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It Isn’t Journalism’s Job To Hand-Hold People To The Correct Moral Conclusions
Stop hating your readers
One of the silliest ideas to infect mainstream journalism in recent years is the notion that when journalists produce work about a bad person, they must signpost that work, seemingly every moment, with explicit indicators that that person is bad. You need to hold readers’ hands tightly, because they are moral idiots, and the moment your grip slips, they’ll race off and return in a Klansman’s hood or something.
This is now a thoroughly mainstream view in journalism, and it is applied to coverage not just of actual fascists, but to an ever-growing variety of right-wing (or otherwise disfavored) figures.
Take what happened late last April, when The New York Times published a profile of the conservative activist Chris Rufo by Trip Gabriel. It’s pretty good — it concisely explains Rufo’s runaway success stoking parental concerns about diversity trainings, critical race theory, and, most sleazily, Disney employees who are sex criminals(!)(?).
Rufo certainly cuts some corners with his work and is not a fully honest actor (see also Jon Chait’s piece), and Gabriel’s article does a solid job providing examples of this. Gabriel doesn’t soft-pedal Rufo’s least savory tactics, noting that as part of his very intense feud with Disney, he
shared mug shots on Twitter of Disney workers who had been charged in child sexual abuse cases over the years, based in part on CNN reporting from 2014.
He failed to note, in an article he wrote about the arrests for City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, that none of the cases in the CNN report involved children at Disney’s parks. Nor did he include Disney’s response to CNN that the arrests were “one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the 300,000 people we have employed during this time period.”
Gabriel quotes others criticizing Rufo’s work — fairly, in my view — but also gives him space to explain his own views and methods.
Damon Kiesow, a veteran journalist who holds the Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing at the Missouri School of Journalism, really didn’t like the piece. Here’s what he said in a tweetstorm that started here (all the below images were embedded by Kiesow himself):
The NYT is our most important newsroom and it is also broken.
This is not “neutral” or “objective” it is amplification and normalization. Just to point out - the NYT has received criticism on this point for years. They answer: we are not amplifying but revealing: [link to this:]
The problem is, you can ‘reveal’ without featuring anodyne portraits (these large photos are called ‘hero shots’ by web designers) and using the language of struggle, innovation, entrepreneurship (hero language) on the path to pointing out the subject's horrid beliefs.
The path to not amplifying hate is to lead with a portait [sic] of the director of a local anti-hate group and have them describe the issue - and then dig into the details of the people pushing anti-civil rights legislation. That is why we teach ‘framing’ in journalism school.
There are dozens of ways to tell this story objectively - but we keep getting the hero treatment up top - and then two thousand words that work to partially contradict the only bits most readers will ever see.
Also to note - this is a journalism problem - the NYT is just a very visible and dependable example. From the very liberal Mother Jones in 2016:
A lot of people agree with Kiesow’s diagnosis. Soledad O’Brien retweeted it approvingly:
Will Bunch, a columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, directly compared the Times piece to softball coverage of Hitler:
Dan Froomkin, formerly of The Washington Post and now the author of a site called Press Watch, echoed these sentiments:
Journalism is screwed for a lot of reasons, most of them structural and having nothing to do with the views of even the most moralizing, censorious gatekeepers. But still: It’s a really, really bad sign that said gatekeepers understand journalism in this way, and that they’re eagerly trying to inflict their views on other journalists.
These are eternal debates within journalism, of course: what “objectivity” means, the proper way to contextualize bad acts and actors, and so on. It isn’t new for people to respond angrily to a portrayal of a wrongdoer that is rendered with certain shades of gray.
Way back in 2013, for example, I wrote a piece for The Boston Globe (unlocked archive here) arguing that, contrary to a swell of outrage, Rolling Stone hadn’t actually erred in publishing an issue of its magazine fronted by this image of Boston Marathon bombing co-conspirator Dzhokhar Tsarnaev:
I wrote that while some complained that the image “glorified” the terrorist, “We fear the image not because it glorifies Tsarnaev, but because he looks like any other teen trying to strike a cool, aloof pose for a photograph. He appears too normal to have done a horrible thing.” This is useful! The whole point is he was a normal kid, and then he became a terrorist. As someone once said, It Is Really Important to Humanize Evil if we hope to understand it.
