Covering Modern White Supremacy: A Conversation With Jesse Brenneman

Mar 12, 2018

On a recent episode of  WNYC’s show On The Media, Producer Jesse Brenneman, in partnership with The Guardian, looked at how journalists often struggle and fail while covering white supremacist groups. Brenneman, who’s from Kalispell, talked those challenges over with MTPR’s Flathead Valley Reporter Nicky Ouellet.

Nicky Ouellet: Hi Jesse, and thanks for chatting with MTPR.

Jesse Brenneman: Hey Nicky, thanks for having me.

NO: One of the questions posed early on in this episode is something we've actually been talking about a lot in our newsroom. That question is, how do you cover the rise of the so-called alt-right movement, or the more visibility of these white nationalist, white supremacy groups, without giving them a platform?

JB: I think that it is one of those things where there is going to be a contradiction or an unpleasant reality no matter whether you make the right choices or not. You will inevitably give a platform to a movement by covering it and sometimes that is just true. I mean, I don't think there's a way in every case where you can do the perfect coverage that doesn't reach somebody, somewhere who didn't hear about them and maybe they're interested in that. So I think part of it is living with that contradiction and the fact that you really have to weigh that. You know, you have to say, all right, by doing this someone, somewhere might learn about it who wouldn't have. So what am I really going to get out of this that I think is important for people to hear in spite of that? What can I do to move the ball further down the field? How am I building on the work that came before me, and realizing that your story isn't going to exist in a vacuum.

NO: That last part is interesting. Did you talk to journalists who had killed stories because they couldn't find a good reason to put it on the air?

JB: Yeah. What we heard from a woman named Elle Reeve, who is a reporter for Vice. They did a documentary on Charlottesville that is pretty well known and she interviewed a white supremacist for that documentary. That interview is in there, but she talks to us about how she cut certain things from the conversation because they didn't actually inform her understanding at all. You know, questions that she asked him and he was insulted by it and he got angry and he yelled at her. It was good theater. She said it was kind of exciting but it didn't actually teach her anything. It didn't actually tell her anything about him or about the movement. And so she cut that stuff from the interview. I think that's kind of a small scale example of someone who said, well, you know, everything I'm putting out there is something I'm introducing into the world and it better help us understand the world a little bit better.

NO: We bumped into that two winters ago when Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer was threatening an armed Nazi march on the town of Whitefish. We really struggled deciding how much of that story do we report and put on the air. Are we going to end up stoking fear more than just letting people know that this is happening? Are we are we playing into Anglin's game by giving him airtime? We really struggled with that.

JB: You have to take that into consideration because they are extremely Internet savvy and they do love the media. They don't necessarily love every story in the media but they have a real sense of, if I do this, I'm going to get coverage, and then, at the end of the day you know the people who agree with me are going to see me as having made the right enemies and it'll have been worth it in the end. It's really, really hard

NO: You grew up in Kalispell where a white nationalist group called Pioneer little Europe once wanted to make that Flathead Valley an Aryan homeland. How is a small region, like the Flathead Valley and the groups that are active here, how is that similar or different from the national level issues and the groups that you covered or bumped into for this episode?

JB: I guess it's hard for me to say, because it's always only a series of local stories. You know, this is always happening in someone's backyard and it's happening to the people who live there. They're the ones feeling the terror. And I think sometimes for the people who report these pieces or read about them it's very far away. But for people who live in these areas it's right there. They're the ones who are in fear. They're the ones who are being terrorized. They're the ones seeing the propaganda. So I think it was useful for me to have the Flathead Valley in my mind when I think about, you know, these are things that happen in places. I know people who have been intimidated by it, who go to my church in Kalispell. But I also know people in Kalispell who are fighting back against it. So it felt very personal for me. And I think that was useful going in and thinking about, you know, each of these is really a local story.

NO: We've been seeing more activity from groups that call themselves Patriots or they’re spin-offs from ACT for America, which calls itself a national security education group. But others call these kinds of groups, they say they engage in hate speech against Muslims. How should journalists cover groups like these, where the members see themselves one way that's not racially motivated, but others see them in a totally different light and do call them hate groups?

JB: I think what we need to get better at really generally is talking about, OK so call yourself what you want, but let's look at this thing that you're advocating for that would have this effect. You know that would have a demonstrable effect on this kind of person or this group of people or this community. And that's the thing worth reporting on. Something that Al Letson, the reporter from Reveal, said to us and our show is he always makes them break it down like he's a five year old. He really makes them walk through what that means. So you want to make America safe for white people? What would that look like? Specifically, how would it be safer? And as he says on our show, a lot of the times what these ideas break down to when you follow them to their conclusions is mass extermination or genocide or kicking people out of the country. These groups aren't going to say that and maybe some of them don't even believe that, in which case, you know, they might need to be informed of that. But they're not going to bring that up. They're going to say they just have this really benign cause. You have to really ask them to walk you through what that actually looks like, what that actually means to achieve that goal. And I don't want to say that all these people have the same goal, but I think as reporters, it's our job to actually get them to break it down for us and not just say, oh you want to make America safe for white people. OK. Interesting, goodbye. No. What do you mean by that?

NO: Is it different for journalists who are covering daily local beats than it is for some of a lot of the journalists you spoke to, or for these national outlets that are sometimes parachuting into events? Do local, daily journalists need to be approaching these topics and these groups a little differently?

JB: I like to think that local journalists would be the best equipped to deal with these stories in many cases because they could ideally place it in the most valuable context, which is how this is playing out in a particular place. Nationally it's a story altogether, but it's being made up of these people in these communities who are being swayed for one reason or another. And on a national level, it's hard to get into what those are. I mean, the reason that somebody in Kalispell or in the Flathead Valley starts trolling for Stormfront might be very different than the reason that somebody in Ohio or New York State does. And I like to think that a local reporter who follows the beat of their community would be able to track those changes.

NO: You have answered this throughout but I just want to pose it once more. Why? Why even report on these groups if there's a fear that even reporting on them will radicalize people to join them? Why?

JB: It's such a hard question. And I think that if you're going to talk to them you better have a really good reason for doing it because you might help them. And so if you have something to really add, then I think you make that you make that choice. But I think that you have to also be comfortable saying I don't have to say something if there's nothing to say. I don't have to say something and if there is something to say, then I'm going to stand by that choice. I guess the only thing I can say, which is pretty vague, is that I think it's a good burden for journalists to feel, which is that everything I do may be perpetuating something and I need to be OK with that fact. If I'm going to be perpetuating something, I better feel pretty good about the reason that I'm doing it.

NO: Jesse Brenneman is a producer with WNYC’s On The Media. His recent episode, in partnership with Lois Beckett of The Guardian, called Face the Racist Nation, is available wherever you get your podcasts. Jesse, thanks so much for joining us.

JB: My pleasure.