In 2017, Nazis are still very much bafflingly present in America, even bringing deadly summer violence to Charlottesville. Proud Nazi Richard Spencer still manages to spread his message while displaying scant intelligence, and white supremacists have also managed to drag pizza into their platform. For whatever reason, the New York Times decided to wade into the debate in a very unsavory way — with a profile called “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland” that paints a sympathetic portrait of a white supremacist who loves to shop at Target and eat at Panera in suburban Ohio.
Not to mention that the writer, Richard Fausset, interviewed his subject at an Applebee’s. He literally describes Tony Hovater as “the Nazi sympathizer next door” who thinks that Adolf Hitler truly “believed he was fighting for his people and doing what he thought was right.” Further, Hovater is referred to as “polite and low-key” — words that echo President Trump’s argument (at a bonkers press conference) that the tiki-torch wielding white supremacists and Nazis at Charlottesville included some “very fine people.” Yes, the NY Times sort-of did a “both sides” piece that had the effect of humanizing a Nazi.
The feature immediately led to The Atlantic publishing a scathing parody, and needless to say, Twitter wasn’t thrilled about being told that Nazis are ordinary people, just like you and I!
Amid the fallout over Fausset’s piece, people began to notice that the NY Times ran an “Insider” take as well. Within that followup, Fausset acknowledges that there was a “hole at the heart” of his piece, and he says that he could “feel the failure” upon filing an early version and attempting to follow up with Hovater on the phone. That is to say, the piece never answered this question: “[What] explained Mr. Hovater’s radical turn?” Instead of killing the piece, the NY Times ran with it, so the feature effectively functioned as a puff piece for the contemporary Nazi movement in America.
However, not everyone was upset. Michael Ian Black pointed out on Twitter that perhaps it’s a good thing to illustrate that Nazis are “nothing.”
UPDATE: Following the furor, NY Times National Editor Marc Lacey has issued a response, which reads in part:
We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. 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. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.
(Via New York Times)