The Tsarnaev cover outrage was a big media story at the time, and some retailers refused to carry that issue of Rolling Stone. But I don’t remember large numbers of journalists piling on the magazine for making this decision, nor does a quick review of the contemporaneous coverage of the controversy show that this was the case. I guess it could just be that Twitter wasn’t a very big deal yet and we weren’t all swimming around in journalists’ opinions about each and every controversy (what a nightmare we inhabit), but I do think back then most journalists understood that “You made the bad man look not so bad” was a fairly un-journalistic opinion to hold, even if they could understand why members of the public might feel upset.
These days, journalists are very quick to make these sorts of snap judgements. As part of the great Donald Trump brain-melting — a process that is still unfolding — many journalists now understand their jobs differently from how they used to. One of their most holy responsibilities, in this view, is to protect readers and listeners from bad ideas, which can easily infect them if journalist-guardians drop their guards for one second.
What does it mean to drop your guard? Well, the photograph of Rufo is a prime example. It’s a “hero shot,” argues Damon Kiesow, who, again, is a veteran journalist tasked with teaching young journalists how to journalize:
Traditionally, a “hero shot” is just the most prominent photo on the page — it doesn’t even imply any sort of moral judgment. But this choice of image, according to Kiesow, contributed to the Times’ and Gabriel’s sins of “amplification and normalization.”
Does Chris Rufo look heroic to you, here? He doesn’t to me. He looks like a slightly awkward guy trying to strike a non-awkward pose (trust me, I can relate). But let’s say he did look heroic. Does this mean that The New York Times or Trip Gabriel views him or intends to promote him as heroic? Will readers be significantly nudged toward the idea that Rufo is a hero by this image, or by a nuanced article that includes well-founded criticisms of him?
Is that how images or media or minds work?
This is all profoundly silly, and it reflects some very undercooked lay theories about the nature of persuasion and media and journalists’ own importance (consistently overestimated by journalists themselves). I didn’t agree with every single choice of framing or fact included in Gabriel’s Rufo piece, but that’s not the point — the point is that he did journalism. He got to know an undeniably (and unfortunately) important figure and reported what he found for the purpose of the public’s edification. It is not Trip Gabriel’s job to propagandize against Rufo. Now, if he had soft-pedaled Rufo’s views or actions, that would also have been propaganda, just in the other direction. But he didn’t do that either: Again, he did journalism, a very specific thing that is quite endangered. It’s a shame that so many journalists seem to dislike it.
I’m glad Kiesow mentioned the Mother Jones article about Richard Spencer, because that “controversy” has grated on me for years. In many ways, the response to the MoJo article, which was actually written before Trump was elected, was a dark sign of what was on the horizon. It’s worth revisiting that incident, because a lot of people, including journalists, completely misunderstand it to this day.
Dapper Dapper Dapper Dapper Dapper Dapper Dapper Dapper Dapper
“Meet the White Nationalist Trying to Ride the Trump Train to Lasting Power” was written by Josh Harkinson, who was then a staff writer at Mother Jones. I first spoke to him in April. For most of our first conversation he was in a cab in Bangalore, where he was working on a startup involving kombucha. (He now splits his time between India and California.)
Harkinson didn’t leave journalism because of what happened to him after he published his profile of Spencer, but it was clear the aftermath left a deep mark on him, and he was still resentful about how he was treated by his peers simply for doing his job.
Harkinson’s article is a comprehensive, in-depth look at Spencer and his goals, which was published at a time when few people knew who Spencer was or understood his relationship to Trumpism:
An articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a “fashy” (as in fascism) haircut—long on top, buzzed on the sides—Spencer has managed to seize on an extraordinary presidential election to give overt racism a new veneer of radical chic. In some ways he resembles an older generation of “academic racists”—or “racialists,” as he prefers to put it—who’ve long sought to professionalize a movement associated with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. What sets him apart is his rock star status among a certain fringe that delights in making racist comments pseudonymously on the internet. They idolize Spencer for embracing life as a public heretic and appearing to lend an air of respectability to white nationalist views. You could call him the alt-right’s outlaw version of William F. Buckley, if Buckley had been down with millennials and into shitlords and dank memes.
