In December 2018, The New York Times published an infamous interview with celebrated author Alice Walker. In it, she recommended an unhinged anti-Semitic book by prominent conspiracy theorist David Icke. Among other exploits, the book Walker called “a curious person’s dream come true” cited The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, claimed that the Jews bankrolled their own Holocaust, and asserted that Jewish organizations control the KKK.
As I reported at the time, Walker’s anti-Semitism predated this ill-fated interview with the Times, which should have known better than to give her an uncritical platform. She had been promoting Icke’s work on her website for years, and had even published a cartoonishly anti-Semitic poem titled, “It Is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud,” where she blamed the world’s ills on the ancient Aramaic compendium, which she claimed to have learned about from YouTube.
This past week, YouTube and Facebook banned Walker’s anti-Semitic guru Icke from their platforms, after he claimed that the coronavirus was created by the Jewish Rothschild banking dynasty and that Israel was using the pandemic to “test its technology.”
Also this week, Alice Walker was given another uncritical platform at a premier outlet which proffered no mention or questions about her anti-Semitic history. That outlet? A popular New York Times podcast.
For Wednesday’s episode of Sugar Calling, Walker was interviewed about her life under lockdown by host and author Cheryl Strayed. Remarkably, in her questions, Strayed quoted verbatim from the very Times interview where Walker promoted David Icke, asking her about the “kinship” with Jane Eyre she’d expressed there, but not about the anti-Semitism she’d voiced.
If it seems unbelievable that the Times would knowingly repeat its mistake of feting Walker without foregrounding her bigotry, that’s because it is: The episode was made in error, not malice. When I raised the issue with Strayed and detailed Walker’s prejudicial past to her, she was shocked and explained that neither she nor her producers were aware of the author’s anti-Semitic backstory. “I had no idea and neither did the producers who make the show,” she said. “You’re correct that I read that interview and asked her about Jane Eyre, but I didn’t know anything about the Icke book until yesterday. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have asked Alice Walker to be on the show.” Saying she was “mortified,” Strayed promptly deleted her posts promoting the episode on social media. It was a rare expression of genuine contrition and accountability that is all too rare in my experience reporting on these matters.
The problem here is not Cheryl Strayed, who responded admirably to a difficult situation. The problem is The New York Times, which in 2018 did not respond admirably to the same situation, and left their original interview with Walker untouched, with no annotations to indicate to subsequent readers that Walker was promoting anti-Semitism in it.
At the time, after it became a national scandal, the Times book editor did not apologize and told reporters that in such an interview, “we would never add that a book is factually inaccurate, or that the author is a serial predator, or any kind of judgment on the work or the writer. We do not issue a verdict on people’s opinions.” Asked if “in retrospect, would you have done anything differently with the column by Ms. Walker?” the editor answered, “No.” Thus, even after the controversy, the Times did not amend the piece to inform future readers that one of the books that Walker recommended in it was a vicious anti-Semitic screed.
This defensive decision looked poor at the time. With the revelation that this editorial failure ultimately led the piece to mislead one of the Times’ own podcasters, it looks even worse.
If someone as sharp and well-read as Strayed could have come away from the Times’ Walker interview and not realized that she was promoting an anti-Semitic book, imagine how many average readers have been similarly misinformed by the unamended piece. The decision to divorce the subject of a piece from their bigotry does a disservice not just to the audience, but to the truth.
How could outlets do better when covering problematic but insightful characters like Walker? To begin with, do not give these people uncritical platforms. This is not the same as saying not to give them any platform. Human beings are complicated and broken, and great wisdom can coexist with great bigotry in the same soul. If outlets want to tap into the good, they need to make readers aware of the bad. Any interview or profile with an individual guilty of prejudice or other misconduct should be foregrounded with the problematic aspects of the subject’s history. Moreover, if the individual is unrepentant about their behavior like Walker, they should be asked every time about it, and given a chance to either own up or obfuscate. For instance, earlier this week, Walker posted Icke’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing about the coronavirus on her blog. That should not go unchallenged. As Times media columnist Ben Smith put it to me when we discussed the general issues involved, “I am generally in favor of asking the most awkward question all the time.”
That’s not the only job of a journalist, but it is one of them, and when it comes to individuals like Alice Walker who haven’t shied away from their bigotry, no outlet should shy away from confronting them about it.