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A New York Times profile of a self-described white supremacist sent the internet into such a blazing fury that the paper responded Sunday with a 706-word explanation.
Readers took issue with how the profile of Tony Hovater, an Ohio man described as the “Nazi sympathizer next door,” normalized his behavior. The piece leads with his wedding plans, mentions his love for Seinfeld and Twin Peaks, and includes a picture of him grocery shopping.
Written by national editor Marc Lacey, the response published in the Times’ Reader Center addressed this critique and others.
“We understand that some readers wanted more pushback, and we hear that loud and clear,” Lacey wrote, adding later: “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.”
The NYT hadn’t intended to sanitize white supremacy, but rather show that extremists live among Americans, Lacey wrote. The profile was originally published online with the headline “In America’s Heartland, the Nazi Sympathizer Next Door.” It was later changed to “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland” and remained that way as of publication of this post.
Lacey highlighted a complaint from a Twitter user whose bio reads “registered nurse, mother, grandmother” that sums up the overall backlash.
According to Lacey, the story was pitched following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. The writer Richard Fausset, who published a behind-the-scenes look of his reporting timed with the piece, was assigned the profile and spent time in Ohio meeting Hovater and writing dispatches in between other assignments.
Charlie Warzel, a reporter at BuzzFeed, suggested that the story should have been spiked in a tweet Saturday. He argued that one of the piece’s fatal flaws was its inability to draw out why Hovater sympathized with Nazis.
For Warzel, one reason for Hovater’s hateful ideology is the so-called alt-right’s growing grip on certain corners of the internet. The NYT profile only refers to the white nationalist movement’s online presence, and Hovater’s connection to it, once. Hovater mentions 4chan, an anonymous online message board that has become a gathering space for Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups, to the reporter at a Panera while they ate turkey sandwiches: “He talked about his presence on 4chan, the online message board and alt-right breeding ground (‘That’s where the scary memes come from,’ he deadpanned).”
In response to the NYT story, Warzel dug through Hovater’s social media profiles and interviewed him over Facebook messenger. Buzzfeed published his followup to the New York Times profile on Sunday titled “The New York Times Can’t Figure Out Where Nazis Come From In 2017. Pepe Has An Answer.”
Hovater claimed to Warzel that he hadn’t been radicalized by the internet. Still, Warzel points out numerous times where Hovater’s social media and internet use aligned with the alt-right community.
Warzel uncovered “references to Pepe the frog, alt-right comic Sam Hyde, [and] Infowars’ Alex Jones.” One of Hovater’s posts on Instagram was taken outside the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor, the home of the Pizzagate online conspiracy.
“Hovater posted the photo of himself sporting a knowing smile without comment,” Warzel wrote.