Just six grafs into the story and immediately after noting that Spencer’s goal is to remake the United States as a place “where the main criteria for citizenship would be whiteness,” Harkinson reveals that Spencer has not yet figured out a working definition for this term: “When asked who would qualify as white, Spencer’s reasoning quickly turns arcane, if not tortured—he invokes a mix of race, culture, and geography—but the answer definitely does not include blacks, Asians, Muslims, Jews, and most Hispanics.”
Later on in the article, Harkinson writes that after getting to know him, Spencer opened up a bit and revealed that genetically, he was a tiny bit African. This leads to more incoherent race theorizing:
Spencer later clarified that he is “not a puritan” about race and would accept in his ethnostate “someone from southern Italy who might have Moorish blood or African blood but has a sense of Catholicism, has a sense of being Italian.” You have to look at culture and not just race, he further explained. But lighter skin color apparently matters more to Spencer than acculturation when it comes to Hispanics: He says he would let in Jorge Ramos but not George Lopez.
Spencer believes that Hispanics and African Americans have lower average IQs than whites and are more genetically predisposed to commit crimes, ideas that are not accepted by the vast majority of scientists. When pressed about what really sets whites apart, he waxes decidedly unscientific: “I think there is something within the European soul that we haven’t been able to measure yet and maybe we never will,” he says, “and that is a Faustian drive or spirit—a drive to explore, a drive to dominate, a drive to live one’s life dangerously…a drive to explore outer space and the universe. I think there is something within us that we possess and that only we possess.”
Any moderately attentive reader will, by this point, understand that Spencer is something of an intellectual lightweight, despite his puffed-up presentation style and academic credentials. He demands racial purity and a white ethnostate, but he is neither racially pure himself, nor even able to define the whiteness that so fixates him.
Anyone could write a drive-by article pointing out that Spencer is dumb and bad and that his ideas are evil. But this article works because Harkinson didn’t do that — at the outset, he treated Spencer not as a monster, but as a human being worth getting to know for the sake of explaining him to others. “I definitely tried to develop a relationship with him so I could learn more about him and that enabled me to give a level of nuance and detail about somebody who’s dangerous and influential,” he told me. “So I think it was worth it.”
As a result of this careful and painstaking work, Harkinson’s article offers many useful insights about Spencer and his movement, such as his successful adoption of certain aspects of meme culture and, relatedly, his view of Steve Bannon and Breitbart as useful, (slightly) more moderate conduits to help him legitimize his ideas. Perhaps most important is Spencer’s understanding of the candidate who, at the time Harkinson interviewed him, seemed like a long shot. “Trump brought us from zero to 1,” Spencer says. “He brought us from a movement that was very interesting but ultimately marginal—ultimately disconnected from reality, you could even say. We were talking to ourselves, talking to our own ideas. Now we are still doing that, but we are connected with a campaign, connected with attacking liberals. We’ve come so far.”
Harkinson also uncovered a link between Spencer and a key Trump official who was then a senior advisor to the campaign on immigration policy. As a graduate student at Duke, Harkinson reports,
Spencer says [Stephen] Miller helped him with fundraising and promotion for an on-campus debate on immigration policy that Spencer organized in 2007 featuring influential white nationalist Peter Brimelow. Another former member of the [Duke Conservative Union] confirmed that Miller and Spencer worked together on the event. At DCU meetings, according to a past president for the group, Miller denounced multiculturalism and expressed concerns that immigrants from non-European countries were not assimilating.
“It’s funny no one’s picked up on the Stephen Miller connection,” Spencer says. “I knew him very well when I was at Duke. But I am kind of glad no one’s talked about this because I don’t want to harm Trump.”
Miller refused to comment but said in an email to Harkinson he had “absolutely no relationship with Mr. Spencer.” And Harkinson’s access to Spencer led to other surprising and cringeworthy moments, such as when Harkinson told Spencer that he found out he’d had an Asian girlfriend (“I would rather you didn’t write about that,” said Spencer — whoops).
In reading the actual article Harkinson actually wrote, it’s almost impossible to imagine any reasonable reader confusing it for a puff piece.
