We cannot afford for our daily newspaper to play any role, however inadvertent, in the creeping normalization of violent extremist ideology.
By Ryan McGreal
Published September 04, 2019
For reasons that are unfathomable to me, the good folks at the Hamilton Spectator decided to launch their new print format yesterday with a front-page, above-the-fold opinion column that interviewed one of Canada's most notorious white supremacists - and referred to him in the headline as an "activist".
Detail from Hamilton Spectator front cover on September 3, 2019
I don't understand any of it.
I don't understand why an opinion columnist is writing a front-page article. I thought the front page was for straight news and the opinion pieces were supposed to be on the op-ed page and that news and opinion were supposed to be kept separate.
I don't understand why anyone thought the opinions of a lifelong white supremacist and perennial fringe candidate are newsworthy. Interviewing him just gives him a platform to expand and normalize his hateful, extremist ideology into the mainstream.
And I certainly don't understand why anyone decided that the most accurate way to refer to him in the headline was to label him an "activist".
To be quite clear, we're talking about a lifelong white supremacist and Holocaust denier who advocates expelling non-white immigrants, has celebrated Hitler's birthday, hosted a program on Stormfront, spoke at Ku Klux Klan events, associated with Neo-Nazis Wolfgang Droege, Ernst Zundel and David Irving, was decertified as a teacher for his extremism and was banned from speaking in the Canadian Parliament in order "to preserve the dignity and integrity of the House".
This is the guy whose opinions the Spectator decided were so important that it warranted an opinion columnist interviewing him, putting the interview on the front page above the fold - and then referring to him as merely an "activist" in the headline.
If the Spec wanted to stop short of calling him a Neo-Nazi - even though the label arguably fits - they could have referred to him as an "extremist" or a "white supremacist" or even used his own preferred euphemism, "white nationalist".
But calling him an "activist" is an indefensible slap in the face to every person who spends time and energy working in the public realm to bring about social and political change, as well as a real disservice to the Spec's readers, who deserve clear, accurate information.
I understand that headlines are limited for space. That is precisely why the selection of words that goes into a headline needs to emphasize the most important and salient facts of the story. The most important thing about this man is not that he is an "activist" but that he is a far-right extremist.
I also understand the journalistic imperative to avoid "taking sides" in a story. Reporters try hard to remain neutral about public conflicts, and that means they try to avoid using terms that have a negative connotation. But here's the thing: every accurate term we have to refer to white supremacists has a negative connotation because white supremacism is an objectively hideous ideology.
Whenever a newspaper avoids using an accurate term to describe a hateful extremist, that neutrality bias has the effect of misinforming readers by lending unearned normalcy and legitimacy to the extremist.
It is a variant of the false balance media bias that gives equal weight to opposing sides in a debate when the evidence strongly favours one side over the other. (We see the effects of this bias in, for example, the lopsided coverage given to the global warming debate, in which a small contingent of bad actors funded by the fossil fuel industry receive the same amount of coverage as the overwhelming global climate science consensus.)
To be fair, on September 4, 2019, the Spectator issued a "clarification" on the previous day's headline. See if you can spot it:
Hamilton Spectator page A2 on September 4, 2019
Not quite as prominent as yesterday's blaring front-page headline, and likely to be missed by most readers. Here is the text of the "clarification" buried in small type at the bottom right corner of the second page:
A headline Tuesday that referred to Paul Fromm as simply an activist should also have noted that he is a white nationalist. The Spectator regrets the omission.
It's better than nothing, I guess, but this still falls considerably short of acknowledging just how badly the story went wrong. I certainly jumped on the use of "activist" in the headline, in part because it seems to follow a pattern of minimizing language about white supremacists, but there are deeper questions. Why is an opinion column leading the front page in a newspaper? And why were the subject's opinions considered to be newsworthy in the first place?
During this time of global political instability, rising right-wing extremism and wobbling civic institutions around the world and right here in Hamilton, it is beyond reckless to platform, let alone sanitize, this man's lifelong efforts to turn Canada into a white ethnostate.
We simply cannot afford for the Spectator to play any role, however inadvertent, in the creeping normalization of violent extremist ideology.
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