The New York Times on Sunday defended its reporting on a co-founder of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party. The profile, by Richard Fausset, was widely criticized as being sympathetic to its fascist subject.
“The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think,” wrote Marc Lacey, the Times’ national editor, in a response to reader criticism. (The paper’s public editor position was eliminated after Liz Spayd’s departure over the summer.)
Specifically at issue for many readers was Fausset’s lack of pushback against, or context for, the beliefs of Tony Hovater, a white nationalist from Ohio. “[I]n person, his Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother,” Fausset wrote of Hovater.
Yet, for all the attention the Times paid to Hovater’s inconsequential day-to-day tasks — visits to Applebee’s and Panera Bread featured prominently — it spent very little on his and his party’s belief system, and its philosophical origins. Faussert included only one quote from an expert on extremism and none from civil rights activists, and the piece was notably lacking in the historically bloody examples of white nationalist political action.
“Where was his Rosebud?” Fausset asked himself of Hovater, in a supplementary essay describing his reporting process. “I went back to Mr. Hovater in search of answers. I still don’t think I really found them.”
He added: “Mr. Hovater was exceedingly candid with me — often shockingly so — but it seems as though his worldview was largely formed by the same recombinant stuff that influences our mainstream politics.”
Also missing: Hovater’s goals. Though the piece dutifully mentions his desire for a white ethno-state, it doesn’t mention how he aims to attain that society, nor that it’s only one part of the Traditionalist Worker Party agenda. The party also advocates authoritarian limits on freedom of speech and the press, an end to divorce except for “proven spousal abuse or infidelity” and the eradication of homosexuality and other “antisocial behaviors.”
Instead, the Times reported that the neo-Nazi’s political “evolution” was “largely fueled by the kinds of frustrations that would not seem exotic to most American conservatives. He believes the federal government is too big, the news media is biased, and that affirmative action programs for minorities are fundamentally unfair.”
“We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers,” Lacey said in conclusion. “We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. 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.”