‘Swastikas in gift wrap’: NBC accused of helping white-nationalist group sanitize racism

Workers break down the set of NBC’s “Today” show last year. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

NBC’s “Today” show ran a segment about a white nationalist group on Wednesday that seemed designed to raise concerns.

“We are telling this story to pull back the curtain so parents and college students are aware that these groups are out there,” correspondent Peter Alexander said before the segment, which was billed as “a rare look” inside the fringe group Identity Evropa.

But instead, the network became part of the story after its coverage was widely criticized: Many credible voices took to social media to say they felt the show’s short segment had given the group a wide platform on which to advertise itself, while allowing it to cover up the true nature of its views.

The piece was one of what has become an informal genre of news media stories in the Trump era: well-meaning coverage of white supremacist groups that is lambasted for being overly credulous or sympathetic.

Other case studies in this genre include the New York Times’s profile of a white nationalist in Ohio that focused in detail on many of the seemingly “normal” aspects of his life, such as his wedding registry and the pasta dish he was making with his family. During a recent interview on NPR, another white nationalist ranked the intelligence of various ethnic groups to only modest pushback.

The answer is not to simply avoid covering racists and the hateful groups they’ve formed, which are growing in number. As those with racist, extreme and hateful views continue to draw inspiration from the racially tinged politics of the Trump era, the issue is an undeniably important and serious national news story.

But the episode underscored the many pitfalls that continue to face news media companies covering this tense and emotional subject matter.

Alexander’s piece, like many of the others that have drawn outcry, was framed from an ostensibly critical perspective, warning viewers about the appeal of the “clean-cut” and “pro-white” group, before interviewing its executive director. And Alexander worked to press his subject.

But the man was allowed to dodge a question about whether the group was racist, as well as another about what he proposed doing with his black, Indian and Latino neighbors.

The piece also missed many important pieces of context about the group — though NBC said that Identity Evropa did not allow criminals in its ranks, it failed to note that it was founded by a man who told Mother Jones that he was “racialized” after being exposed to the literature of racists such as David Duke during a four-year stint in prison for armed robbery. He was later caught on video punching a woman in the face at a rally in Berkeley. He has since left the group.

NBC did not bring up that the group’s next leader threatened to send in “200 people with guns” during the chaos in Charlottesville on a call with the police, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and was exposed by the New York Times as falsely claiming to have served in Iraq. The Army told the newspaper that he had never been deployed during his time in the military.

“How an Alt-Right Leader Lied to Climb the Ranks,” the New York Times’s documentary about him was called.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Patrick Casey, the man featured in the “Today” show segment, has made it his work to moderate the Identity Evropa’s image — part of a broader movement of white nationalists and supremacists laundering their hateful ideas to appear more palatable to wider groups of people since the political fallout from Charlottesville.

Casey seemed to admit as much during the “Today” show interview, speaking about how his group members sought to network with mainstream conservatives and discreetly introduce them to white nationalist ideas.

“Quite often, controversial ideas start off as being very taboo, and people have to be very careful with them, but they can skillfully insert them into the mainstream,” Casey said.

NBC also allowed him to sidestep the issue of racism by claiming to be an “identitarian,” a term of jargon used by many white nationalists to describe their racially motivated political leanings.

The network and Alexander did not return emailed requests for comment.

Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, said media organizations have to be very careful not to assist hate groups in their efforts to take “bigotry out of the gutter and into mainstream institutions.”

He described Identity Evropa’s mission as “Swastikas in gift wrap.”

“They want to promote white nationalism, and what they understand is [that] a message of biological determinism about blacks and Latinos might not be the best sell,” he said. “But if you say ‘we’re trying to defend Western culture and civilization, then that can then tie into banter on some cable news. … The more shrouded the message is, the more they can ensnare people who are not hardened bigots but are susceptible.”

The “Today” show is not known for its journalistic exposés, raising questions about whether it was the appropriate venue for such a piece. But its large audience — some 4 million people watch it every week — and respectable broadcast trappings make it a uniquely powerful stage.

Identity Evropa is normally confined to getting its message out on social media, or putting up banners, fliers and stickers around college campuses and even highways, Levin said.

“On the ‘Today’ show, more people will be exposed to their messaging than all their work with banners, leaflets, flash mobs may be within a year,” he said.

The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill penned a scathing piece about the segment, arguing that NBC fell into a “classic white nationalist trap.”

“In actuality, Americans are already pretty familiar with racism,” Weill wrote. “Those who already oppose it will be repelled by the racists on their screens — but viewers who harbor their own racist resentments might see something else in these televised interviews: an ally.”

These critics’ claims were bolstered by the way Casey and Identity Evropa touted the interview before and after it was broadcast. On Wednesday, he wrote that applications for the group and interview requests were “pouring in” after the segment, which he shared multiple times on his feed.

And toward the end of the day, he retweeted another account that shared the clip with a rant about NBC’s attempt to frame the coverage critically.

“Still didn’t work,” the person wrote, adding, “If anything, this is like a massive recruitment ad.”

Not all coverage of white supremacist groups by mainstream media organizations has had the same effect, of course. The Atlantic’s cover story about the founder of a prominent neo-Nazi site was widely praised. Reporter Elspeth Reeve recently won four Emmys for Vice News Tonight’s documentary about the groups massing for the Charlottesville rally in 2017.

Read more:

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