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Media coverage, counter-protests risk amplifying hate groups' messages

In this Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017 photo, James Alex Fields Jr., second from left, holds a black shield in Charlottesville, Va., where a white supremacist rally took place. Fields was later charged with second-degree murder and other counts after authorities say he plowed a car into a crowd of people protesting the white nationalist rally. (Alan Goffinski via AP)

One month before the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Saturday, 30 to 50 Ku Klux Klan members gathered downtown to march against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from a city park.

At the time, Mayor Mike Signer urged residents and activists “not to take the bait - to deny the KKK the confrontation and celebrity they desire.”

Despite that plea, about 1,000 counter-protesters showed up. Some of them tried to prevent the Klan members from leaving, leading to tense confrontations with police. By the end of the day, 23 people had been arrested and the KKK had received far more attention than a few dozen guys marching through a park otherwise would have.

This Saturday’s rally was much larger, and it inspired an even larger backlash. The protest and counter-protest collided early and escalated rapidly to the point where Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency.

The end result of the event was the death of one woman after an alt-rightist allegedly plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring dozens. Two state police officers also died in a helicopter crash related to the protest.

A similar “White Lives Matter” rally headlined by Richard Spencer has been announced at Texas A&M University scheduled for September 11 and will likely inspire aggressive resistance.

“Giving all this attention to these guys only encourages them even more,” said Don Irvine, chairman of Accuracy in Media, a conservative watchdog group.

According to Irvine, the focus on the activities of these extreme groups is far out of proportion to the level of influence they actually have in the conservative movement. They thrive on the press coverage and the anger of liberal counter-protesters.

“You give them this spotlight, they’re going to take advantage of it,” he said.

For the media covering alt-right protests and liberals who want to stand up against them, events like the Unite the Right rally pose a significant challenge: what is the right amount of attention to give them? Devoting outsized coverage and outrage to their actions can elevate them beyond the fringe groups they truly are, but minimizing their influence could also prove dangerous in the long run.

“I think more important than the volume of attention paid to white nationalist groups is the depth of the attention that we pay to them,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“The fact of the matter is euro-nationalism and white nationalism has now coalesced into an autonomous socio-political force, and if we are going to combat the egregious harm that this bigotry promotes, we have to expose it for what it is beyond the sugarcoating of prejudice that the movement’s leaders sometimes try to project,” he said.sugarcoating of prejudice that the movement’s leaders sometimes try to project,” he said.

While the threat should not be exaggerated, it is one Levin sees growing on social media and on the streets. His center has tracked an increase in hate crimes in many major cities since the election and he believes there has been a bigger spike in “hateful incivility” in public and online.

“Most of these groups are very small, but their danger is in their galvanization as a movement which enables them to retransmit conspiracy theories and prejudice into the mainstream,” he said.

In a recent New Republic article, Bob Moser warned that angry liberals were giving marginalized white supremacists what they want by taking to the streets against them, sometimes violently.

“We’re getting played. And the alt-right, which has all the momentum and currency that the Klan sorely lacks, understands this well,” Moser wrote. “Every day, they’re scripting new episodes of American Hate Theater, and the left is dutifully playing its supporting role.”

Portraying his side as the victims, white nationalist Matthew Heimbach addressed the media outside the courthouse where James Fields, the alleged driver of the car that killed a counter-protester, was making his first court appearance Monday.

(WARNING: Video contains profanity)

“The nationalist community came to Charlottesville to defend our heritage, to stand for our beliefs, and to bring our movement together,” Heimbach said. “The left were the ones who were bringing flamethrowers, trying to burn us, chanting to kill us, stabbing us, throwing bleach in our eyes.”

A few counter-protesters were arrested for alleged violent acts Saturday, and similar protests have devolved into bloody chaos in other cities. Liberal activists have generally resisted the argument that they can or should stand down in the face of extremism because racists feel empowered by their fury or because a handful of antifa marchers might show up and start throwing things.

