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Half-baked stories do more damage than good

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A few weeks ago, The New York Times published a story by Richard Fausset that humanized and sympathized with a white nationalist named Tony Hovater.

That was not the intent, according to The Times national editor Mary Lacy, who said that the goal of the story was “not to normalize anything 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.”

To that end, the story sorely missed the mark. It read more like alt-right fan fiction than a news feature, and profiled the day-to-day activities, interests and quirks of Hovater. His involvement with the Traditionalist Workers Party and hateful online activity seemed to be included only for color. I counted: the story contained approximately 38 details about the Hovaters’ “normalcy,” and only 35 details about Hovater’s white nationalism. A good news story is not a math problem, but in no case should a story about a bigoted white nationalist include more sympathizing details than damning ones.

Since it was published, there has been enormous backlash and a wave of critiques of the New York Times for printing such a story, many of them valid and that I agree with. Both Lacy and Fausset offered a response and a defense of the story. In his letter, Fausset discussed his lack of confidence in the heart of the piece.

“After I had filed an early version of the article, an editor at The Times told me he felt like the question had not been sufficiently addressed,” Fausset wrote. “So I went back to Mr. Hovater in search of answers. I still don’t think I really found them. I could feel the failure even as Mr. Hovater and I spoke on the phone.”

I routinely tell myself and my staff that “If you’re not 100 percent confident in the piece, don’t print it.” Throwing away months of work on a story can be incredibly frustrating, but sometimes it’s necessary. For The Times, it was likely necessary.

Perhaps lulled by his own perception of Hovater’s normalcy, Fausset believed that after enough pressing Hovater would disclose some meaningful explanation as to why he was white nationalist, as if a person cannot be polite and hateful at the same time. The Times was looking for the inconsistency in Hovater’s otherwise typical American life, but that inconsistency is that he’s a white nationalist.

In my opinion, and apparently Fausset’s as well, existing in the world as a white nationalist isn’t enough for a story. It’s disheartening that The Times didn’t know better, and didn’t realize that the once-golden idea they had for a story fell flat. Fausset should have realized the profile was missing its nugget sooner. His editor should have pushed harder and somebody should have asked “why is this important for the world to know?”

Even the best editors and journalists make mistakes. I consider myself to be a good, ethical journalist, but I’ve made editorial decisions that continue to make me cringe. Remembering those failures ensures that I won’t make those same mistakes again. I will continue to read and trust the New York Times, but I expect better. At a time when covering white nationalism and alt-right extremism has become a beat of its own, I expect The Times to think harder about why that coverage is important, and how that coverage can assist and inform the American public.

I’ve been told by editor after editor not to bury the lede. In this case, the lede is that Tony Hovater is a white nationalist and Nazi sympathizer, who engages in and supports horrifying ideologies that produce real, ongoing damage to marginalized American communities.

He should be fired from his job and he should be called-out for his racist and bigoted ideology. But I didn’t read that in this story. All I could tell you for certain is that his Midwestern manners would likely impress my mother.