Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an assistant professor in presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She hosts the history podcast “Past Present” and released the podcast “A12.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Republican support for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has collapsed following an interview with The New York Times, in which, under fire for his history of racist comments, King mused, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization – how did that language become offensive?” Denounced by Republican leadership Thursday, King has also lost support in conservative media, as sites like National Review call for the GOP to dump the congressman, who just started his ninth term in office.
That the GOP turned so quickly on King, after supporting him for so many years, is powerful evidence that putting a spotlight on hateful ideas can discredit them. But as we’ve seen in recent years, that media spotlight can also give them oxygen, providing a platform and legitimacy to proponents of bigotry and even violence. For journalists, this presents a genuine dilemma: In an era in which supporters of racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynistic ideas are increasingly visible and violent, how do you inform the public without legitimizing the fringes?
This used to be a less complicated question for journalists in establishment media. American media in the mid-20th century was organized around the idea of a general consensus in American politics. The two parties essentially agreed on certain parameters for political debate, and groups that stood outside that consensus were considered dangerous, and treated as such by mainstream journalists and by US presidents and the leaders of the major political parties. Most journalists readily denounced violent racist organizations like neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, and eyed with suspicion the growing “radical right,” a label that covered everything from the John Birch Society to the American Nazi Party to, for some, the National Review.
Most journalists also were initially wary of civil rights activism in the South, slowly opening the consensus to include activists like Martin Luther King Jr. but closing it to people like Malcolm X. In 1959, for instance, CBS produced a news documentary about black nationalism called “The Hate That Hate Produced” (you can watch it here). The show, which ran in five half-hour installments, introduced white Americans to groups like the Nation of Islam, treating black nationalism as strange, exotic, and dangerous. It also helped introduce Malcolm X to a national audience and doubled the Nation of Islam’s membership.
Covering these “fringe” groups in the 1950s and early 1960s was as much about keeping them on the fringes as it was about informing the American public. With much of the two-party system and the American people in general agreement about the parameters of politics, that was not a terribly difficult task. If some people ended up attracted to extremism, that did not present too much of a risk to the broader society – after all, it was an era full of gatekeepers who did a very, very good job of keeping people out.
Until they didn’t. As politics changed during the second half of the 20th century, favoring polarization over consensus and outsiders over insiders, and with the proliferation of digital and social media platforms, journalists lost much of their gatekeeping power. And that has made the question of how to cover extremist groups more challenging. Journalists can certainly signal their disagreement, even disdain, for certain ideas, but they don’t always have a lot of authority with their audiences. The risk, then, of providing a platform for a set of odious beliefs has gotten much higher – especially for outlets where a reputation for objectivity is highly prized. Labeling something “racist,” for instance, is seen as a political act, which leads some writers to opt for euphemism, shielding the audience from reality.
Shielding the journalist, too: With parties sorted between left and right, audiences and readers often see focusing on the fringe of either side as an attack on more mainstream conservative or liberal politics. Some activists have looked suspiciously on exposes of the anti-Semitic politics of one of the organizers of the Women’s March, worrying that it was an attempt to discredit a newly powerful feminist movement. When outlets ran photos of racist placards at Tea Party or Trump rallies, some conservatives insisted it was an attempt to smear the entire American right as racist. Even coverage of the alt-right was in some instances portrayed as an attack on the conservative movement and Republican Party, though it has proven to be a real (and deadly) movement that feels further empowered by politicians like Steve King and Donald Trump.
The rise of the alt-right in recent years has made clear how challenging it still is for journalists to cover extremist movements, especially when their leaders and members are white. Richard Spencer, one of the most prominent alt-right leaders in the past decade, was treated to glossy photospreads and lifestyle features that focused as intently on what he wore and what he ate as on his white supremacist beliefs. Journalists caught off guard by a modern-day racist tended to marvel at Spencer, giving him celebrity treatment that glamorized the alt-right.
Other journalists have tried to avoid the exoticism trap by focusing on the normalcy of white supremacists, running profiles that focus on the white-nationalist-next-door. A piece in The New York Times in 2017 detailed a neo-Nazi couple’s life in suburban Ohio, centering and humanizing the Hitler sympathizer at its heart – who insisted, as Steve King has, that he is not a racist. (The backlash was intense.)
But not covering these movements is also not an option, especially in an era when they have made significant inroads into a major political party. Writing about men’s rights activists and incels, white supremacists and alt-right activists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites helps explain sources of violence and political power in America today. Without the work journalists do to cover these groups and their ideas, we would have a poor understanding of the forces shaping modern politics.
It comes with risks, of course: Some reader somewhere will be attracted to the ideas contained within. Some political operative will use the stories to try to discredit broader, more mainstream movements, and others will use it to discredit the outlet as biased. So journalists and news outlets have to come up with better, more responsible ways for covering extremism.
For starters, it’s important to decenter the extremists in the story. Coverage of the alt-right, for instance, should have from the start focused less on Richard Spencer and more on the costs and consequences of empowered racism. Media outlets should also take special care to be specific about the ideas and organizations they’re discussing, not only avoiding euphemisms themselves but also making clear when extremists are using euphemisms. Steve King has been coding his racism in the language of “culture” and “civilization” for years, a common habit for people seeking to advance racist ideas while still claiming mainstream legitimacy. Media outlets should also work to diversify their staffs. It’s much easier to get caught off guard by an upsurge in racism and misogyny when there are very few women and people of color covering the news.
And then there is a difficult truth to confront: Covering extremism will expose vulnerable people to extremist ideas. They may very well become interested in and attracted to those ideas. But by clearly and carefully mapping out the political landscape, news outlets better prepare the rest of us to confront and contain the forces of extremism wherever they find power in society, whether it’s in a midwestern suburb or the halls of the US Congress.