If you’d like to be the subject of a long, humanizing profile story at a major national magazine or newspaper, the quickest route to free publicity is to start espousing Nazism. In 2017, it seems as if literally every white supremacist in the country, no matter how inconsequential they are, is entitled to thousands of column inches in the periodical of their choice.

It’s very easy to attract the journalists to your doorstep. You might, like Richard Spencer, proclaim yourself the head of a made-up think tank: Spencer’s “National Policy Institute” is little more than a website filled with “Lorem Ipsum” text, and its blog hasn’t been updated in four years. No matter: Mother Jones and Politico both followed Spencer around, copying down his musings and photographing his “dapper” tweeds. (Side note: Richard Spencer is not actually dapper. Andre 3000 is dapper. Richard Spencer looks like a shabbier College Republican.) But perhaps you’re not terribly bright, and don’t own a jacket. If you don’t make a convincing “think tank president,” why not lead a nonexistent political party? It worked for Matthew Heimbach: his “Traditionalist Workers Party” is pitifully small even for a fringe political group. No matter: The Washington Post dutifully published his thoughts, though conceding that “his party is still nascent,” while The New York Times published multiple photographs of Heimbach’s toddler son.

The most recent Nazi Profile also comes courtesy of the Times, which received intense backlash for its story “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland.” The article chronicled the life of Tony Hovater, a white supremacist who lives in Ohio. It is filled with little details intended to show Hovater’s normalcy: he may quote Hitler and believe in Aryanizing the United States, but he watches Twin Peaks and Seinfeld and his Target wedding registry asked for “a muffin pan, a four-drawer dresser and a pineapple slicer.”

Most of the outrage about the piece centered on its “soft” tone: it showed Hovater as an ordinary human being, who loves his cats and his wife. He might deny the Holocaust and do a bit of Sieg Heiling, but mostly he’s just a family man who cares about the fate of the American Heartland. The reporter didn’t seem to pose any tough questions to his subject; as Angus Johnston observed, “It’s as if he’s embarrassed to ask Hovater whether he thinks black people are inferior to white people, or whether Kristallnacht was wrong.” One commenter pointed out several dozen ways in which the article was a failure, including its strange lack of interest in probing Hovater’s euphemistic language about “heritage” and “normal people.” There also seemed to be little actual purpose to the article beyond pointing out that a Nazi could, in his personal life, be ordinary and polite (As writer Bess Kalb asked: “You know who had nice manners? The Nazi who shaved my uncle Willie’s head before escorting him into a cement chamber where he locked eyes with children as their lungs filled with poison and they suffocated to death in agony.”) The Times writer seemed to want to make a point about the “banality of evil,” but without actually dwelling much on the evil.

Critiques of the Times’ reportage largely suggested that while it might be important to try to understand the nature of the “Nazis next door,” the reporter had gone about it in the wrong way. He had tried to strike a neutral tone, presenting the facts of Hovater’s life without much comment, treating Hovater as he would any other subject. (The article even originally included a link to a website where readers could buy swastika armbands.) It seemed a particularly extreme example of the journalistic unwillingness to engage in value judgments even when that restraint leads to the whitewashing of important factual truths. (Another example would be the Times’ choice of the word “contentious” to characterize Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration that he’d be delighted to slaughter millions of people.) The whole thing is a notch away from being the Fry and Laurie “Fascist” sketch, in which a Nazi is asked about his favorite music and “what kind of guy Hitler was.”

Yet I don’t agree with those who believe that the Times bungled its Nazi-coverage by emphasizing the wrong parts of the story. The reporter was accused of “normalizing racism,” but no phenomenon in American history is more normal than racism. The act of journalistic irresponsibility here was not the portrayal of white supremacists as living mundane lives; they do. Instead, what I can’t understand is why anyone thinks Tony Hovater worthy of a newspaper profile in the first place.

The writer concedes that Hovater is “not a star among the resurgent radical American right,” but more of an “occasional podcast guest.” He cofounded the “Traditionalist Workers Party” with Matthew Heimbach, but the article quotes the Anti-Defamation League (who would have no interest in downplaying the group’s threat) as believing the group to have “a few hundred members at most.” It’s not clear what Hovater actually is, other than a random racist welder in Ohio. Does he have any actual influence? Does anything he says actually matter? It’s unclear.

