, especially when you're covering Nazis. Anna Merlan, a reporter for Gizmodo media’s special projects desk, frequently shares the fact that she's Jewish with the racists she interviews, like alt-right talk show host Sonny Thomas.
ANNA MERLAN: We had been talking for a good 40 minutes about his belief that Jews control the government and Jews are inserting hidden messages into Disney movies. And so, that seemed like a good moment to share that I am Jewish and to see how he responded, just naked shock. He managed to sort of paper it over immediately and say, that's fine. I ran into him again at the end of the rally and said, you know, how do you think it went? He saw it as a huge triumph. And then at the end of our conversation he looked to me and he said, I know you're a Jew but you're a beautiful woman and kissed my hand and walked away. It’s not my favorite reporting experience.
LOIS BECKETT: Misogyny is central to this movement. Male reporters may be able to spot that but they won't constantly be told to please have white babies.
ELLE REEVE: A guy literally told me not to waste my Aryan eggs on my Jewish boyfriend.
LOIS BECKETT: VICE News’ Elle Reeve.
ELLE REEVE: When they get drunk on the weekends they text me or they do weird things. I've gotten pictures of their penises.
LOIS BECKETT: And then there’s the lens of race.
GARY YOUNGE: As a black journalist, when I go into a white supremacist conference, which is where I met Richard Spencer, in a state which has concealed carry, I feel different. I think that most white journalists would.
LOIS BECKETT: Gary Younge is editor-at-large for The Guardian. He interviewed Richard Spencer last year as part of a documentary on the state of anger and anxiety in modern white America.
GARY YOUNGE: You want to create a nation of white people, dispossessed white people, is that right?
RICHARD SPENCER: Yes, it would be our homeland. It would be our safe space.
GARY YOUNGE: Safe space?
RICHARD SPENCER: Yeah. Yeah.
GARY YOUNGE: Why, why do you need a safe space?
RICHARD SPENCER: Why, why did --
LOIS BECKETT: Younge chose to talk to Spencer in a parking lot, not giving him the respectful format of a taped sit-down interview. The video ended up going viral.
RICHARD SPENCER: Africans have benefited from their experience with white supremacy. They benefited from being in a different nation than their own, no doubt.
GARY YOUNGE: Really?
RICHARD SPENCER: How can you deny that?
GARY YOUNGE: It’s such a ridiculous notion.
Richard spencer: How is it ridiculous?
GARY YOUNGE: It’s such a ridiculous notion.
RICHARD SPENCER: How is it ridiculous?
GARY YOUNGE: That people forcibly removed from their homes and taken to this country --
GARY YOUNGE: He told me I wasn’t British. He told me that I’d benefitted from slavery. He told me that the history of civilization would have been no different if me and my forebears hadn’t been in it. And so, I pushed back on that. Anybody should be able to bring many of these things. It’s just that black journalists are more likely to have had experiences of racist bigotry. And so, the cost of indulging him is different.
LOIS BECKETT: Another of the best interviews with Richard Spencer, where his smugness was shaken, was conducted by Reveal’s Al Letson, who is also black.
AL LETSON: I think that growing up in the South prepared me to interview somebody like Richard Spencer because I’ve known that dude my entire life. They had different names, maybe they were like surfers, [LAUGHS] maybe they were police officers or firefighters, but I have known “Richard Spencer” my entire life.
LOIS BECKETT: Rather than just give Spencer a microphone and ask him why he held such racist ideas, Al pressed him on the details his team had uncovered of government subsidies Spencer's family received for their cotton plantations in the Deep South.
AL LETSON: I'm just curious because you talk a lot about how America is a corrupt system and how everything is not working correctly but you’re benefiting off of that.
RICHARD SPENCER: I -- look, I, I am not involved in any direct day-to-day running of these, you know, businesses.
GARY YOUNGE: You know, Richard Spencer is a rich kid who's been surrounded by privilege his whole life. So I come in with a completely different perspective of America. And the statistics back me up and not him.
LOIS BECKETT: For Gary and Al, Richard Spencer was a familiar figure, so why had he seemed so fascinating to so many reporters? Why had he gotten so much attention?
GARY YOUNGE: I think that a lot of white people think that if you’re a racist you wear a racist uniform, right, that has maybe a Confederate flag on it. Maybe you’re missin’ a tooth or two and you talk with a Southern twang, that you can spot them out.
I think it’s hard for Americans to wrap their heads around the idea that, like, the person that sits next to you that's a good person to you could be horrible to people because they’re black or brown or because they come from another country or because they’re women, like the everyday racists, because I think if you have to wrap the head around the everyday racist then you also have to look at yourself.
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LOIS BECKETT: In Elle Reeve’s experience, this idea that racism is a poor white problem or an uneducated white problem or a Southern problem was almost impossible to dislodge.
ELLE REEVE: After Charlottesville, I found myself at this fancy party in New York, and there are all these fancy liberals there and they wanted to talk to me about Charlottesville. And, like, no matter how many times I told them that these guys were not poor, they kept saying, like, well, you know, whatever economic suffering has caused them to adopt racism, you know, like that’s unfortunate. And like no, these guys are like you. They’re like you! They are from New Jersey. They went to prep school. They live on the Upper East Side. And it’s very hard for white liberals to accept that.
