Richard Spencer is a PR flack. He’s not the best, but he does have some tricks. He knows, for example, how to flummox a journalist with a “reasonable” tone. He knows how to get the press to write long profiles of him, complete with fashion photography.
He also knows how to divide his opponents. For example, he has gone so far as to promote the work of some of the more incisive left-wing writers in order to discredit them; in the eyes of a panicked and gullible left, anyone Spencer endorses must be a Nazi sympathizer. He has spoken favorably of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, one of the only works on the alt-right to actually include helpful advice on how to stop its growth, and he did that knowing that his kiss-of-death “endorsement” will discourage lefties from taking the book’s warnings seriously. He has done the same to Glenn Greenwald and Sam Kriss. (A good piece of advice for the left: don’t let Nazis play you like a fiddle. Don’t cast aspersions on your comrades just because he sidles up to them.)
The mainstream liberal media, however (Vive La #Resistance!), either isn’t particularly good at detecting this savvy, or they have zero interest in doing so. The press covers Spencer and the alt-right exactly as they would like to be covered, inflating their cultural significance, obsessing over their personas, and failing to challenge their ideology. Witness Vice’s interview of Richard Spencer, which—far from exposing Spencer as the genocidal creep that he is—devolved into outright flirtation between the Nazi and the journalist. (The only outlet to butter him up further was Mother Jones, which coined the astonishing phrase “dapper white nationalist.”)
Ostensibly critical profiles of alt-right figures frequently look as if they have been written by their subjects. The New York Times Magazine recently gave considerable space to a piece about Peter Duke, the alt-right photographer who has made it his mission to make presentable portraits of every fringe right-wing icon from Charles Johnson to the Google Memo Guy. Admittedly, trying to work visual magic on some of America’s least photogenic men is an ambitious project requiring some considerable technical skill. But it’s still not necessary to call Duke, as the Times did, “The Annie Leibovitz of the Alt-Right,” nor is it professional to moon over him thusly:
“On a clear afternoon in mid-February, I met the photographer Peter Duke outside his apartment in Pacific Palisades, an affluent Los Angeles neighborhood situated on a high cliff overlooking the ocean. Duke is 60 but looks a decade younger; he has a head full of wavy, sand-colored hair, and in his green hoodie, khakis, black sneakers and a camera bag slung casually over his shoulder, he gave off the air of a retired director…”
Sounds dreamy, huh?
However, it’s also hazardous (and intellectually dishonest) to engage in the converse; treating Nazis as some massive unstoppable movement on the precipice of seizing power (which they are not). Exaggerating the power and influence of the Alt-Right not only contributes to unnecessary panic, it plays into their promotion campaigns. Before his fall from favor, Milo Yiannopoulous’s entire pitch was that he was “dangerous”, a transgressive affectation that was only made more appealing to his fans by the distraught pearl-clutching of his liberal detractors. This is the worst of both worlds: we lose the credibility that comes with trying to be fair and restrained, yet without actually doing anything to stall the political agenda of the far right.
Stopping the rise of white supremacists requires careful consideration of what kind of media coverage actually helps white supremacists. Jim Naureckas of media watchdog FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) provided a meaningful guidepost: “You have to ask yourself: How do neo-Nazis want their rallies to be covered? How different from that from the way they’re actually covered?” Richard Spencer is currently happy as a pig in shit over his recent press. This means something is wrong.
I have therefore taken the liberty of producing a few guidelines for those who have found themselves on the Nazi beat. In the spirit of Charlie Brooker’s “How to report mass murders,” here are some handy Do’s and Don’t’s to keep you on the right side of ethical:
- Don’t: write a press release for Nazis. Consider what kind of exposure you’ll be giving them. Be extremely careful about what quotes you’re going to use, and use their own words sparingly; you don’t want to inadvertently write a celebrity profile for white supremacy, so avoid ogling. The Mother Jones profile of Spencer begins: “Richard Spencer uses chopsticks to deftly pluck slivers of togarashi-crusted ahi from a rectangular plate.” Do not write this. Yes, there’s an ironic contrast between Spencer’s cosmopolitan dietary habits and his backward racial beliefs. But nobody should give a fuck what Richard Spencer deftly does with his chopsticks. Go and write about somebody else who eats fancy tuna from rectangular plates.
- Do: focus on technical facts like crowd numbers, locations and times; splashes of literary color have their time and place in gonzo and essayistic journalism and the like, but traditionalist news reportage on a white supremacist rally does not benefit from floral prose. Your job is to inform, not scare, titillate or entertain.
- Do: use photographs of crowds to provide scale and location. For example:
This, from Getty, is a useful image. By showing the edges of the crowd, it leaves no doubt as to exactly how large the torch-march was. It makes clear that while, yes, the UVA campus was swarmed by a group of angry racists with polo shirts and tiki torches, this was not exactly one of the Nuremberg Rallies. By contrast, solely providing closeup photographs leaves audiences without a clear understanding of scale.
- Don’t: insinuate, speculate, lead, or even leave room for your readers to assume totally unsubstantiated narratives. If there is an assumption your readership is likely to make, be clear that the facts are not in yet. (Tell them what you know, and tell them what you don’t know.) Be sure to leave no gaps or vagueness that might mislead readers into believing that the event was larger or smaller, less or more violent, etc than it actually was. For example, when the Grey Lady “previewed” the UVA march, the second paragraph read:
Thousands of people — many from out of town — are expected to descend on the city to either protest or participate in a “Unite the Right” rally on Saturday convened by white nationalists who oppose a plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, from a city park.
