The Washington Post published a story last week about Derek Black, who grew up learning to hate other races and religions. His father, Don Black, founded the white nationalist website Stormfront, and Derek became a leader for his family’s cause. Then he went to college, and everything changed.
Reporter Eli Saslow tells Derek’s story with an empathetic eye. We spoke to Saslow about this piece by phone on Thursday. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Talk about the seed of the story. How did you come to profile Derek Black? What did you know of Stormfront, the white nationalist website founded by Derek’s father?
This story took a while to bring to fruition. I started paying attention to Stormfront after the Dylann Roof incident in Charleston. At the time, there were rumors of his connection to Stormfront that were being investigated. I started reading the site. That’s when I came across Derek Black, in particular the threads written by his father. I thought, this is a great story.
This is the story of a man who was carefully indoctrinated into white supremacy from his boyhood. He was a rising star, set to be its next leader. But then he walked away from it all. In other words, this is hardly a subject who wants to be in the limelight. How did you approach Derek Black to get him on the record?
It took a while to find Derek, because he made himself hard to find. I reached him about a year ago, and he said he wasn’t ready to talk. Then as the election cycle continued and things got more grim, I kept thinking about him. Nine months later I got back in touch, and he said he was also feeling implicated in the national moment. He still wasn’t certain he wanted to talk and so we talked on the phone many times. He needed to time to think about whether he was ready or not to do it. By August he was ready to talk.
Walk us through what those conversations were like.
My stories involve so much time with people. At the front end I want them to understand how much time it will take, otherwise it can cause all kinds of problems. It’s a lot to ask a person. You can say I am going to do everything the right way and do justice to a story. But Derek hadn’t talked about what had happened to anyone. He had to think about it a lot. He asked to read previous stories I had written. We talked off the record for a while. Then he said he was ready to do it.
The first trip I had three days with him. Then I went to visit his dad in Florida. I flew straight from Florida back to the Midwest and spent another two days with him.
Your stories have a strong narrative style, almost novelistic. Talk about why you employ that technique.
For this story especially I wanted to write a narrative driven by scene and dialogue. It was important to me that the story exist in the moment. I wanted to limit the number of quotes. I wanted the reader to get lost in the story.
There was also a ton of great documentation. The conversations that had taken place on message boards like Stormfront. Then there was Derek’s radio show. I found hundreds of hours of archives and spent way more time listening to Stormfront radio than I would have liked.
Derek and several of his friends were incredibly generous about sharing emails from that time in which I could bury myself. Then I thought about the national implications of what’s been happening with Donald Trump and everyone else. The timing for this story was good planning and a bit of luck.
These are men who personify hate and racism. And yet in your story they come across as sympathetic. How did you do that?
I try to do that with every story I write. I try to be not only thorough but also empathetic. In this case it was more challenging. The people at the center of the story, a lot of readers were liable to dismiss and hate. I was constantly reminding myself, especially with Don Black and [former Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke, to try my best to give humanity to them that they had not given to others. Just because they had said awful things didn’t mean that I could not treat them with respect.
Are there other pieces of journalism you turn to for inspiration? Was there one in particular you looked at before writing this piece?
First thing I’d say, this piece felt different for me. Often the type of reporting I do is heavily observed. It’s what I’ve seen and heard. I disappear into someone’s life and watch things play out. In this case I hadn’t seen anything firsthand. There was much more recreation in this story than in many stories I work on. Really, my goal it to get people comfortable enough so I can disappear into the wallpaper and watch.
I am always trying to find ways to do these stories faster. But there’s no shortcut to get people to trust you. Eli Saslow
The biggest thing about my writing process and the thing about all my stories is I have a great editor, David Finkel. He’s a close friend who I’ve been working with for seven or eight years. He is a master of these types of stories. He has one one of those MacArthur Genius award winners. To have an actual genius, well, an alleged genius by the MacArthur foundation, to have him be the first one reading my story … on every story it’s a collaboration. I talk to him about what I am seeing and we talk about structure. And that is a huge help.
I feel super lucky. I get the luxury to take a lot of time. I am always trying to find ways to do these stories faster. But there’s no shortcut to get people to trust you. The best way to do stories is to wait and spend time. Sometimes it takes five days to get to two hours of the interview you need. I am so lucky to have a job where I have the time to do that.
How did you get Derek’s father on the record?
Derek and Don would both describe their relationship as distant, more distant than before. But both are trying to find a way forward in their new relationship where they are on opposite ideological sides. Being on opposite ideological sides, especially to Don, it’s not just that you don’t agree, but you’re enemies. It’s hard for them to find their way across that divide. I knew if Don didn’t agree to talk to me, I’d be OK. Don had been constantly posting on this. I’d still have perspective. Don, once he knew Derek was going to take part, his initial concern was, don’t expose him. But once he knew Derek was taking part he didn’t want it to be a one-sided story. He wanted his part of it to be out there.
Don is used to being public. He runs a message board for 300,000 people that he posts on all the time. He is less reticent. What was new for Don ― he is used to being an archetype for hate ― was that my conversations with him were more personal. They were about something more intimate. Many people have said Don feels human in the piece. And I think that might be weird for Don. He’s not used to being made vulnerable. He is used to being an archetype for hate and racism. Being vulnerable is a different experience for him.
What kind of response has the story received so far?
It’s amazing how many people have said how hopeful this story has made them feel. I didn’t anticipate that reaction. We are having a national moment where everything is so dark. The idea that empathy and interpersonal relationship can actually change someone ... I think that’s what surprised readers.
Want to know more? Read the piece.
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