On Saturday, The New York Times published an unnervingly innocuous feature on a newly married neo-Nazi couple—quaintly titled, “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland.” Rendering Tony and Maria Hovater as just your average “Nazis next door,” the feature was immediately criticized for not only normalizing their beliefs, but also for providing an inadequate assessment of how their extreme beliefs developed.
Marc Lacey, national editor at The Times, responded to the overwhelming criticism of the piece on Sunday. His response, however, was almost as inadequate as the story itself. Lacey explained in detail how the story came about (“Who were those people?” He asked of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville) but he failed to answer the profile’s most resounding critique: What more do we need to know about Tony, Maria, and “those people,” beyond that they are neo-Nazis?
If the story’s goal was to “shed more light” on America’s extreme fringes and “the people who inhabit them” as Lacey posited, then it undoubtedly missed the mark. Richard Fausset, who wrote the story, admitted this himself in a companion story published on Saturday titled, “I Interviewed a White Nationalist and Fascist. What Was I Left With?”
Fausset noted that he hoped his interview with Tony Hovater would elicit some understanding into his compulsion toward “the furthest extremes of American political discourse.” A meal at Panera and a few strolls around his hometown, it seems, just wasn’t enough time to get those answers:
After I had filed an early version of the article, an editor at The Times told me he felt like the question had not been sufficiently addressed. So I went back to Mr. Hovater in search of answers. I still don’t think I really found them.
This is the “hole at the heart” of Fausset’s profile that Lacey should have confronted, but ultimately ignored. Instead, Lacey offered a predictably weak apology for offending readers rather than acknowledging an incomplete story—one that perhaps should have been shelved if the writer himself thought there was a gaping hole.
“We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers,” Lacey wrote. “We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story.”
Writing off criticism of the feature as a disagreement in storytelling is an offensive misdiagnosis. Rather than than accepting responsibility for the clear editorial failings that produced this fatally flawed profile, The Times seems be blaming the reader for objecting to an unoriginal and unnecessary analysis.