Journalists Express Opinions, Unfortunately
The problem is, there are informed and attentive readers, and then there are journalists on Twitter. Journalists who no longer recognize the craft of journalism, and who see their job as patrolling the grounds with flashlights, hoping to catch other journalists in the act of doing journalism so they can blow their whistles and alert the other guards.
Harkinson saw his article as journalism, full-stop. “That’s what I’m supposed to do,” Harkinson told me. “‘This is a guy, this is what he does, this is what he’s trying to do to win.’ Do I agree with him? Of course I don’t. But just by describing his M.O., I got attacked.” “Attacked” might be an understatement. Despite the evident care and thoroughness Harkinson put into his story, a subset of journalists and activists have, ever since its publication, treated it as a sort of Patient Zero of the supposed normalization of white supremacy among mainstream journalists. A lot of this stems from the fact that the magazine used the term “dapper” in a social media headline to describe Spencer (that term doesn’t appear in the body of the article itself).
It’s now an established fact in some liberal circles that Mother Jones ran a puff piece about a white nationalist — that the magazine fell in love with Spencer, perhaps seduced by his tight haircut, and couldn’t quite bring itself to criticize white supremacy. As a result, Spencer was “normalized” in a way he wouldn’t have been otherwise.
Remarkably, Karen Attiah, an opinion columnist for The Washington Post, called Harkinson’s article a “glowing profile” of Spencer:
Bree Newsome, a leading lefty filmmaker and activist, blamed the article (and others supposedly like it) for “normalizing” Trump:
And so on:
It shouldn’t need saying all these years after the article, but these descriptions of what Harkinson wrote are completely false. My most charitable interpretation is that these and the other critics of the article didn’t read it; rather, they saw everyone else freaking out about it and thought it would be safest and most advantageous to join the cries of the crowd.
The nadir of this ridiculous pile on came during the March 2, 2018 episode of On The Media, the influential and widely broadcast WNYC media criticism show. The episode, titled “Why We Get the Far Right Wrong,” takes it as an established fact that Harkinson committed a major journalistic blunder. But, perhaps because it’s hard to find genuine evidence of any such blunder in the article itself, the producers seemed to reverse-engineer a justification for this view.
The segment, hosted by Guardian reporter Lois Beckett (who didn’t return a request to comment I sent via email), is exceptionally strange. Beckett starts by providing several examples of supposedly good coverage of Spencer. She argues that race plays a part — if you’re black and therefore personally affected by Spencer’s noxious beliefs, you might have access to certain insights or strategies that a white interviewer would lack. She then provides audio clips of black interviewers taking the right approach to interviewing Spencer.
First up is Gary Younge, whose interview with Spencer you can watch here:
Here’s the segment from OTM:
LOIS BECKETT: Gary Younge is editor-at-large for The Guardian. He interviewed Richard Spencer last year as part of a documentary on the state of anger and anxiety in modern white America.
GARY YOUNGE: You want to create a nation of white people, dispossessed white people. Is that right?
RICHARD SPENCER: Yes, it would be our homeland. It would be our safe space.
GARY YOUNGE: Safe space?
RICHARD SPENCER: And. Yes.
GARY YOUNGE: Why, why do you need a safe space?
RICHARD SPENCER: Why, why did —
LOIS BECKETT: Younge chose to talk to Spencer in a parking lot, not giving him the respectful format of a taped sit-down interview. The video ended up going viral.
RICHARD SPENCER: Africans have benefited from their experience with white supremacy. They benefited from being in a different nation than their own. No doubt.
GARY YOUNGE: Really?
RICHARD SPENCER: How can you deny that?
GARY YOUNGE: It’s such a ridiculous notion.
RICHARD SPENCER: How is it ridiculous?
GARY YOUNGE: It’s such a ridiculous notion.
RICHARD SPENCER: How is it ridiculous?
GARY YOUNGE: That people forcibly removed from their homes and taken to this country —
So the argument is pretty straightforward: If you’re going to interview someone like Spencer, don’t make him look like a respectable intellectual. Rather, press him on his beliefs and call them out when they seem ridiculous.
