Chatting with white supremacists isn’t the way to “inform the American public”

Karen Attiah on why it’s not a brilliant plan for NPR to invite professional racists on to make their pitch.

Ahead of the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville, NPR decided to give an on-air lesson on the proper care and feeding of white nationalists and neo-Nazi ideology.

On Friday’s Morning Edition, NPR’s Noel King interviewed Jason Kessler, the organizer of Sunday’s Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington. There were a lot of troubling spots in the soft-focus mess of interview, but perhaps the most stunning was when King asked Kessler what he believes about the differences between races. Kessler proceeded to literally rank various races on the basis of debunked bell-curve myths about intelligence differences between groups on national public media. Spoiler alert: Black people ranked last on the odious list. I almost wondered if Kessler would bring out a craniometer and do a phrenology demonstration in the interview.

Because people are people, some of those who listened will have taken that nonsense seriously – like for instance people who turned on the interview after the intro and so didn’t know who Kessler was. Does NPR think people scrupulously listen only if they’ve heard the full intro? Of course not, they know better, they know it’s the nature of radio that people can tune in in the middle of things, so how stupid of them to do that interview anyway.

In a statement, NPR defended the interview: “Interviewing the people in the news is part of NPR’s mission to inform the American public,” Isabel Lara, NPR’s senior director of media relations, said. “Our job is to present the facts and the voices that provide context on the day’s events, not to protect our audience from views that might offend them,” she continued.

Yeah but the issue isn’t “views that might offend them”; it’s views that might get them killed. Honestly, what a rude and condescending thing to say. Avowed racists telling us how stupid black people are on NPR are not just something that “offends” us. It’s a little bit more bloody than that.

NPR didn’t do its job on Friday. When it comes to handling racist and white-supremacist subjects, the job of a responsible media outlet does not end at simply letting figures like Kessler speak unchallenged, in the name of neutrality and balance. It’s not that such people and views should absolutely, under no circumstances, ever be interrogated. Rather, what audiences deserve and have the right to demand is for national platforms to use their space responsibly, which means aggressively countering racist lies and propaganda with facts and truth.

Kessler started out the interview by stating that he believes he is a “civil and human rights advocate” for the “underrepresented Caucasian demographic” (ironic, considering that he is a white man being interviewed on national media, which has an overwhelmingly white workforce). Instead of refuting this lie by presenting facts about the domination of white people in almost all realms of American power and influence, King simply asks, “In what ways are white people in America underrepresented?”

There are hardly any of them in chicken processing plants, or in prison for life on drug charges.

Uncritical mainstreaming is exactly what the alt-right and white nationalists are looking for. In an Atlantic essay aptly titled “The White Nationalists are Winning,” Adam Serwer notes that a year after Charlottesville, “the white nationalists’ ideological goals remain a core part of the Trump agenda. As long as that agenda finds a home in one of the two major American political parties, a significant portion of the country will fervently support it. And as an ideological vanguard, the alt-right fulfilled its own purpose in pulling the Republican Party in its direction.” Indeed, we have seen this administration successfully push through a ban on travel from several majority-Muslim countries and the labeling of black activists as “black identity extremists,” with a president who blasts people from “shithole countries” while longing for Norwegian immigrants.

History has shown that white supremacy and white-nationalist ideologies, when carried out to their logical conclusions and adopted by state institutions, represent violence, marginalization and death for many people of color and minorities. Mainstream media must treat them like the societal threats that they are, instead of odd little curiosities.

Do better, NPR.

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