The profile, written by Times reporter Richard Fausset and published Saturday, follows Tony Hovater, a 29-year-old welder from a Dayton suburb, and his path from a “vaguely leftist rock musician” to a Nazi sympathizer and “avowed white nationalist.”
Some readers thought Fausset’s profile wasn’t critical enough of Hovater’s views on race (Hovater believes races should be separated), his admiration for Adolf Hitler (Hovater described Hitler as “kind of chill” and thinks the Holocaust’s death total estimates are “overblown”) and his role in starting the extreme right-wing Traditionalist Worker Party, a group that marched at the white supremacy rally this summer in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Fausset appears to use the newlywed’s seemingly normal life to show just how easy it is for an average American such as Hovater to adopt such radical and hateful views.
Instead, many saw the profile as an attempt to normalize Hovater’s white nationalist views, fascism and the neo-Nazi movement.
Bess Kalb, a writer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” especially took issue with Fausset’s insistence that Hovater is polite. For example, in the same sentence that Fausset describes Hovater as a Nazi sympathizer, he immediately calls him “polite and low-key.” When writing of Hovater as a self-described “social media villain” who occasionally appears on alt-right podcasts, Fausset adds that “his Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother.”
Even the profile’s title suggests that Hovater is a charming character, despite his views on race and white supremacy: “In America’s Heartland, the Nazi Sympathizer Next Door.”
There is a problem with making a man who believes that races should be separated seem likable. It suggests that Hovater’s politeness and all-American love for “Seinfeld” can make his hateful views more tolerable.
Many took to Twitter to remind the Times that being a self-described Nazi sympathizer isn’t as harmless as the profile made it seem.
For his part, Fausset said he believes his profile on Hovater was fundamentally flawed and tried to address that in a column following the story.
Fausset acknowledged that his profile didn’t answer the question he originally set out to answer: How did an “intelligent, socially adroit and raised middle class” 29-year-old man become a white nationalist?
I beat myself up about all of this for a while, until I decided that the unfilled hole would have to serve as both feature and defect. What I had were quotidian details, though to be honest, I’m not even sure what these add up to. Like other committed extremists I have known, Mr. Hovater had little time for a life beyond his full-time job and his line of activism. When he is not doing those things, he likes to be at home with his girlfriend (now his wife) and their cats.
The follow-up column, however, still failed to address the inherently problematic nature of Hovater’s political views.
Many saw the profile as following a wider pattern in the Times’ coverage of race — another reason why, they argued, the paper needs to hire more minorities in high-ranking editorial positions.
HuffPost has reached out to the Times and Fausset for comment on the profile’s backlash.
UPDATE: Nov. 28. ― In a follow-up column published Sunday, Times national editor Marc Lacey said the publication regrets that some readers found the profile offensive, but maintained that the paper did not intend to “normalize anything.”
The profile was an attempt “to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think,” Lacey wrote.
He also acknowledged that readers wanted Richard Fausset, the author of the piece, to challenge and provide more context to the hateful views of profile subject Tony Hovater and members of the far right.
“We understand that some readers wanted more pushback, and we hear that loud and clear,” Lacey wrote.
However, the Times editor defended the paper’s decision to profile Hovater, whom Lacey said was of a similar age and background as the white nationalist suspected of running over protesters and killing Heather Heyer at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.