Imagine the surprise at the New York Times when they got a huge backlash to their Saturday story about the nice polite vegan “Big Bang Theory”-loving Nazis in Ohio.
A profile in The Times of Tony Hovater, a white nationalist and Nazi sympathizer in Ohio, elicited a huge amount of feedback this weekend, most of it sharply critical. Here’s how the piece came about, why we wrote it and why we think it was important to do so.
The genesis of the story was the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August, the terrifying Ku Klux Klan-like images of young white men carrying tiki torches and shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and the subsequent violence that included the killing of a woman, Heather D. Heyer.
Basically they thought it would be a good story to put a human face on them.
Whatever our goal, a lot of readers found the story offensive, with many seizing on the idea we were normalizing neo-Nazi views and behavior. “How to normalize Nazis 101!” one reader wrote on Twitter. “I’m both shocked and disgusted by this article,” wrote another. “Attempting to ‘normalize’ white supremacist groups – should Never have been printed!”
Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article. 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.
We described Mr. Hovater as a bigot, a Nazi sympathizer who posted images on Facebook of a Nazi-like America full of happy white people and swastikas everywhere.
We understand that some readers wanted more pushback, and we hear that loud and clear.
Good. Now stop trying to make these people sound like regular, normal Americans. They’re not, and we spent trillions of dollars and countless lives trying to eradicate this mindset 75 years ago.
We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. 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.
Why do we need to shed more light on the extreme corners of America when we have a president who got into office by turning over those rocks and bringing them out into the sunshine?
To quote the pithy motto of the ADL and just about every decent person who values life and liberty, “Never again.”