LOIS BECKETT: Richard Spencer played very consciously on these stereotypes, presenting himself with his university degrees, his knowledge of European philosophy as a novel development in American racism. And many news outlets took the bait, especially after a speech by Hillary Clinton gave the movement he represents a publicity windfall.
HILLARY CLINTON: The emerging racist ideology known as the alt-right.
LOIS BECKETT: Shortly before Election Day in 2016, Mother Jones published a profile of Spencer originally titled, “Meet the Dapper White Nationalist Who Wins Even if Trump Loses.”
The profile opens with Spencer eating sushi in a resort in Montana. He’s had several rounds of Merlot and he's opining on the differences between races. To this day, the article is cited by critics as one of the original sins of white supremacist coverage. I asked the author of the profile, Josh Harkinson, what he made of the response.
JOSH HARKINSON: Frankly, I thought it was bull. I mean, the criticism was that we are glorifying Richard Spencer. But if you read the story, I mean, we weren’t glorifying him. We were doing a deep dive on who this guy was, where he came from, how he came to hold these extreme views. When the presidential candidate, you know, of the Republican Party is basically parodying this world, you know, is courting these guys, of course, it’s relevant to write about him.
LOIS BECKETT: People really latched onto this description of him, that you called him articulate and well dressed, that he had these prom king good looks.
JOSH HARKINSON: I am saying that these are tools that Richard Spencer uses in order to increase his appeal. I mean, his clothes were fashionable. It doesn't mean that we agree with anything he says.
LOIS BECKETT: A lot of the criticism of pieces, yours included but certainly not limited to yours, is that there were things in the piece, like the praise of his good looks and things not in the piece, like perspectives from people of color or a sense of how dangerous this person might be or the consequences of his action, that were shaped by a white reporter that's edited in a largely white newsroom.
JOSH HARKINSON: Well, first let me tell you a secret that nobody knows. The Mother Jones editor who thought of the “dapper white nationalist” headline is black. So just let that sink in for a minute. Number two, we were very clear about the consequences of Richard Spencer's views, getting extremely detailed about who could and could not be in his nation state. It took quite some time to pin down, by the way.
LOIS BECKETT: You’re holding Spencer accountable and you're being clear about his views but with this sense of this is embarrassing, this is foolish. That is very much how white Americans, myself included, often talk about racism, that it’s awkward or uncomfortable. Black Americans talk about racism in, in a very different way, with a sense of grief and terror. And, from what I could tell, you only interviewed one person who is black, and that is a former friend of Spencer's who says in half a sentence, oh, he wasn’t a racist or I didn't see him being a racist. Why didn’t you interview more people of color, more Jewish people, ask them about Spencer's impact on them or the impact of these ideas on them?
JOSH HARKINSON: Well, this was a profile of Richard Spencer. It wasn’t, like, what does the world think about Richard Spencer. And so, I interviewed people that Richard Spencer came in contact with. How many African American people do you think I should have interviewed for the story? I mean, should we make a rule that every story that mentions white supremacists has to interview at least one black, Latino and Asian person? I think the types of conversations that you and I are having right now are, are useful, but each story is its own piece. You know, this story included an interview of the African American student who slept over at Richard Spencer's house. It included an interview of his Asian ethnic girlfriend. Could it have included another person of color who had been victimized by Richard Spencer in some way? It certainly could have. And I think it, it could have benefitted from that. Full stop.
LOIS BECKETT: Some critics argue that the mistakes journalists made in covering extremists like Spencer were avoidable if news organizations, themselves, had been more diverse. Right now, nearly 40% of Americans are people of color. In digital and print newsrooms, it’s 17%. The argument isn’t that reporters of color need to be assigned to particular stories. It’s that newsrooms, as a whole, need to be having different conversations about what to cover, about who to cover, especially when we’re trying to explain racism.
I think about this a lot. What would have happened if we had decided not to hand Richard Spencer a microphone?
ANNA MERLAN: I do think we made Richard Spencer.
LOIS BECKETT: Gizmodo’s Anna Merlan.
ANNA MERLAN: This wave of media coverage about how normal Richard Spencer was, how intelligent he was, how he looked in a suit, how he had a visible chin was really not helpful. I think it was avoidable too, if people had a better sense of history. And I don’t know, I mean, we’ve had that same discussion about Trump. What would have happened if Trump didn’t get so much sort of obliging free media coverage?
AL LETSON: You know, Richard Spencer didn't start all this stuff. Donald J. Trump didn't start all this stuff. It was started when the first slaves were brought to America.
LOIS BECKETT: Al Letson.
AL LETSON: We’re seeing people who are rising up and they’re riding the wave of what's happening in America. And so, Richard Spencer, if not him then somebody else would have figured out a way to ride that wave.
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LOIS BECKETT: Coming up, our mistaken ideas about Richard Spencer are only the most recent episode in centuries of misunderstanding where racism comes from. This is On the Media.