How We Write About the Nazis Next Door

Protestors rally against white supremacy and racism on August 13, 2017 after Heather Heyer, 32, was killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

On Saturday, The New York Times published Richard Fausset’s “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” a profile of “the Nazi sympathizer next door.” Readers were quick to call the piece indefensible:

The Times removed a direct link to purchase a swastika armband that was placed in the article, but otherwise stood by Fausset’s story.

After Twitter exploded, the Times tapped national editor Marc Lacey to respond. (This time last year Liz Spayd would have replied as the Times’ Public Editor, but the paper eliminated her position this summer, replacing it with a more amorphous Reader Center.) “The point of the story was not to normalize anything,” Lacey writes, “but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”

Fausset shared his own misgivings about the story in a companion Times Insider piece, also published on Saturday. He had been covering Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Maria, and Roy Moore’s Senate campaign in between various drafts of the profile in question. He missed some things. The resulting profile ended up neutralizing the one jump responsible for the genesis of this woefully misguided story: the shift from testing the limits of protected speech to cheering on the Charlottesville homicide in person.

The threat isn’t just that some neighbors will only recognize extremism in anyone but their neighbors. The threat is also that reporters and editors committed to covering this movement may not be able to feel their own hearts beating faster out of fear.

If they genuinely can’t, they will need to find other routes to responsible reporting in the absence of those instinctive gut checks. They could take any number of cues from Magdalene Jacobs’ outstanding thread of suggestions, for example, or hire reporters who can:

I want to read that story. I would learn a lot from that story.

Luckily, that story exists. Luke O’Brien just published it in The Atlantic. 

While The Atlantic’s senior editor James Hamblin parodied Fausset’s Times story in a weekend post titled “Nazis Are Just Like You and Me, Except They’re Nazis,” The Atlantic already had a truly terrifying response in the works: the magazine’s cover story for December, O’Brien’s “The Making of an American Nazi.”

It will take longer to read than all three of the Times‘ posts combined — and it is worth every minute of that dedicated attention. Because the missing tell-tale heart of Fausset’s story is all too present in O’Brien’s.

Clocking in just shy of 10,000 words, O’Brien’s piece unwaveringly casts the victims of real and threatened violence as the magnets that direct his story’s moral compass. (Unlike Fausset, he interviews dozens of sources.) He recreates and dignifies the fears of the targets of harassment, from the gut of the reporter to the gut of the reader. From the very first sentence, the profile’s villain — a Nazi, it’s a sentence about a Nazi  doxxes his victims, posts their contact information online, and commands his online army of trolls to “hit ‘em up.”

No one in O’Brien’s piece is normal. Few if any sources ever feel safe.

Although Fausset fails to figure it out, O’Brien makes it very clear why this isn’t all just “an enormous trolling event put on by self-mocking, politically incorrect kids playing around on the ash heap of history.” The top layer of ash is too fresh.

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