Beckett also casts Al Letson’s interview with Spencer in a positive light:
LOIS BECKETT: Another of the best interviews with Richard Spencer, where his smugness was shaken, was conducted by Reveal’s Al Letson, who is also black. … Rather than just give Spencer a microphone and ask him why he held such racist ideas, Al pressed him on the details his team had uncovered of government subsidies Spencer's family received for their cotton plantations in the Deep South.
AL LETSON: I'm just curious because you talk a lot about how America is a corrupt system and how everything is not working correctly but you’re benefiting off of that.
RICHARD SPENCER: I mean, look, I, I am not involved in any direct day-to-day running of these, you know, businesses.
Here, the argument is again simple: If you’re interviewing Spencer, it’s good to push back against his claims so as to make him look foolish or unprepared.
Having established the right ways to interview someone like Spencer, Beckett turns her attention to Harkinson, the cautionary tale. She points out that his article opens with Spencer eating sushi, the idea being that this is a no-no because you can film or write about him only in places like parking lots or, I suppose, dumpsters. (Beckett doesn’t explain how a magazine reporter seeking to spend significant time with a subject could possibly contrive a parking-lots-or-dumpsters-only policy for interviews.)
“To this day, the article is cited by critics as one of the original sins of white supremacist coverage,” says Beckett. “I asked the author of the profile, Josh Harkinson, what he made of the response.” Harkinson, it goes without saying, disagrees with the idea he erred in his journalistic choices, but Beckett presses him, particularly on his lack of melanin. Harkinson points out that if this is about being white versus black, people should know that the editor who wrote the “dapper” headline is herself black. Seems like a fair point if we’re going to go the identitarian route, but Beckett doesn’t address it substantively.
Beckett’s most remarkable claim comes a bit after that:
You’re holding Spencer accountable and you're being clear about his views but with this sense of this is embarrassing, this is foolish. That is very much how white Americans, myself included, often talk about racism, that it’s awkward or uncomfortable. Black Americans talk about racism in, in a very different way, with a sense of grief and terror.
Setting aside the offensive essentialism on display here — ah yes, we all know that black Americans never talk about racism being embarrassing or foolish — what’s maddening about this is Beckett is criticizing Harkinson for doing the exact same thing she just lauded other journalists for doing. Seriously: This comes just minutes after she highlighted Gary Younge and Al Letson making Richard Spencer look embarrassing and foolish as good examples of skeptical journalism at its best.
Harkinson obviously wasn’t happy about how the On The Media segment turned out. He said he was frustrated that Beckett missed what he saw as the obvious point of writing and reporting honestly about Spencer’s tactics and personality — including, yes, the fact that he is a well-put-together guy. “I feel like she should have gotten this — I don’t know why she didn’t lay it out,” he said. “The reason I did the interview with her was all the hot takes on the Spencer piece were really unfair, and they just [referenced] the [social media] headline. Okay, here’s a chance to set the record straight. The reason why we described him as good-looking was because that is his M.O. — what I’m saying is yes, he is using his good looks as a tool to try to make the alt-right more popular, to try to put a pretty face on the alt-right. So I’m describing Spencer — who he is and what he does, and the issues taken with the piece were that I did that.”
Harkinson said he was also quite frustrated that On The Media left out the fact that his own wife is South Asian, and they have two biracial kids. These details would have made it harder to present him as a clueless white guy who stumbled into writing a disastrous and racism-normalizing magazine feature, because they would have shown that he himself has some skin in the game: Obviously, in the unlikely scenario Richard Spencer prevails and the United States becomes a white ethnostate, Harkinson’s own family would be torn apart.
The OTM segment also excluded a crucial detail about Al Letson’s interview with Spencer, Harkinson said. That interview took place as part of a project Letson was working on for the Center for Investigative Reporting. “I landed Spencer for them,” said Harkinson. “I told [Spencer] that he should interview with them.” (“I think that’s true,” said Letson in a DM.) Again, this detail would make the whole storyline more complicated: Harkinson’s relationship with Spencer — built because he took the time to do a full-blown magazine article rather than a drive-by ridiculing — appeared to lead directly to what Beckett viewed as one of the best interviews with Spencer.
