The danger of embedding with white nationalists

If journalists have an opportunity to let hate groups speak to a broader audience, should they take it?

This Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017 image shows s white supremacist carrying a NAZI flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
This Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017 image shows s white supremacist carrying a NAZI flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

This past weekend, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia to participate in the “Unite the Right” rally, the largest gathering in two decades for such groups. Journalists who came from all over the country to cover the hate groups had to make an editorial and ethical decision: how much of a platform to hand over to those looking to discriminate, silence, and kill minorities.

Journalists are taught to give fair examination to both sides of a story so the audience can draw their own conclusions. But when the group is perpetuating hate speech and violence, is it appropriate to give them a platform, essentially offering them the publicity they seek? Or do you choose to omit their perspective so as to not further their message? After the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 that left 12 dead, CNN’s Anderson Cooper refused to say the perpetrator’s name on air. He made a choice, as a journalist, to instead focus on the victims’ names and stories.

After the weekend’s events, Vice News published a 22-minute video featuring intimate—in many moments behind-the-scenes—coverage of a white nationalist group prominently participating in the demonstrations. Their video features in-depth interviews with notorious white nationalists, including Christopher Cantwell and David Duke, both proponents of racial violence. Vice’s correspondent and camera operators give the viewers unique insight into the organization of the rally, as well as into the racist sentiments driving its organization.

The video has been hailed as “must-watch” footage by several news outlets, including MotherJones, Business Insider, and Vox. Broadcast networks are airing clips of the documentary to convey footage of the clashes in Charlottesville. In just a few days, it’s gotten nearly four million views on YouTube. And it’s easy to understand why.


For more than half of the video, the focus is squarely on the white supremacists. Not one counter-protester is interviewed until minute 13. And the footage is incredibly compelling: The opening shot shows white nationalists aggressively chanting, “Jews will not replace us” while marching down the streets of Charlottesville holding tiki torches. Anti-protesters are shown, but the majority of the footage focuses on members of the hate groups.

Cantwell makes clear that he’s there “to spread ideas.” That’s exactly the opportunity Vice News gives him. Two out of the first four minutes feature Cantwell spreading his message that white people are a superior race and are being marginalized by Jews and other minorities, but the video offers little in the way of a counterpoint to this message.

The opposition’s organization tactics on Friday evening and Saturday morning are never discussed.

It was incredible (and disturbing) to watch. Vice had access that no other outlets had, capturing unfiltered moments of open bigotry. But did this coverage really provide the viewers with anything they didn’t already know? We know white supremacists are hateful and racist. What is accomplished by giving them a platform to spread their message to millions of people?

No other outlets gave Cantwell or Duke the same opportunity.