Saturday’s NYT profile about an American Nazi who loves cookies and shopping at Target or whatever has inspired unusual, deserved resistance, and it underscores a tendency I see in journalism programs. We teach students objectivity, too often confused with lacking a point of view. Objectivity I regard as a limited kind of omniscience: the camera eye seeing every person in the frame in all their multifoliate variance, interacting with their environment. Objectivity does not mean a suspension of judgment. Often we fail to emphasize that we shouldn’t publish false information from a source unless we explain to readers that the information is false.
The NYT story fell into this easy trap. To show how boring racism is as silly as showing how wet water is. As I wrote last week, for many people the only act that qualifies is racist is something obviously despicable – a use of the n-word, a lynching, picking on minority children in school. Ezra Klein, with whom I’m often disagreed, is correct when he excoriates the article for failing to “face up to the absence of mystery.” Klein:
Racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, xenophobia — none of it is aberrant, none of it is ahistorical, none of it is rare. Even Nazism isn’t unknown in America — I grew up in Orange County, California, and I remember seeing swastika armbands at concerts and hearing about neo-Nazi gatherings. They didn’t receive feature profiles, but they were there.
The more crippling flaw, he writes, is the way in which the article unintentionally does the devil’s work:
What is new is the sense many Nazis and racists have that the wind is at their back. Fausset mentions, but does not dwell on, Hovater’s feeling that “the election of President Trump helped open a space for people like him.” Fausset even goes on to say that “the movement will be looking to make use of people like the Hovaters and their trappings of normie life — their fondness for National Public Radio, their four cats, their bridal registry.”
The victims of people like the subject of the NYT profile: the Jewish and black neighbors who may have endured a hundred slights over the years. Action is character. Details aren’t character – a mistake that even Iowa Writers’ Workshop grads make.