Journalists Don’t Know How to Cover White Supremacy And That Does Not Bode Well For, Well, Anything

This week, several reporters tweeted out stories of the trucker convoy's kindness and/or decency. Here's why that's a problem.

logo

Stacy Lee Kong

Feb 25 2022

12 mins read

0

Image: Shutterstock

‎Today’s newsletter is brought to you by two different social media conversations. First, the brilliant @oncanadaproject published a great post earlier this week about a narrative that I’ve been seeing, too. “There are people (in our comments, our DMs) who believe that ‘we need to stop talking about racism and start talking about how we can heal a country that up until now was completely peaceful,’” the post said (emphasis theirs), before going on to explain that actually, white supremacy has been baked into Canadian society since colonizers first arrived here, and that truly ‘healing’ Canada requires grappling with that hard truth.

Then, I saw several journalists covering the trucker convoy post what were essentially mini-profiles of convoy members to their social media feeds. Whether they were video interviews or long threads, these ‘profiles’ were ostensibly intended to shed light on the occupiers’ motivations, I guess, but really, they emphasized the subjects’ relatability more than anything else.

These two conversations feel connected to me; they are both rooted in the impulse to uphold the illusion that we are a utopian foil to America’s racism and maintain the harmful systems that prove we are not. They also illuminate a deep flaw in Canadian journalism: too many of us don’t know how to cover white supremacy.

When journalists cover occupiers’ kindness, it evokes empathy without acknowledging their movement’s inherent harm

I have three examples, which, as I’m sure you know, makes a trend. But first, a disclaimer: I’m not trying to single people out because I think they're bad journalists or that they published these posts maliciously—but I do want to unpack these seemingly ordinary posts and explain how they play into a larger problem.

On Saturday, CBC investigative journalist Judy Trinh posted a long thread of photos and videos from the remnants of the Coventry Road supply camp, which Buzzfeed described as the “nerve centre” for the convoy. Among the tweets about the camp being dismantled, trucks moving out and the sole remaining sauna, Trinh posted a video interview with “an electrician who volunteered his time to wire the dining tent to ensure it didn’t violate any fire codes.” In a second clip, we learn that his name is Martin, and he considered the supply camp his ‘job site.’ He got a permit, he says, and the site passed inspections from the Electrical Safety Authority and fire department.

‎My initial reaction to that tweet was basically… lmao what? I don’t understand why a journalist would publish the claim that an illegal occupation was “up to code” and granted a permit without fact-checking that, or, at the very least, making it clear that this was an unconfirmed assertion. Also: is it perhaps a little ironic that this story positions Martin as a responsible, rule-following citizen who cares about fire safety when some of his convoy brethren allegedly tried to burn an apartment building down after taping the front door closed?

Next, Kiavash Najafi posted a long thread about Jake from Saskatoon on Sunday. Najafi isn’t a journalist—he’s the director of policy and communications at the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada—but I saw his post because a few journalists and former journalists retweeted it, so I think it makes sense to consider it alongside my other examples.

‎Jake is a dad and a grandpa who, according to Najafi, seems to be a “decent person” that “worked hard his whole life.” Najafi goes on to imply that Jake’s grievances are legit, or at least understandable. What’s more, we are clearly meant to feel sorry for someone who trusts the leaders of the convoy implicitly and undeservedly.  

Lastly, another CBC reporter, Ashley Burke, posted on Wednesday about Tyson Gareau, “a demonstrator… wearing a ‘defund the CBC’ hat” who pulled her van from a ditch near the Arnprior camp because “he’d never leave anyone stuck like that.” 

These aren’t actually heartwarming stories

I’m sure you already see the common thread in all of these posts, but let’s just say it to be clear: they all inadvertently position people who opted to take part in a white supremacist movement that was largely organized by neo-Nazis (something that was clear from the very beginning) as law-abiding and kind Canadians who were misguided or maybe even hoodwinked by the 'real' bad guys. Martin got a permit! He made sure there were fire extinguishers! Jake’s a grandpa who’s being conned! Tyson would never leave a fellow Canadian stranded! The message is clear: these people look out for other people, they have compassion… they might say and do things we disagree with, but underneath it all, they’re good folks. The thing is, even if you buy into the idea that these people weren’t actively trying to engage in white supremacy (which, as we’ve discussed, is not a very convincing argument), it’s clear that they decided white supremacy wasn’t enough of a reason to stay home, just like the Trump voters who decided his bigotry wasn’t a good enough reason to rescind their support. That’s not what innocence looks like. Also, Jake explicitly states that the truckers will “take it one step at a time and if she gets real ugly, we’ll have to make some sort of plan of attack,” which doesn't sound like a metaphor when it comes from someone who explicitly wants to overthrow the government.

The impulse to focus on the convoy members’ presumed innocence is kind of weird and problematic on its own, but it becomes a much bigger problem when you take into account public reaction. Because when I tell you that people ate these posts up. One Twitter user thanked Burke for “humanizing people involved in the convoy” because “really seeing each other is our only way to move forward,” while the quote-tweets of Najafi’s post were full of people calling for compassion and empathy towards “misguided” protestors like Jake. (Though, to be fair, there were also people asking where all that compassion and empathy was when it was Black or Indigenous protestors whose causes are actually righteous.) This is obviously not scientific, but judging by the replies to these tweets—which mirror those happening on @oncanadaproject’s page—there’s a real desire among (mostly white) Canadians to think of racism as a recent anomaly that we can get past, which reduces the real, systemic, long-standing racism in this country to happenstance.

