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Was The New York Times Too Sympathetic to the Nazi It Profiled This Weekend?

The answer is no, but the paper should do a better job challenging its readers to read

Liel Leibovitz
November 27, 2017

A funny thing happened to The New York Times this weekend: Its readers turned on the paper of record for publishing a portrait of a Nazi sympathizer, a Ohio resident named Tony Hovater.

The article presented Hovater as what he is, a human being who enjoys Seinfeld reruns and dinners with his fiancé at Applebee’s while also espousing white supremacist views and calling accounts of the Holocaust’s death toll “overblown.” Which, to many of the Times’ readers, was more empathy than Hovater deserved.

“Instead of long, glowing profiles of Nazis/White nationalists, why don’t we profile the victims of their ideologies?” Karen Attiah, an editor at The Washington Post, wrote to complain. “Why not a piece about the mother of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed in Charlottesville? Follow-ups on those who were injured? Or how PoC are coping?” Bess Kalb, a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live, took a similar approach on Twitter. “You know who had nice manners?” she asked, “The Nazi who shaved my uncle Willie’s head before escorting him into a cement chamber where he locked eyes with children as their lungs filled with poison and they suffocated to death in agony. Too much? Exactly. That’s how you write about Nazis.”

What to make of these angry missives? And isn’t the purpose of journalism to run precisely the sort of piece the Times had published, a nuanced and thoughtful account of how and why a seemingly normative man might spiral into bigotry and hate?

If you’ve been paying any attention to the left’s march towards unreason, a bitter national tragedy, you know that the answer, sadly, is no. What the Times’ readers want—and what the paper has too often been providing them (see under: Israel, coverage of)—isn’t an attempt at critical thinking and reasoned debate but a recitation of dogma. Nothing makes this point better than the outrage following the Hovater profile: Had the creep in question been not a Nazi from the heartland but, say, a young misfit who immigrated to America from some war-torn country and was driven to join ISIS, the very same readers, one presumes, would’ve been very happy with the very same profile, focusing, as it does, on the “root causes” that may drive a person into radicalism. The Times has published many such pieces, and none has ever unleashed a torrent of complaints.

The lesson here is clear: An ISIS sympathizer is allowed to contain multitudes because, presumably, his decision to rise and kill Americans is somehow our own fault, the result of our arrogant foreign policy or our subtle racism or any of the other cardinal sins too many so-called progressives believe are the only parts that make up the American whole. A white nationalist, on the other hand, like the white shark in Jaws, isn’t a complex human being but rather a force from the abyss, motivated by nothing but brutal, mindless prejudice. That’s why the terrorist ought to be understood—a task that requires a modicum of empathy—while the Nazi ought to be rebuked or, better yet, ignored.

This, of course, is how cultists think, not serious readers of a major national newspaper. The Times was right to stand by its story, but its editorial note is needlessly apologetic. “We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers,” it states. No regrets necessary: Adults who can’t stomach a layered and insightful piece of journalism have no business being readers, let alone voters.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.