For the past few days, the liberal media has been going haywire over a New York Times profile of a white nationalist. The Times was forced to issue multiple responses to accusations that they were normalizing white supremacy, and even retroactively altered the title of the article in response to public pressure.
I initially decided to steer clear of the controversy and avoid the piece, but after reading The Atlantic’s December cover story on Andrew Anglin — one of the alt-right’s most prominent leaders — I decided to circle back and see if I could identify any major semantic differences between the two pieces.
Why was it that these two articles — that sought virtually the same goal — garnered such disparate receptions from the general public? What lesson can be learned about the media’s coverage of far-right hate groups, and how can journalists effectively cover the rise of fascism in the United States without aiding and abetting it?
If you compare the two articles, they have almost the same structure and flow. Both pieces attempt to cast an alt-right provocateur as a scourge with little more than a recounting of their life story and a detailing of the author’s interactions with them.
The difference is that the Atlantic writer, Luke O’Brien, went to excruciating detail to color Anglin with his own fraught past. The most powerful moments of the piece flow naturally from the emotional resonance of fairly objective anecdotes — not from the type of pontification that we typically see from mainstream pieces about the alt-right.
The Times piece, which sought virtually the same effect, felt shallow and empty — like there was no deeper symbolism and nothing to be inferred beyond the author’s words or the picture he paints of a fairly average man who happens to believe in a violent and destructive ideology.
The Atlantic piece portrays Anglin as a paranoid and demented man with somewhat of a god-complex, but goes to great lengths to demonstrate his complexity and detail the crucial, and often sickening moments that turned a young liberal vegan into one of alt-right’s scariest and most masterful trolls.
As O’Brien details his attempts to track down Anglin, he discovers nothing but a web of paranoia, a history of escapism, and a family unwilling to sell out its son to the media — all of which add great detail to the character of Anglin.
O’Brien was careful not just to portray Anglin as a monster — with balanced and fairly objective prose — but to poke at some of Anglin’s ideological inconsistencies and shortcomings — instances that could provoke the alt-right into losing faith in one of its most powerful leaders. One walks away from O’Brien’s piece feeling nothing normalized about Anglin or the alt-right.
One cannot say the same of the Times piece. In its defense, editor Marc Lacey wrote: “The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”
But don’t we all already know that? And hasn’t the media been proactively attacking the alt-right and other far-right groups for the past year-and-a-half?
It’s common knowledge that a key tenant of the alt-right’s strategy is to garner agitated, hyper-partisan news coverage — often focused on their polarizing leaders — so they can decry reputable news sources as “fake news,” galvanize their supporters and further embolden their hatred of all things politically correct.
They’ve continuously lied about the details surrounding altercations between their own supporters and peaceful protestors of fascism, and have reigned terror on virtually every journalist who grants them negative attention.
Even Luke O’Brien received threats from alt-right trolls while conducting research for his Atlantic piece.
And the media has responded to their provocations by vigilantly attacking everything their leaders say and do. Yet, aside from a few key victories, it doesn’t feel like this strategy has always had its desired effect.
As O’Brien acknowledges in his piece: “The more the liberal establishment chose to revile them, the more they embraced their role as villains.”
With this in mind, it almost felt like the Times piece was an overcorrection for how the liberal media has responded to white nationalist groups.
With the age-old accusation that liberal media outlets have a bias — originally promulgated by right-wing media but more recently hijacked by the alt-right — it would seem that the only way to disprove this narrative is with some good, old-fashioned reporting — no punditry involved.
Maybe that’s what the Times was aiming for. Regardless, it didn’t work, and it’s not an excuse for normalizing the experience of a known neo-nazi when millions of people are existentially threatened by the existence of hateful groups like the alt-right.
And where the Times piece fell flat is precisely where the Atlantic piece found its strength. By poking holes in the image of an alt-right leader — without invoking hysteria or projecting any sense of bias — Luke O’Brien made Andrew Anglin look like a pathetic sociopath, and the piece delivered exactly what it intended.
Maybe the rest of the media can learn a thing or two from O’Brien’s writing, and help de-legitimize the alt-right without further emboldening its hateful followers’ beliefs.