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“Merely” A White Supremacist: How The Media Is Missing the Story of White Nationalism PDF Print

6 August 2019

Country: Worldwide

by Jean-Paul Marthoz

Screen_Shot_2019-08-06_at_1.15.09_PMLast Sunday’s New York Times editorial got right to the point: We have a White Nationalist Terrorist Problem.

“If one of the perpetrators of this weekend’s two mass shootings had adhered to the ideology of radical Islam, the resources of the American government and its international allies would mobilize without delay,” it pointed out.

In fact, the same remarks could be applied more or less to the press. Barring a few distinguished exceptions, the media have been slow in highlighting far-right violence. Over the years a succession of statistics have shown a systemic bias within the media in addressing terrorism. Impartiality and balance, the sacred dogmas of US and international journalism, have too often been thrown overboard. As Signal Al wrote in the Guardian, “Violent Islamist extremists are three times more likely than far-right attackers to be described as terrorists in the media, according to an overview of more than 200,000 news articles and broadcast transcripts." In October 2015 after an anti-migrant knife attack on Henriette Reker, the Christian Democratic mayoral candidate of Cologne (Germany), I was so struck by the minuscule amount of press coverage that I penned a column in Brussels’ daily Le Soir with a sadly ironic headline: Don’t worry, he is just a Neo-Nazi. At the time many of my sources in civil society organizations and security agencies confided that the obviously highly legitimate concern about jihadist terrorism had led to perilously neglecting the rise of far-right extremism and the threat that it represented for our liberal democracies.

The rise of white supremacy in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016, the Charlottesville far-right rally in August 2017 and, more generally, the expansion of radical “populist” movements in Europe, have undoubtedly convinced a growing number of media outlets of the imperative of covering the far right more deeply. But routines die hard. A week before the El Paso shooting most of the media in the United States and elsewhere underreported the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting, even though it took place in a strongly Hispanic region, in a context of increasingly hate-filled discourse equating migration with invasions. Many journalists did not elaborate much on the alleged white supremacist and anti-Hispanic leanings of the shooter. Many did not follow up seriously the story even though the evidence was growing of a political motivation behind the attack. “Had the perpetrator been a Muslim, there’s little doubt that much of the media and public would have slapped the label “terrorist” on him at once,” Henry Millstein wrote in a letter to the San José Mercury News. “But he was “merely” a white supremacist, and so the media are much less likely to trot out that label than in the case of Muslims — even though law enforcement officials across the country have stated that right-wing extremist terrorism is actually a greater danger than Islamist terrorism.”

In a tweet he sent out after the El Paso and Dayton massacres, Donald Trump blamed the media for the recent shootings. “Fake News has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years,” he wrote. “News coverage has got to start being fair, balanced and unbiased, or these terrible problems will only get worse!”

Yes, some media have contributed to the anger and rage. However most of these media actually belong to the pro-Trump camp. Some are the kinds of tabloid media that the British anti-terror chief Neil Basu indicted last March in the wake of the Christchurch shooting. Others are right wing media outlets in the constellation of Alt-Right social media which have built up a powerful and intimidating noise machine, creating a recipe for the kind of disasters which happened in Gilroy or El Paso. Words have consequences and editorial writers are right when they indict Donald Trump’s and his media pals’ inflammatory rhetorics. As Walter Lippmann once wisely warned in his 1920 essay on Liberty and The News, “Under the influence of headlines and panicky print the contagion of unreason can easily spread through a settled community.”

There is however another angle to the drama. If there is a supply side to hate speech there is also a demand. “The blame must now extend beyond Trump,” writes CJ Werleman in New York’s leading Jewish magazine The Forward. “Put simply, he ain’t selling what his supporters aren’t buying, and what they are buying is his racist discord and xenophobia, which is measurably and demonstrably getting Americans killed.”

In our highly polarized societies growing swathes of public opinion shut themselves off from the media which try to provide an informed, rational and decent representation of current events. They live in gated communities of bigotry and hatred. And they believe that the mainstream quality media, these media that Donald Trump calls “fake news,” are constantly lying or systematically attacking their interests as a group. Their attitude is a reminder of the hostility of racial segregationists in the Deep South in the 1950s and 60s towards the “liberal” New York and Washington outlets which were accused of “taking sides” in favor of civil rights “against white people.”

It brings us back to the question of media bashing, as practiced by populist politicians and pundits in recent years. They have been using it strategically to delegitimize liberal and decently conservative media in order to isolate their supporters inside bunkers of ignorance and resentment. Today the capacity of turning the tide by appealing to the public’s sense of moral clarity is much more difficult.  But there is no excuse not to try if we want the world to come back to its senses. As the Washington Post’s media pundit Margaret Sullivan puts it, “Just as there was while covering civil rights, there is actually a right or wrong side on the matter of controlling rampant gun violence.”

And who is this right side? Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop doesn’t mince his words when he says, “the side of the victims.”

Don't miss our interview with terrorism and the media expert Jean-Paul Marthoz, here.