In the wake of widespread backlash against its profile of a Nazi sympathizer, The New York Times said on Sunday it regrets offending readers and defended elements of the story criticized as normalizing white extremism.
“Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article,” Times national editor Marc Lacey wrote in a response to readers. “The point 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.”
The story, which ran on Saturday, spotlighted white supremacist Tony Hovater of New Carlisle, Ohio. The portrait of the “Nazi sympathizer next door” and his hatred for Jews, admiration for Adolf Hitler and belief in racial segregation is told against the backdrop of him cooking pasta at home, contemplating his honeymoon and enjoying “Seinfeld” ― all details critics say inadvertently normalized people like Hovater.
In its response, the Times said some saw the value in using those details to show how easy it is for the average American to adopt such radical views. “People mad about this article want to believe that Nazis are monsters we cannot relate to,” the Times quoted from Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer’s tweet.
The point 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.New York Times national editor Marc Lacey
Many critics of the profile agreed with that sentiment, but also said the Times went wrong by failing to address why and how Hovater developed his extreme beliefs.
Richard Fausset, the profile’s author, admitted in a followup piece Saturday that those unasked questions about Hovater were “a hole at the heart of [his] story.” When a Times editor told him that, in a first draft, those questions “had not been sufficiently addressed,” Fausset returned for more reporting on Hovater in search of answers, but came up empty.
“I beat myself up about all of this for a while, until I decided that the unfilled hole would have to serve as both feature and defect,” Fausset wrote. The Times’ response on Sunday, however, does not directly address this shortcoming or its decision to publish the story despite it.
“We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story,” the Times said in conclusion. “What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.”
The Times did say it erred in judgment by including in the profile a link to a site that sells swastika armbands.
“This was intended to show the darker reality beyond the anodyne language of the website. But we saw the criticism, agreed and removed the link.”