On Saturday, Nov. 25, the New York Times published a profile of Tony Hovater, a self-identified white nationalist and a founder of an extreme right-wing group, the Traditionalist Worker Party. Hovater represented the Traditionalist Worker Party at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA in August.
This event stirred controversy across America, as it resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. In the wake of the rally, the New York Times reporter Richard Fausset was assigned the task of identifying the ideological origins of Hovater, traveling to Ohio to understand how he operates in his small town in middle-America.
The final version of his profile that was posted on Saturday received widespread criticism, much of it directed towards the notion that the article normalized neo-nazi behavior. Both Fausset and the New York Times National Editor Marc Lacey wrote pieces in response to the backlash, each admitting that the story largely failed to resonate with readers in any sensible manner.
Yet, the idea behind the story was certainly topical and necessary in today’s heightened political climate. News organizations should seek to report on “the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them,” as the New York Times national editor, Marc Lacey wrote in his response to the criticism. The article did successfully highlight the truth that supremacists are not other-worldy, alien creatures. They are human and sometimes lead very “normal” lives.
However, the extent to which the “normal” details about Hovater’s life — like his wedding registry list and a description of him sauteing minced garlic — are included, we think, could have been lessened. In their place, further supporting information about the issues like Hovater distinguishing between the title white supremacist and white nationalist could have shed more light on the problematic nature of the rhetoric being used. “What I had were quotidian details, though to be honest, I’m not even sure what these add up to,” Fausset wrote in his own response. Had Fausset perhaps put small parts of his experience with Hovater in the story and explained how he struggled throughout reporting it to fully understand Hovater’s conversion to white supremacy, it could’ve been more transparent and well-received.
Failures taken into account, the way that the New York Times editorial staff handled the criticism received about this article was admirable. Given the political stances the New York Times Editorial Board has publicly announced and supported in the past, this coverage surely went against their usual grain.
And despite their flaws, pieces like this do fuel much-needed conversation in the unending quest to understand our society’s differences and resolve the issues that divide us.