“I believe that if you just stay silent, nothing gets done,” counter-protester Precious Williams told WVTF during the Charlottesville KKK rally in July.

The media cannot ignore these alt-right events either, especially when clashes with counter-protesters are a possibility. Journalists can cover them more responsibly, though.

Following Saturday’s violence, Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute offered advice for reporting on hate groups and violent protests.

“This is not a time to sanitize the cost of hate, and it is not a time to glorify hate groups by giving them the notoriety they seek,” they wrote.

Their recommendations emphasized specificity and precision in language and images, especially when it comes to the groups marchers represent and the views they espouse. They also suggested contextualizing events, both historically and politically.

“Be wary of subjective adjectives and unclear labels, like far-right or alt-right,” they said. “Instead, describe what protesters were doing, what they were saying and what they were demanding.”

There is also a risk of false equivalency between racists and those who oppose them, according to Nikki Usher, an associate professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and author of “Making News at The New York Times.”

“It concerns me when there is too much validation given to the concerns of hate groups or white nationalists or people who are really undermining the fabric of American democracy,” she said.

Protests are natural flashpoints in an important national story about the rise of white nationalist groups, but Usher cautioned against over-the-top coverage that unintentionally glorifies them.

“I do think there’s a question of when does the story end,” she said. “Does this story deserve ten million hot takes…or is it something that just needs to be mentioned and noted and we all move on?”

In Charlottesville, the mainstream media coverage has generally been responsible, according to Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Beginning with reports on the hundreds of torch-bearing alt-rightists marching around the University of Virginia on Friday night, the situation grew increasingly intense and violent, and the reporting reflected that.

“As the violence intensified, the coverage intensified, and that’s what you would expect,” she said.

White nationalists often hold their rallies in cities with large liberal populations that essentially guarantee a public pushback that raises the profile of their event. While it is important to keep in mind that the organizers of these events are looking for attention, Culver said it would be a mistake to ignore them just to avoid giving them what they want.

“One of the things we need to consider in journalism is how to minimize harm,” she said, pointing to the care news outlets typically exercise in reporting on terrorist propaganda videos.

Something the media struggles with, according to Culver, is “how to cover something that is clearly present in our culture right now and disturbing to many people without extending its reach.”

For example, networks did not cover a press conference by Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler live on Sunday, but they did cover the chaos that ensued when he was punched and chased away by an angry crowd.

Irvine suggested that the intense interest in alt-right protests is part of a “lefty scheme” to link President Trump to extremists, but Culver is unconvinced of that motivation.

“I just don’t see any evidence that this is some liberal media campaign to try to tie them to Donald Trump,” she said, noting that many of these groups publicly and proudly express their support for the president.

These events became more newsworthy because white nationalist themes that emerged during the 2016 presidential campaign, often in relation to things Trump did or said, changed the way they are viewed.

“If this exact thing had happened three, five, ten years ago, I don’t know if it would be the same cultural context,” Culver said.

According to Levin, these groups have become emboldened in the last two years, with more large rallies in that time than in the fifteen years before that.

“What we are now seeing is broad gatherings of a who’s who of nefarious bigots across a spectrum of organizations rallying around wedge issues, whether it’s immigration, criminal justice reform, or anti-Muslim prejudice,” he said. “But I think it’s significant here, because of an expansive political polarization and widespread distrust not only at different groups but at unifying institutions, we are now facing a crisis of civic cohesion which the president has been exacerbating rather than healing.”

Trump has been criticized for his initial response to the violence, a vague statement that pointed fingers at “many sides.” He offered a more specific denunciation of white supremacists and racists Monday, but that came too late in the eyes of many of the president’s critics.

Culver advised that journalists look at future white nationalist protests more as part of a broader trend than as individual events and consider them in context with each other and whatever other events are occurring at the same time.

“Think about why we give space and time to the things we give space and time to,” she said. “It should be an ongoing, near-constant reflection.”

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