One of the most serious problems with Nazi Profile journalism is that it treats every individual fringe racist as important and worthy of in-depth coverage. The New Yorker wrote a long essay about Mike Enoch, the host of an anti-Semitic podcast who turned out to be married to a Jewish woman. The Los Angeles Times profiled Nathan Damigo, an ex-Marine who also happens to be an evangelist for racism in his spare time. And The Atlantic just devoted an entire cover story to Andrew Anglin, a man who runs a neo-Nazi website but used to be a vegan.

You might think that each of these men deserves to be covered in depth, because the alt-right is an important political force and it’s worth trying to understand the people who are part of it. But what frustrates me about these profiles is that they gloss over the question of just how “important” a political force these men actually do represent. The Atlantic’s Luke O’Brien concedes in the middle of his article that Anglin lies about his website’s traffic numbers, and that it probably only receives around 70,000 visitors a month. The Traditionalist Workers’ Party, which is the only reason for writing about Heimbach and Hovater, has about 3,000 Twitter followers and Facebook fans. Remember, this is a movement supposedly catching fire mostly online.

The aggravating aspect of this is that these men are largely nobodies who crave attention, and the national media is giving them precisely what they are looking for. Richard Spencer wants to see himself as an important mover and shaker in D.C. The press will sit him down like he is a diplomat and ask him for his thoughts. It doesn’t matter that his own hometown despises him, or that even the most prominent white supremacist in the country can barely gather 100 people at a farm in Maryland. He’ll still be all over CNN and The New York Times.

Of course, it could be argued that these men’s importance shouldn’t be measured by their present active followings. First, though they may not be terribly important now, Hitler was insignificant once, too. And in the Trump Era, people like Spencer are “increasingly prominent” even if hardly anyone has actually signed up to join their organizations and movements. The perverse thing, though, is that this “increasing prominence” is almost entirely due to the media’s constant coverage of these people. If they’re not leading successful political organizations, and can’t even attract many website visitors, then their significance is purely reducible to their coverage.

It’s true, of course, that having any number of Nazis in your country is frightening. But it’s very important not to give them precisely what they want by portraying them as nationally consequential leaders who are worth paying serious attention to. That’s partially because it’s irresponsible to give Nazis a platform, and partially because factual rigor compels it: if Tony Hovater is just some guy in Ohio who happens to own a cat and practice bigotry, then he doesn’t belong in the New York Times, at least no more than any random person in the world belongs in the New York Times.

The part of this that is actually infuriating is that while the ideological development and personal lives of Nazis are treated as fascinating, the people who really could use the humanizing treatment of a longform profile are not given one. Sean McElwee pointed out the striking difference between the way the New York Times covered Hovater and the way it covered Michael Brown, an unarmed black man killed by police: Hovater is “polite and low key” while Brown was “no angel.” While both subjects are human beings, the humanity of the white supremacist is treated as far more fascinating than the humanity of the black shooting victim.

I wish journalists would just come out and admit it: they don’t write profiles of Nazis because it’s responsible journalism, they do it because people love reading about Nazis. “THE NAZI NEXT DOOR” is classic tabloid journalism. It sells papers, it reaps clicks. The New York Times writes about Tony Hovater for the same reason that the History Channel converted to All Hitler, All The Time: it allows the audience to indulge its guilty enjoyment of the lurid and macabre while pretending to consume something educational and informative. The journalist who wrote the Hovater story convinced himself he was interested in Deep Questions about the roots of evil, just as I’m sure the makers of the History Channel’s Nazi Titanic believed they were doing valuable scholarship. But both are, at their core, empty sensationalism.

We know that the stated reasons for profiling Nazis aren’t sincere, because other groups with far more influence don’t receive nearly the same kind of coverage. Matthew Heimbach’s Traditionalist Workers Party has a couple of hundred members, if that, yet both Heimbach and Hovater have had New York Times photographers at their houses. The Democratic Socialists of America has around 30,000 members and has successfully elected local officials in various parts of the country. Has the DSA had 100 times as much coverage? What about Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson and Lee Carter in Virginia, who both got elected on radical platforms? Hovater contemplated running for city council and decided against it, presumably because his political career would have been an embarrassing failure. So why not write about the leftists who are succeeding in local politics instead of the white nationalists who aren’t? (Heck, Current Affairs has many times more paid subscribers as any of these white supremacist groups have members, but there’s no New York Times profile of the Lefty Magazine Editor Next Door.)

