Last weekend, The New York Times published a profile of Tony Hovater, a man described as the “Nazi sympathizer next door.” The piece prompted swift and sharp criticism for its seeming normalization of a self-professed “white nationalist.”
The reporter who wrote the story, Richard Fausset, and the Times’ national editor, Marc Lacey, both responded in writing on Sunday, acknowledging the criticism, but defending the decision to publish the story.
Northeastern journalism professors were not so certain about that decision, however.
Walter Robinson, former Boston Globe editor and member of the Spotlight team that uncovered systemic abuse by the Catholic Church, said much of the anger directed at the story was justifiable.
“The story failed its most important test, which was to help us understand why it was that somebody from such a supposedly normal background could have become so radicalized at the far-right end of the spectrum,” said Robinson, professor of the practice in the School of Journalism. “As well-written, as descriptive as it is, it doesn’t answer that question; far from it.”
It’s a point Fausset acknowledged in his response as well, describing an “unfilled hole” at the heart of his story.
Associate professor Dan Kennedy and assistant professor Meg Heckman both noted this fundamental flaw, as well.
“Essentially, I think the story would have been a lot better if the Times had explored Hovater’s hateful views in more depth, pressed him on how he came to hold such views, and done more reporting by interviewing friends, former friends, more people in the community, and experts on neo-Nazi hate,” Kennedy said. “It seemed to me that the Times pronounced itself satisfied that it had showed us what a normal-seeming life this Nazi leads.”
Likewise, Heckman said that while reading the piece, “I kept finding myself wondering what the point was, and I don’t know if it ever really got to one. In that way, it may have caused more damage than good.”
The story also seemed to amplify tropes of rural America that don’t give credence to the nuance of the region, Heckman said. It was precisely those tropes, and a sort of “parachute journalism” that came into stark relief immediately before and after the 2016 election, she said.
“There were some parts of the story that illustrated a lack of understanding about rural life,” Heckman said, specifically noting prominent references to chain stores and restaurants like Target, Steak ’n Shake, and Applebee’s.
“That, to me, is not giving rural America enough credit. In a way, that just increases the gulf between these urban news organizations and the vast swaths of America they purport to cover,” she said.
Still, all three journalists said the idea behind the story—separate from significant execution failures—was a good one.
“Trying to understand a certain political ideology, even one that is absolutely reprehensible, is the mark of good journalism,” Heckman said. “We should be bearing witness to all sorts of aspects of our society, including the ones that are unsettling and uncomfortable.”
Indeed, it may be exactly that coverage of society that prompted so much anger toward the story, Robinson said.
“I think what people found upsetting was that its depiction of this white supremacist runs counter to the view that many of us would like to have of these people—that they’re at the far outer fringes of society,” he said. “What the story did tell, in a way that would make us feel uncomfortable, is that in our own communities, looking and seeming innocuous, these people are amidst us and among us.
“I think a fair bit of the anger at the Times is aimed at what the Times got right,” he said.