‎That’s the whole problem with posts like these; they classify the average convoy member as an unwitting member of a far-right grift, which allows Canadians to pretend that a) the convoy wasn’t an escalation in existing white supremacist activities, and b) Canada is not a white supremacist state built through the subjugation of Black, Indigenous and other racialized people and maintained through their continued oppression. 

This approach also, for the record, requires us to forget a major rallying cry of the past eight years: When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. When journalists tell us convoy members are protesting because they don’t feel listened to, what does that mean? What institutions do they feel are not representing them, and are we sure this is legitimate and borne out by data? Or, are these the feelings of a cultural majority who feel like they're losing something when more people from different backgrounds finally have a voice?

Humanizing white supremacists and those who stand with them only normalizes white supremacy

I am pretty sure I understand what’s behind these posts and others like them, and it’s not necessarily that these journalists are trying to spread white supremacy. It’s more that they are buying into a vaunted but often abused idea in journalism: impartiality. So many of us learned that good reporters are unbiased, which means they tell both sides of the story—a belief that inevitably leads to false equivalences where all viewpoints are treated as equally legitimate, even when one is obviously wrong. Until very recently, it was standard practice to discourage racialized journalists from covering their own communities because they were ‘biased.’ But this doesn't make us objective; it requires us to approach journalism from a white perspective, even if we are not white ourselves. That’s how we end up softening the harmful effects of racism and excusing those who espouse white supremacy—not to mention all the violence, occupying the nation’s capital and conspiring to carry out a coup. ‎

This is definitely not the first time Canadian media has given a platform to white supremacists, but it's particularly frustrating this time because we’ve recently seen how it goes when media allows white supremacists the opportunity to prove their normalcy. I mean… America is right there. In the years surrounding Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, major news outlets paid outsize attention to a particular segment of Trump voters: the rural, white working class. It felt like every newspaper sent a reporter to some diner in Kansas to find out why they felt so disillusioned, why they voted against their interests, why they continued supporting him, even as he said increasingly disgusting things. Yet, there was little to no coverage of the bulk of his supporters: “the same old professional, petty bourgeois, and ultra-wealthy capitalists who have been voting Republican for generations,” as The Week put it in 2017.

Similarly, there was a time when you couldn’t pick up an issue of an iconic journalistic institution without finding a glowing profile of an admitted white supremacist that often focused on how ~totally normal~ these Nazis were. In 2017, Current Affairs critiqued a New York Times profile of Ohio white supremacist Tony Hovater by explaining how it was, “filled with little details intended to show Hovater’s normalcy: he may quote Hitler and believe in Aryanizing the United States, but he watches Twin Peaks and Seinfeld and his Target wedding registry asked for ‘a muffin pan, a four-drawer dresser and a pineapple slicer.’” The overall tone of the piece was soft, writer Nathan J. Robinson argued, which allowed his ‘family man in the American heartland’ persona to overshadow some perhaps more salient facts, like how he started a white nationalist group that advocates for racial purity and blames Jewish people for the world’s problems. “The Times writer seemed to want to make a point about the ‘banality of evil,’ but without actually dwelling much on the evil,” Robinson concluded.

‎White supremacy isn’t going anywhere—so we need to learn how to talk about it

This is how white supremacy and other extremist viewpoints become mainstream, btw. As American Progress explained in 2020, “old-fashioned racist and xenophobic appeals are unlikely to be politically successful beyond a small fringe, so the propagandists of racism have had to develop subtler approaches to stoking fear and hatred for political ends. To do so, they have repackaged racist traditions in language and forms that could more easily enter mainstream political discourse.” And what did the most prestigious news outlet in America do? It underestimated them and in fact, invited them into public discourse. There were real consequences of those decisions, including the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. There were tons of factors that contributed to that insurrection, of course, but media was absolutely part of the normalization process that allowed it to happen. (Not to mention, some factions of media actively encouraged it.)

These Twitter posts show that Canadian journalists can—and do—fall into the same trap. The fact is, we’re just not very good at covering white supremacy. We cover their events and ideas, often quoting them about their “rallies and staged controversies,” when we should be “taking a stance of strategic silence,” according to The Journalist’s Resource. We soften our language, saying ‘white nationalist’ instead of ‘white supremacists,’ even though that plays into their hands. “According to “the terms ‘alt-right’ and ‘white nationalism’ are used to ‘soften rhetoric about white power and white supremacy.’ Both are part of what [Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy] calls the ‘re-branding’ of white supremacy. Some journalists accepted and began using the new terminology without questioning it.” In short: we often give them the notoriety that they want, on their terms.

If these threads were meant to demonstrate the banality—and prevalence—of racism in this country, that would be one thing. But consciously or not, they actually distract from the hardest truth: white supremacist groups aren’t some weird outliers. They’ve been here for a long time, they're growing and the trucker convoy will not be the last time we hear from them. If we truly want to build a fairer society, we have to admit that to ourselves, and our audiences.


And Did You Hear About… 

This Toronto Star article from earlier this month about the balaclavas fashion trend, and what Muslim women think about it.

How DeuxMoi changed dining in NYC.

These two thoughtful Twitter threads: First, emergency physician Graham Walker’s thread explaining Joe Rogan’s “adolescent contradiction,” complete with video clips and transcript screenshots. Second, Leona Neelam Maple’s nuanced thread on digital blackface.

Harper’s Bazaar’s conversation with the two actors behind Hilary Banks—Fresh Prince’s Karyn Parsons and Bel-Air’s Coco Jones.

Journalist Jane Lytvynenko’s powerful essay on how the Reuters livestream of Kyiv’s Maidan Square helped her cope while waiting for Russia’s inevitable invasion of her homeland.

Bonus: This epic housesitting story.

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter