New York Times editor defends the paper’s controversial Nazi profile

Lacey expands on the rationale behind the piece in an interview with ThinkProgress.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File
CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File

A recent profile of white nationalist and self-avowed Nazi sympathizer Tony Hovater in the New York Times drew an onslaught of reader reactions — most of them critically negative — for “normalizing” hate.

The 2,338-word story, “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” written by staff writer Richard Fausset and posted online Saturday, portrays Hovater, 29, as a mannered Midwestern welder, whose racist and anti-Semitic views come across as just one more political idea. As Fausset writes:

Mr. Hovater’s face is narrow and punctuated with sharply peaked eyebrows, like a pair of air quotes, and he tends to deliver his favorite adjective, “edgy,” with a flat affect and maximum sarcastic intent. It is a sort of implicit running assertion that the edges of acceptable American political discourse — edges set by previous generations, like the one that fought the Nazis — are laughable.

In this era, one where the President of the United States has difficulty calling out Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists, and racists because of their allegiance to his administration, a profile of such an individual screams for context beyond a mere word portrait. However admirable in its ambition to show how the man next door may hold repugnant views, the Times article missed an opportunity to place Hovater and his fellow haters in the context of contemporary history. Lacking that analysis, the story is comes across as empowering to the white nationalist movement.

For this reason, the article drew immediate and sharp attacks. And, man oh man, did Twitter explode with anger and sarcasm.

Vox’s Ezra Klien complained that “the problem with the Times story isn’t that it’s about a modern-day Nazi. It’s that it doesn’t offer any insight into modern-day Nazis.”

Of course, the Times disagrees. National Editor Marc Lacey wrote a response to the criticism, which appeared online and in print on Sunday. In  it, he reflected on the article, saying he and others at the newspaper were aware that some readers “wanted more pushback” on Hovater’s views. “We hear that loud and clear,” Lacey wrote.

I reached out to Lacey — he and I were colleagues at the Los Angeles Times during the 1990s — and asked him about the article and the emotional reactions to it. Lacey defends the article as “show, don’t tell” journalism. He also notes that as a black American, he found the article served as an important reminder of the evil of racism that continues to lurk among us. Read on for our full conversation, conducted via email:

As National Editor, were you responsible for creating and editing the profile of Tony Hovater? Can you describe how the story came to be?

As National Editor, I oversee a group of 40-plus correspondents who cover the country in all its complexity. I welcome the praise that much of our coverage receives and also take the flak when one of our pieces is criticized. This particular article grew out of that awful Charlottesville white supremacist rally, when we were all wondering who the participants were marching so openly with their torches in hand.

Were you expecting the reaction it generated? Why? Why not?

We knew the piece would be dissected and much discussed but I never imagined I would be personally called a white supremacist because of it. That’s particularly jarring because I’m black. My father lived through segregation. There were Klan rallies in his day. And I’m living through the next stage. When will it end?

“I never imagined I would be personally called a white supremacist because of it.”

Have you heard from Hovater about how he felt about the article? Did he express any reaction to the controversy following its posting on your website?

We have not been in touch with him.

Why are stories like this — about racism, about Nazism, about white superiority — any more difficult for the New York Times (or any media) to produce? Can they be done to avoid angering readers?

Writing about some of the most contentious issues in America today definitely generates controversy. It comes with the territory. We strive to get it right. Avoiding anger is not a realistic goal. I always welcome hearing the views of readers, especially those who take issue with our coverage. This is a complicated, very divided country and one of our jobs in covering it is just listening sometimes.

Critics of the Hovater profile say it “normalized” neo-Nazi views and behavior. You disagreed in your editor’s note to readers. What’s your argument to those who disagree?

The best journalism doesn’t tell the reader what to think but provides them with all the facts to think for themselves. “Show, don’t tell,” is the mantra.​

​We have a sophisticated group of readers and we treat them that way in our writing. I was horrified when I read this piece about this very deluded man and I expected that to be the reaction of others. My horror was directed not at the Times though but at the fact that someone with these beliefs feels so free to express them openly. There’s folks with despicable views like this out in world. ​We’ve all known that. But they feel empowered now. The hoods are off.

I’ve seen people on Twitter say that this article might have been improved if more people of color were involved in the editing of it. Were there people of color involved in the story and can you say what their involvement was in the writing, editing, or vetting of the profile?  Would more involvement by staffers of color made a difference?

The National Desk is one of the most diverse desks in the newsroom. I’ll leave it at that! This argument sounds good but is baseless in this case.

Some people who didn’t like the article noted the story lack context about Nazi propaganda and that the photos depicted him as an average person that downplayed the hatred of his organizational ties. Why wasn’t the article harsher, more confrontational in its tone against Hovater and his views?

Again, the point of this article was that that person in the next booth over in the diner, standing in front of you in the supermarket, or living next door may well be someone who harbors hateful, hateful views. Those who finished this piece and felt warm and fuzzy inside should look inward with alarm.

“Those who finished this piece and felt warm and fuzzy inside should look inward with alarm.”

You wrote that you “regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers.” If possible, what would you do differently considering the criticism?

Journalists dish it out and they need to have thick enough skin to take it. I am someone who learns from Times readers, who values them, who enjoys debating issues to advance understanding. But that does not mean that I welcome vitriol. Call me old-fashioned but I don’t think hurling barnyard epithets helps us move to a more perfect union.