NPR aired a segment on Friday morning featuring an interview with white supremacist and Unite the Right rally organizer Jason Kessler, drawing the ire of racial justice activists who say the media shouldn’t be giving racists a platform to spread their ideology at all.
Kessler is gearing up for a rally on Sunday in Washington, D.C., to mark the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a neo-Nazi allegedly drove his car into counter-protesters, killing one and injuring dozens. During his interview, he told NPR’s “Morning Edition” that white people are under attack in the U.S. and listed different racial and ethnic groups in order of supposed intelligence.
Other media outlets, including HuffPost, have spoken with white supremacists since Charlottesville, and have often struggled with how to cover an emboldened white supremacist movement without giving its vile ideas more oxygen.
In a message before the clip of Kessler’s interview, host Noel King warned: “Full disclosure: Some of what you’re about to hear is racist and offensive.”
King pressed Kessler on many points and questioned his proclaimed facts and intentions. (After Kessler listed races by IQ, King shot back that he “doesn’t sound like someone who wants to unite people.”)
But critics of NPR’s segment said it gave Kessler a platform that legitimized his racist ideology and set up a false equivalency between two “sides.”
“After the nearly 7-minute interview ended, NPR transitioned to an interview with a Black Lives Matter activist, a setup implying that white supremacists and people advocating for racial justice are two sides of the same coin,” ThinkProgress editor Aaron Rupar wrote in a column.
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, tweeted: “Media outlets should think long & hard before granting white supremacists a platform that can reach millions. This piece was not a general story quoting Kessler for a few seconds, among others ― it was a one-on-one interview. No experts, no debunking or exposure of mistruths.”
“Fascism uses the press to normalize itself and recruit followers and gain social power. The press is not a neutral player in history.”
Some groups, like Charlottesville Anti-Racist Media Liaisons, are pushing activists not to speak with any media outlets that include white supremacists in their stories. Formed in May 2017 in the aftermath of a smaller tiki torch rally in Charlottesville that was a precursor to the violence last August, the group is made up of volunteers and activists from anti-racist organizations in the city and frequently fields calls from reporters who are also interviewing extremists tied to Unite the Right.
Their answer to those outlets’ requests for interviews is always no.
“It’s a deep betrayal to the entire community of Charlottesville,” Mimi Arbeit, a representative of Charlottesville Anti-Racist Media Liaisons, told HuffPost recently. “Fascism uses the press to normalize itself and recruit followers and gain social power. The press is not a neutral player in history.”
The activists sometimes point to an Associated Press style guide on white nationalism and the alt-right that suggests providing context when writing about white supremacists like Kessler. A press release from last year by Showing Up for Racial Justice, an adjacent activist group in Charlottesville, reads:
Following the spirit of the AP style suggestions, Kessler’s full background should be explained in any reports: He is a white nationalist. To do otherwise is to normalize his fringe racism.
NPR defended the segment in a comment to HuffPost. “Interviewing the people in the news is part of NPR’s mission to inform the American public, it does not mean NPR is endorsing one view over another,” Isabel Lara, NPR’s senior director of media relations, said. “Our job is to present the facts and the voices that provide context on the day’s events, not to protect our audience from views that might offend them.”
King also defended the segment on Twitter after social media users expressed outrage that her outlet had given Kessler a platform. “Morning Edition is a notably diverse team who thought long and hard before airing this,” she wrote.
NPR public editor Elizabeth Jensen also tweeted that she had registered the complaints and would be addressing the segment in a column on Monday.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the day of the rally Kessler was preparing for as Saturday.