Ok, so of those thousands “expected,” some are “expected” to be protesters, and some are “expected” to be counter-protesters. The useless ballpark figure guesstimate of “thousands” aside, that sentence can be read as thousands of Nazis, or thousands of people protesting Nazis–two entirely different stories.
- Do: provide context on everyone present—protesters, counter-protesters, bystanders, everyone. This means you probably have to descend into the black pit at some point and read some Stormfront, or at the very least, Richard Spencer’s Twitter. For example, totally absent from the Charlottesville march was the “alt-light”—the less political, largely opportunist D-list culture celebrities like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich, and Gavin McInnes. This is very significant, but underreported, likely because the liberal media is unfamiliar with the landscape and factions of the emergent right-wing. But it actually meant that the “Unite The Right” rally did not unite the right; Cernovich and McInnes disowned the march, calling it an attempt to make Nazism the face of the right. This means that there are actually deep and important divisions among the far right, and they have implications for what will happen next.
- Don’t: make a Nazi into a covergirl with an artful and/or cinematic close-up portrait. Again, headshots are for press releases—don’t do it for them.
- Do: look at how the event is being reported locally, and talk to local media if possible.
- Don’t: regurgitate and aggregate from every other major paper just to have a take with your name on it—it crowds the landscape with redundancy and contributes to moral, political and intellectual fatigue. So basically, just don’t read or write for Daily Kos.
- Do: a little comparative research—is this moment unprecedented in this time and place? Is it part of a larger ideological or political history? Has something similar happened recently or nearby? If so, how did it turn out? White supremacists have been having rallies in the United States for a very long time. They’re always terrifying and never trivial. But we should be cautious before concluding that any one event is symbolic of a new and more threatening “wave.”
- Don’t: play the Smug Liberal Hypothetical Thought Experiment: “If these demonstrators were Muslim/black/etc, the police would have behaved totally differently!” At best, this trite “Really Makes You Think” observation adds nothing to the conversation. At worst it encourages more punitive attitudes towards the innocent by implying the issue is one of inconsistency or hypocrisy. For example, liberals love to write articles demanding that the UVA Nazis be referred to as “terrorists,” a word that functions to legally justify repression and surveillance of minorities and political dissidents.
- Do: interview local residents for leads and snapshots of life in their communities both inside and outside the event at hand. This is a careful line to tread, as the handful of locals you find might be a poor sample of the region, but talking to people is an irreplaceable part of journalism, and is likely to tell you underlying stories that wouldn’t obvious to outsiders.
- Don’t: ruminate and fantasize from the safety of your middle class New York City professional media life that you are some kind of millennial Anne Frank just because you’re petrified of blue collar workers. (If you’re not part of a story, don’t write yourself in as the noble protagonist. It’s disgusting.)
- Do: take your task seriously and exercise a little journalistic stoicism.
- Don’t: take a righteous or panicked tone—this drums up sensationalism and sublimates reality to pathos. For example, after Charlottesville, a Guardian reporter wrote that it had “[become] clear that a surging far right has created the rudiments of an organised, effective street-fighting force.” This, however, is not necessarily true. The fact is, we don’t know just how organized the far right are; information like that would require the sort of serious investigative journalism that is sorely lacking at the moment. But we do know that the (inaccurate) image of roving bands of violent Nazi street gangs will haunt readers’ imaginations. One has to be very, very careful before coming to these conclusions.
Civilian comrades also have some political responsibility to accuracy and stoicism as well. Early information is so, so, so often wrong, sometimes even from “serious” journalistic outlets, many of whom are just competing for clicks. Before posting, check your sources, never disseminate speculations (even from Twitter users who appear to be on the ground), and never engage in online detective work or crowd-sourced vigilantism to track down the Bad Guys. Often, this information is not accurate, and nearly always results in cases of mistaken identity and harassment of innocent people, often with horrifying consequences.
And as for sharing your pain and anguish socially, remember to behave with sympathy and care, especially while tensions are high. Avoid impetuousness and dramatic hand-wringing. Strive for clarity. There is a libidinal relief to socialized fretting—panic as pastime, if you will—but the moment you find yourself veering into speculations or desperate lamentations, reconsider that particular Facebook post or Tweet (no matter how many likes it might get you). Don’t participate in spectacles. Don’t vaguebook (allude to unknown parties). Abstain from unproductive hostility and/or passive aggression, especially toward the naive and well-meaning. Don’t be smug. Take a breath. Sit in silence for a moment and collect your thoughts. Consider avoiding the echo chamber by logging off. If you can, find someone to talk to in real life; it’s healthier for you and healthier for “the discourse.” People are genuinely scared, so try not to contribute to the fear and confusion; panic and hopelessness go hand in hand, and now more than ever, socialists have a duty to discipline and vigilance.
Above all, keeps things in perspective. It’s true that the far right are coordinating, but they are not on the precipice of seizing power—the traditional right (that old Republican base) already have that squared away. The brownshirts are not at the gates just yet, but if they ever get there, we’re not going to beat them back if we lose our heads.