It’s rather alarming to think that it’s in the self-interest of journalists to inflate the threat posed by Nazis. But it’s true. The story of a Nazi brushing his dog’s teeth or buying tortillas at the Food Lion makes for highly readable copy that’s easy to churn out. Thus, pitch meetings at magazines and newspapers seem destined to become a contest to see which reporter has found the quirkiest Nazi to follow around for a weekend. (Similarly, the Southern Poverty Law Center makes sure not to tabulate the membership numbers of the organizations it puts on its “hate maps,” lest the public realize just how obscure and ineffectual many of these groups are.)

There’s another reason Nazis get a lot of press attention: writing about them allows journalists to feel extremely pleased with themselves, and criticism only reinforces that self-satisfaction. Most mainstream journalists are anxious about being perceived as having a liberal bias, even though they clearly do have one. Something bizarre therefore happens, whereby many journalists actually try to be more sympathetic and fair-minded to those on their right than they are to those on their left. (This is why The New York Times will hire a racist climate-change denier like Bret Stephens as a columnist, but won’t have a columnist who supports Bernie Sanders.) Criticizing journalists who write Nazi-profiles for being too nice to the Nazis will actually make them feel as if they must have done their job well: the implicit rule is that If Both Sides Are Mad At You Then You Must Be Objective. A journalist who receives pushback from liberals for choosing to humanize white supremacists can feel good about themselves for resisting the forces of Partisanship in the name of the Truth. There is no way to make a journalist feel guilty about producing this kind of work, because the very suggestion that they should have a “conscience” sounds like a suggestion that they should care about values rather than facts. Same with the criticism that you’re “giving the white supremacists what they want.” Journalists take pride in being committed to truth over consequences, so “This helps spread the message of Nazism” is not a critique that resonates with media professionals, who see themselves (like scientists who further the development of weapons systems) as free of having any duty to control the possible political implications of their work.

In our time, the Nazi Profile is becoming its own subgenre of lazy reportage. Just go out, find a racist, and watch until they do something that seems amusingly out-of-keeping with their ideology; i.e. Richard Spencer eating fancy Japanese food or Tony Hovater liking Seinfeld. Muse for a few thousand words on the question of How A Perfectly Ordinary Kid Could Have Become A Hatemonger. Use language that makes it clear you dislike their ideology, but carefully avoid outright moralizing.

I dislike this type of writing for a few reasons. First, once you’ve written about one Nazi, you’ve written about them all. They are fundamentally uninteresting people, and there’s nothing to be gained from giving them yet more attention. Second, these men are crying out for attention by saying the worst things they can think of, and the press is rewarding them by giving them exactly that attention (just as we elevate mass shooters into national celebrities). Third, this type of writing isn’t even factually accurate: it treats inconsequential losers as if they are celebrities and deliberately exaggerates the extent of their following in order to justify the extensive coverage. Fourth, by disproportionately focusing on white supremacists, it ignores a far harder journalistic challenge: humanizing and giving voice to those who are actually worth listening to but are ignored. They’re too busy hanging out with the founder of The Daily Stormer or the bratty little bigots who worshiped Milo Yiannopoulos. There’s no space left for writing about prisoners, workers, and refugees, and besides, nobody wants to read that.

You can produce responsible works of journalism about Nazis, as Amber A’Lee Frost has explained. It would help, though, if you didn’t treat them as celebrities, and didn’t elevate them beyond their actual significance. (Oh, and don’t take fashion photographs.) But before thinking about how to make our Nazi profiles better, it might be worth asking: do they really need to be written at all? Every moment you spend talking about one thing is a moment you’re not talking about another, and until the New York Times has done longform pieces about every socialist elected official in America (and every refugee in America’s detention centers, and every family with a child killed in a drone strike), I’d appreciate it if we didn’t hear any more about every individual pitiful Midwestern racist.

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