How The Media Covers White Supremacists

Aug 12, 2018
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LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

We're going to have a conversation now that may seem a bit ironic. It's a debate playing out in op-eds and in newsrooms over how media outlets should cover the white supremacist movement in this country. NPR, CNN, The New York Times have all come under criticism at one point or another for giving white supremacists a platform. So on a day like today, as the second Unite the Right rally takes place outside the White House, how should media organizations handle this story without fanning the flames of racist viewpoints? Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR's Code Switch team has been thinking about this question, and she joins us now from Culver City, Calif.

Hello, Karen.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hey, Lakshmi.

SINGH: So I'm curious. Obviously, we've been covering the Unite the Right rally happening here in D.C. When newsrooms are deciding how many or even whether to send reporters out to events like today's, what are some of the factors that you think media organizations should weigh?

BATES: Well, I think they have to weigh whether or not you're normalizing these groups by affording them the same space and the same time as legitimate news. And there have been questions. You know, reporters have had questions. Why should we give air space to hate groups that are craving the attention? Does that do anything other than stir them up? Are you going to create an incident by giving them coverage as opposed to leaving it be? I think it's a hard line to walk.

SINGH: It is because I think that begs the question of balancing perhaps responsible restraint in the way that one covers a story and censorship, which is the thing that we all dread. We don't want to be accused of censoring information that the general public believes we have a responsibility to share with people who listen or read our material.

BATES: Sure. On the other hand, you do have people who say, you know, listen. We understand you're journalists. We understand you think there's two sides at least - maybe multiple sides to every story. But some things do not have a side that needs to be covered. How do you argue that you need to cover the other side of genocide? Shouldn't happen. What are you doing? On the other hand, if you don't cover it, that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. And maybe covering it shows the extent of the horror in the case of genocide and perhaps can go to trying to stop it or mitigate it.

SINGH: Media organizations have been grappling with the question of whether to give white supremacists a platform, and we know that NPR aired an interview with Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler on Friday. That drew a lot of criticism. What have you been hearing from other reporters and people - listeners who've generally been following your work about these "alt-right" and white supremacist gatherings - how they should actually be covered? What have you - what kind of ideas have you been hearing?

BATES: Some people - and these are usually people who are not journalists - say, what happens if you just ignore them? You know that's what they want. They want your attention. They want to be on the radio. They want to be on television. They crave this. So why are you giving it to them? Just ignore it, and maybe the numbers fall away. May not go away completely, but maybe the numbers fall away.

I don't know if anybody's really tested out that thesis - unless you think about something like Westboro Baptist Church, where in the beginning, you know, a handful of people would show up at the funerals of military personnel that they had decided were gay with horrible signs, you know, opposite their church, their cemetery. And it got a lot of coverage, both on television, newspapers, radio. After a while, I think those media organizations decided, they're so fringe. Why are we doing this? And so you don't see a media presence there anymore. Maybe that's the way to go. I don't know.

One person who was not a journalist but who I thought had a really interesting idea said, why don't you all treat this the same way you treat, like, a war or the president? Everybody doesn't go in and cover those things. Lots of times, they'll have pool coverage. Why can't you have pool coverage of these people so that there's one piece of tape, one visual image that you get, and that's enough of these guys? I don't know where it stops.

SINGH: As we're speaking, I'm looking at images on television on CNN, and it's the angle - the camera angle (laughter) shows a lot of other videographers, cameras. And then you have the crowd further up. And, from this angle, it's tough to tell if there are more journalists than protesters in this particular scene or the other way around.

BATES: And sometimes, in many of the things we've covered, there were more of us than there are of the people who were the actual event that we're going out to cover. Nobody wants to not cover it on the off-chance that something big happens while their backs are turned. But you have to weigh that with so - if by covering it, are we making this event bigger than it really is?

SINGH: Karen Grigsby Bates is a correspondent for our Code Switch team. Code Switch covers race and identity for NPR.

Karen, thanks so much.

BATES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.