Needed: More NPR Journalism

Aug 10, 2018

Twitter lit up on Friday after NPR’s “Morning Edition” aired a 7-minute interview with Jason Kessler, organizer of the “Right to Unite” march planned for this weekend on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The march is being held on the one-year anniversary of a similar march in Charlottesville, Va., in which one protestor was mowed down by a white supremacist driver and two police officers died after a police helicopter crashed.

Kessler, under questioning by “Morning Edition’s” Noel King, was adamant that he had the right to hold the march. He asserted that the event was aimed at giving whites their First Amendment rights to speak, claiming they are often “underrepresented.“

“White people do the exact, same thing another group of people do and it’s called supremacy, but if the other group does it, it’s called civil rights,” Kessler said.

At one point, Kessler, prompted by King about his belief that there are differences among the racial groups, actually offered a ranking of the races.

To be sure, King pushed back at a couple points in the interview. She asked how Kessler’s First Amendment rights were under attack if he got a permit to march and why his petition for the permit included the names of known white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

That led Kessler to aver, “I have stated that I do not want neo-Nazis on my rallies. They are not welcome.”

On Twitter, many people protested the one-on-one interview format, although one said she thought Kessler was given “enough rope to hang himself.”

"Media outlets should think long and hard before granting white supremacists a platform that can reach millions. This piece was not a general story quoting Kessler for a few seconds,” tweeted Mark Pitcavage, an expert on right-wing extremism.“… No experts, no debunking or exposure of mistruths.”

“It’s not that the interview did not try to challenge Kessler. But even doing something like that in a 1-on-1 interview turns it into a defacto ‘debate’ in which there seem two equal sides, which always elevates the extremist,” added Pitcavage, who does research for the center on Extremism and the Anti-Defamation League.

“One can interview extremists, but usually should do it only as part of a complete story, in which quotes from them are placed in an appropriate factual contest, perhaps with help from experts.”

Added Michele McLellan, a long-time editor and media consultant: “Please do journalism @NPR. The haters already have plenty of ways to get their hate out unfiltered.”  

While some of NPR’s Twitter critics went so far as to accuse the public broadcaster of “journalistic malpractice,” I would urge a more nuanced critique. I think there were many missed journalistic opportunities that hopefully will be addressed in coming days. And it wasn’t enough for King to run a 3-minute segment from Black Lives Matter activist Hawk Newsome, partially responding to Kessler. That, too, was criticized for being too narrow of a response.

I, for one, would have welcomed some of what Adam Serwer offered up in “The Atlantic,” reporting that the year since the Charlottesville rally has been a difficult one for the organizers.

According to Serwer’s report, Kessler faces a lawsuit that could force him to name his funders and ideological comrades. Christopher Cantwell, the tough guy featured in the Vice documentary, has turned state’s evidence. Others have been banned from Twitter or other online outlets, and still more have been arrested for or pleaded guilty to other assaults.

NPR stood by the “Morning Edition” interview. According to its statement reported in

“Interviewing the people in the news is part of NPR’s mission to inform the American public, it does not mean NPR is endorsing one view over another,” the statement read. “Our job is to present the facts and the voices that provide context on the day’s events, not to protect our audience from views that might offend them.”