Harkinson said he doesn’t think someone like Spencer deserves blanket coverage, and he’s receptive to the argument that certain types of superficial coverage of repulsive figures do more harm than good (a point made by the journalist Anna Merlan in the OTM segment). But he insisted that it made perfect sense to write a long magazine article about Spencer at that particular juncture. “There was a giant fucking news peg to this — so of course I wrote a magazine story about him,” said Harkinson. “Nobody else had. And what happened was every journalistic hack that followed wrote ‘Richard Spencer did this, Richard Spencer did that.’ I don’t think that’s necessarily worthwhile. I’m the guy who did the first investigative piece about Richard Spencer, but instead of attacking all the hacks who wrote clickbait about him, they went after me.”
“I think some of it might be generational,” said Harkinson “There is a generational split between Gen X and maybe early Gen Y versus late Gen Y over the whole ‘woke’ thing. The balancing of free speech and other values, which are also important.” Harkinson didn’t seem to regret having written his article, but I got the sense he was still, six years later, baffled by its reception.
The Twitter Gauntlet Consistently Destroys Good Journalism
When a journalist gets dragged on Twitter the way Harkinson did, it gets noticed by other journalists. One of Twitter’s main functions, after all, is to publicly dish out discipline to those deemed to have violated a given group’s norms, whether or not the accusation is valid.
Things have gotten a lot worse in mainstream journalism since Harkinson’s piece. I’m not the first to have ranted and written about the culture of stifling conformity, of jumping down the throats of anyone who argues for nuanced takes on hot-button issues, or who publicly disagrees with sacralized narratives. These tendencies have contributed to botched coverage of national news events over and over and over and over.
But there’s a more fundamental principle at stake here: respect for readers (and listeners). The ideas that readers will scurry off to fascism unless we keep them tightly leashed, that they can’t handle a little bit of uncertainty or nuance or a couple of unanswered questions — it’s all deeply condescending. Certain prescriptions for how journalism should be conducted — such as the idea that we should be awash in headlines like “Racist President Drones Racistly As Racist Group Howls With Racist Glee” — seem motivated by genuine contempt for readers.
When Damon Kiesow argues that an article about Chris Rufo was a terrible act because it included a prominent photo of Rufo as well as a somewhat in-depth interview with him, that’s because he doesn’t respect Times readers. “The path to not amplifying hate is to lead with a portait [sic] of the director of a local anti-hate group and have them describe the issue - and then dig into the details of the people pushing anti-civil rights legislation.” This is an utterly impoverished, impossibly bland concept of journalism in which we slap helmets on readers and then lead them by hand, via velvet ropes and padded walls, to their final, safe destination: On your left you’ll see a local civil rights leader. He is a hero. What a good man! In our next room you’ll meet today’s baddy, an eeeeeeeevil man named Chris Rufo. Do not listen to what he says, for he is a Deceiver.
I can’t write like this because I don’t hate my readers. And most journalists, to be fair, don’t hate their readers either — they want to produce interesting work. But the hysterical, moralizing view of journalism is winning, largely because of the social media shitstorm that engulfs anyone who insists on treating readers as compos mentis adults rather than kids in the under-10 section of a theme park. If you’re skeptical of my argument that views like Kiesow’s stem from contempt for readers, reflect, for a minute, on the claim that launched this whole article: that describing a hardened racist as “dapper” will cause people to be drawn to that racist and to embrace his ideas. The hypothetical seductee in this scenario is, full-stop, an idiot.
Any competent critique of 2022 needs to mention class, and this is indeed partly a class issue. Journalists are increasingly from privileged, liberal backgrounds like mine, and privileged, liberal people tend to have very strong, very set feelings about politics — feelings that only grew more intense during the Trump years. For the most part, journalists in my milieu are cut off, at least as far as close social and familial ties go, from the sorts of people who might be fans of Chris Rufo. That makes it harder to cover Rufo accurately, which is something you should want even if — especially if — you dislike Rufo and his project.
Journalism needs more Josh Harkinsons, is what it comes down to. There are all sorts of structural reasons why it’s harder than ever before to produce long, careful, rigorous works of magazine reporting — that such works are now shouted down and slandered by other journalists is an exceptionally foreboding development for an already teetering industry.