There’s an old journalism saying: If you are writing about a neo-Nazi in middle America, don’t make him seem like Wally Cleaver.
Okay, there’s not, but after the New York Times seemed to do just that Saturday, perhaps there should be.
A story published in the Gray Lady describing Dayton-area neo-Nazi Tony Hovater as “polite and low-key,” with “Midwestern manners [that] would please anyone’s mother,” kicked up an internet storm of rage over the weekend, with even writer Richard Fausset admitting that his piece was lacking.
Most took issue with the idea that Fausset seemed to be normalizing white supremacist attitudes with his profile of Hovater, following him to fast-casual restaurants like Applebee’s and Panera Bread and giving him a soapbox to spew anti-Semitic canards.
Anti-Defamation League head Jonathan Greenblatt chided the paper for “humanizing the inhumane.”
It's critical for the press, when covering professional hatemongers, to avoid treating the abnormal as normal or to humanize the inhumane. By that basic measure, I'd score this @NYTimes piece: #Nazis– 1, @Public– 0. https://t.co/ydUIv9b7G6
— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) November 25, 2017
But mostly, it seemed it was the description of the “Seinfeld”-loving welder as a nice middle class Midwesterner, as American as apple pie (in the shape of a swastika) that inspired a whirlwind of indignant internet anger.
“You know who had nice manners? The Nazi who shaved my uncle Willie’s head before escorting him into a cement chamber where he locked eyes with children as their lungs filled with poison and they suffocated to death in agony. Too much? Exactly. That’s how you write about Nazis,” wrote comedy writer Bess Kalb in a Twitter rant for the ages.
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
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) November 25, 2017
Some pointed out the Times’s much less sympathetic description of a unarmed man shot and killed by the police in the same edition.
In a followup published for Sunday’s paper, Fausset admitted that the story failed to answer its main conceit, namely, “why did this man — intelligent, socially adroit and raised middle class amid the relatively well-integrated environments of United States military bases — gravitate toward the furthest extremes of American political discourse?”
“What I had were quotidian details,” he wrote, “though to be honest, I’m not even sure what these add up to.”
Dear New York Times,
As an Asian-American doctor in the Deep South, a low-key Nazi attacked me in the parking garage. Please don't normalize white supremacy.
Eugene Gu, MD
— Eugene Gu, MD (@eugenegu) November 25, 2017