Ahead of the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville, NPR decided to give an on-air lesson on the proper care and feeding of white nationalists and neo-Nazi ideology.
On Friday’s Morning Edition, NPR’s Noel King interviewed Jason Kessler, the organizer of Sunday’s Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington. There were a lot of troubling spots in the soft-focus mess of interview, but perhaps the most stunning was when King asked Kessler what he believes about the differences between races. Kessler proceeded to literally rank various races on the basis of debunked bell-curve myths about intelligence differences between groups on national public media. Spoiler alert: Black people ranked last on the odious list. I almost wondered if Kessler would bring out a craniometer and do a phrenology demonstration in the interview.
Naturally there was a social media backlash after the interview aired, with many people saying that NPR should not have given a platform to Kessler in the first place. In a statement, NPR defended the interview: “Interviewing the people in the news is part of NPR’s mission to inform the American public,” Isabel Lara, NPR’s senior director of media relations, said. “Our job is to present the facts and the voices that provide context on the day’s events, not to protect our audience from views that might offend them,” she continued.
Sorry, NPR didn’t do its job on Friday. When it comes to handling racist and white-supremacist subjects, the job of a responsible media outlet does not end at simply letting figures like Kessler speak unchallenged, in the name of neutrality and balance. It’s not that such people and views should absolutely, under no circumstances, ever be interrogated. Rather, what audiences deserve and have the right to demand is for national platforms to use their space responsibly, which means aggressively countering racist lies and propaganda with facts and truth. Like radioactive material, one-on-one interview formats with white nationalists, if they must be done, should be handled with the most extreme care. (I suggest watching the Guardian’s Gary Younge and how he handled Richard Spencer.)
That is not what happened during NPR’s interview. For example, Kessler started out the interview by stating that he believes he is a “civil and human rights advocate” for the “underrepresented Caucasian demographic” (ironic, considering that he is a white man being interviewed on national media, which has an overwhelmingly white workforce). Instead of refuting this lie by presenting facts about the domination of white people in almost all realms of American power and influence, King simply asks, “In what ways are white people in America underrepresented?” When Kessler claimed that his goal for the rally was peace, King never brought up the fact that a year ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, Heather Heyer was murdered, allegedly by a white supremacist.
NPR further erred by following the Kessler interview with a response from Black Lives Matter of Greater New York official Hawk Newsome, who was asked why he declined an invitation to Kessler’s rally. This was a poor choice to contextualize the interview. For starters, it is extremely tone-deaf to put the onus on a person of color to defend why they would want no part in participating in a rally with white nationalists. More insidiously, such framing effectively positions Black Lives Matter as the ideological counterpart to white supremacists. Intentionally or not, it serves to reinforce the insidious notion that black people are extremists for demanding equal rights and freedom from police brutality.
All too often, well-meaning people in the liberal media think as long as racists get a chance to be racist in public, everyone will automatically reject their views. Unfortunately, history shows us otherwise. Platforming bad-faith actors who espouse white-supremacist ideologies lends credence to their views — elevating their ideologies of racial subordination and segregation as serious proposals.
NPR decided that Kessler’s views were either legitimate enough or harmless enough to air to millions of listeners without adequate framing or aggressive countering. Either prospect is downright frightening to those of us who are the targets of racist ideologies. And all of this for what? Did NPR really help us to understand anything new or different about Kessler and ideology? No. Did we learn anything about the black, Jewish or other minority communities in Washington and how they were feeling or preparing for this rally? No, their voices weren’t featured. Is there a slim chance Kessler could gain more support, or at least sympathy, for his views? Probably. Uncritical mainstreaming is exactly what the alt-right and white nationalists are looking for. In an Atlantic essay aptly titled “The White Nationalists are Winning,” Adam Serwer notes that a year after Charlottesville, “the white nationalists’ ideological goals remain a core part of the Trump agenda. As long as that agenda finds a home in one of the two major American political parties, a significant portion of the country will fervently support it.
And as an ideological vanguard, the alt-right fulfilled its own purpose in pulling the Republican Party in its direction.” Indeed, we have seen this administration successfully push through a ban on travel from several majority-Muslim countries and the labeling of black activists as “black identity extremists,” with a president who blasts people from “shithole countries” while longing for Norwegian immigrants.
History has shown that white supremacy and white-nationalist ideologies, when carried out to their logical conclusions and adopted by state institutions, represent violence, marginalization and death for many people of color and minorities. Mainstream media must treat them like the societal threats that they are, instead of odd little curiosities.
Karen Attiah is The Washington Post’s Global Opinions editor.
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