Earlier this week, The New York Times published a story that drew much ire from media critics as it profiled a Neo-Nazi living in the heart of America. The article, titled “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” profiled Tony Hovater, a recently-married man living in Huber Heights, Ohio, who identifies as a right extremist.
Hovater told The New York Times that he was happy to see President Donald Trump elected to office because it opened a space for people like him. He no longer worries about being attacked for his beliefs.
“You can just say, ‘Yeah, so?’ And move on,” he said.
Hovater does have his critics, though. People who know him well told the New York Times that they can’t, at all, sympathize with his cause.
“His views are horrible and repugnant and hate-filled,” Ethan Reynolds, a Republican and city councilman in New Carlisle, Ohio, told NYT. “He was an acquaintance I regret knowing.”
And the criticism doesn’t stop with Reynolds. Hovater, as well as the New York Times, received a heavy amount of criticism for the article, with many members of the media saying that they tried to normalize a man with Neo-Nazi views.
“What the hell is this, @nytimes? This article does more to normalize neo-Nazism than anything I’ve read in a long time,” wrote Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight.
Dr. Eugene Gu tweeted that he didn’t agree with the article’s subject matter.
“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,” he wrote.
And Jay Rosen, a media critic from NYU, wrote, “I didn’t find this ‘Nazi next door’ piece offensive so much as banal, pointless and devoid of thought.”
Indeed, even the writer of the article, Richard Fausset, admitted that the article fails to answer an essential question: Why did Hovater lean to the extreme right?
“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?” Fausset wrote.
Fausset shares that he never asked the question, nor did he receive anything close to an answer to it. He said it’s unlikely Hovater would ever be able to give us an answer that would satisfy us anyhow.
“To me, that question embodies what good journalism should strive for, as well as the limits of the enterprise,” Fausset wrote. “Sometimes all we can bring you is the words of the police spokesman, the suspect’s picture from a high school yearbook, the acrid stench of the burned woods.”
But with this statement, Fausset lends support to Rosen’s earlier claim that the article is nothing but trite. And that’s because it didn’t add anything new to the conversation.
What do we really learn from this article? Sure, we’re offered a glimpse into the eyes of a modern-day Neo-Nazi. But what does that mean for us in this day and age? Why should it matter to us and what solutions does this article offer? The Times left all of these questions unanswered and raised one of it’s own: How do we cover Nazis and the extreme rightwing in the media without glorification or normalization?
Amid all of the backlash, The New York Times responded with an article of its own explaining the process of how the article came together and how it fills a void of coverage previously left unfilled. And in the end, NYT stood by its story, despite the critics.
“We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers,” The Times wrote. “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.”