The fine line between covering racism and spreading its voice

As expected, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen has tackled the network’s decision to put a white supremacist on the air.

Last week, NPR’s All Things Considered gave seven minutes of airtime to Richard Spencer, the man who led the weekend rally of white supremacists at which he read Nazi propaganda (in German) and railed against Jews and blacks. The audience responded with Nazi salutes.

Jensen said the network is preferring the term “white nationalist” over “alt-right” to describe people and groups like Spencer’s, which is, itself, controversial to the degree it may not adequately describe them.

And many listeners complain that the watered-down terms and publicity is “normalizing” hate speech.

Jensen rejected the allegation, in critiquing not only Spencer’s interview, but Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep’s earlier interview with Breitbart boss Steve Bannon, who now will be in charge of political strategy for President-elect Donald Trump.

I asked the newsroom for a response to the outpouring of criticisms and got back a short statement from Michael Oreskes, NPR’s top newsroom executive, which seemed to refer only to the praise: “I’m glad that NPR listeners understand why it is so important that we bring these voices to attention. We cover the world as it is. It is our duty to present difficult and even unacceptable points of view if they are driving thinking among voters or policy makers. We work hard to set these voices in that context.”

Here’s my take. NPR is not the only news organization to have conducted such interviews in recent days. The New York Times did, the Dallas News did and the non-NPR-affiliated public radio program Reveal did, to name a few.

There is a difference in the way the audience perceives written pieces and hearing them on the radio. Broadcast interviews come across as giving the interviewees, any interviewees, a “platform” to spread their ideas, to employ a term many of the critics of these interviews have used.

That makes framing such interviews all the more important. Unlike many of those who wrote to my office, I’m not going to dissect the two interviews question by question, but I will make a couple of points.

I think the framing of the Morning Edition interview was problematic, starting as it did with “Let’s hear a defense of Steve Bannon.” I don’t believe NPR ran the interview for reasons of “balance,” but because, as Oreskes says, it’s NPR’s role as a news organization to bring to light and scrutinize even the most difficult currents of society. (I would give the same response to the handful of people who have written my office saying these interviews showed NPR’s liberal bias, because they were contentious.) But when framed as a defense, listeners will not hear it as a probing interview.

In addition, in my opinion, these interviews should not be done live. Inskeep is an excellent live interviewer, but live interviews are difficult, especially when there is limited time. A little contextualizing never hurts. It worked for the Spencer interview, to my mind, and NPR also did the same this summer with Inskeep’s interview with David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who was then running for U.S. Senate in Louisiana. The Duke interview drew similar criticisms, but I defended it, partly because I thought it was put into context well.

Jensen says no topic should be off limits for NPR, and she’s right. But the problem comes in NPR’s watered-down language and insistence on not appearing to take sides, even when racism is a “side.” Where is the point when an ethical news organization needs to make a stand against a repugnant idea?

The audience that’s objecting to providing a forum for racist ideas is afraid it assists in what Spencer told his flock was his main goal: making them mainstream ideas.