Opinion

Is It Morally Irresponsible to Report on David Duke?

The political ascent and triumph of Donald Trump means we ignore the dark underbelly of America at our own risk.

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke talks to the media at the Louisiana Secretary of State's office in Baton Rouge, July 22, 2016.
Max Becherer, AP

“You gave a voice to David Duke? Voluntarily?”

That guilt-inducing accusation came from a friend criticizing an article I wrote about the recent waves of anti-Semitic incidents, when I explored the full spectrum of speculation as to who might be behind it. She was horrified by the fact that I had cited (and linked!) a post on the former KKK Grand Wizard’s highly anti-Semitic Twitter feed.

I did so to underline the point that Duke had repeatedly asserted that it was a leftist cabal of Jews (the same one he believes controls the media and the “shadow government”) who had staged the bomb threats and vandalized graveyards in “false flag” operations designed to frame Trump supporters.

Once upon a time – say, a year ago – my friend’s point might have made sense. The idea of quoting, linking or embedding a repellent and marginal figure like Duke would have been beyond the pale for a serious journalist, for fear of giving him mainstream credibility. But we live in a different time now – the Donald Trump era. When the president of the United States has – not once, but twice – publicly entertained the possibility that the incidents are false flags, it is vital to know and understand the murky sources from where such ideas flow.  

It isn’t the first time Trump has given credence to fringe thinking – it happened during the campaign, and most prominently, in his insistence that hordes of illegal immigrants were the reason he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

Things used to be much simpler. In the old days, lines between information sources to be taken seriously and the crazies who were to be dismissed were clear and tangible. Real news appeared in real newspapers, fake news and conspiracy theories confined to the tabloids at supermarket checkout counters. Legitimate radio shows and television programs ran on major networks and local affiliates. When conspiracy-minded extremists were able to get on the air, they were on tiny AM stations and obscure cable channels broadcast in the wee hours of the night.

But soon, the equalizing effect of the Internet and the social media world utterly leveled the media playing field. People read everything on the same screens, listen and watch on the same devices, and the articles that flow into our Facebook and Twitter feeds are a mix of real and fake news. It is so easy for the most implausible, illegitimate and speculative propaganda to be wrapped up and packaged and delivered to the masses.

Journalists can no longer be the moral arbiters of what deserves attention and what does not. We may never before have considered it our responsibility to examine the dark corners of the Internet where vicious hate grows. But today it is.

White nationalist Richard Spencer speaks at Texas A&M University, December 6, 2016.
David J. Phillip/AP

The political ascent and triumph of Donald Trump means we ignore the dark underbelly at our own risk. So many of us didn’t recognize the dystopic carnage-filled country Trump described during his campaign rallies and his July acceptance speech at the GOP convention, and revisited during his inauguration address.

But an even more extreme vision of Trump’s America – a swamp of corruption hopelessly controlled by a globalist corporatist cabal was familiar to those who listen to conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Infowars, who read neo-Nazi websites like Stormer and follow white supremacists like Duke or his younger, cooler incarnation, Richard Spencer. Their tropes are then served up in slightly more sanitized versions in right-wing media outlets like The Blaze, Washington Free Beacon, Newsmax and, most significantly, Breitbart, until recently run by Steve Bannon, who is now arguably the most powerful man behind the throne, Trump’s chief strategist. Other Breitbartians now work at Bannon’s side in the White House as well.

Most journalists recognize today that with its high-level connections, it would be irresponsible for journalists – and other concerned citizens – to ignore what Breitbart is publishing these days, since presumably, they have a direct line to the corridors of power.

But the undeniable evidence that President Trump is clearly influenced by outlets even further down the right-wing media food chain means that we can’t afford not to wade into the real swamps, either. This was evidenced in recent weeks, when the New York Times dipped its toe in the mud, in a piece entitled “In Trump’s Volleys, Echoes of Alex Jones’s Conspiracy Theories.”

Radio host Alex Jones appears in the television show "New World Order" in this undated photo released to the press on Friday, May 22, 2009.
IFC via Bloomberg News

A reporter for German publication Der Spiegel pulled on his thigh-high boots and plunged in, travelling to his Austin, Texas headquarters to profile Jones, “the biggest conspiracy theorist in the United States” who claims that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened and that 9/11 was planned by the U.S. government.

Jones’ world, he wrote, is “filled with intrigues and scandals, cover-ups and conspiracies. Jones is convinced that the global elites have formed an alliance against the United States to destroy the country. Trump himself is prone to lies, fabrications and half-truths, which is why his symbiotic relationship with Jones is so disconcerting. Jones has begun to treat his company as a sort of propaganda arm of the presidency, one that is mobilizing the infantry to save the homeland.”

Jones told the German journalist that he is in regular contact with the president and feeds him his ideas. “Trump and I have talked several times since the election – about freedom and our common goal to destroy our enemies.”

Before Jones, it was white supremacist Richard Spencer who had his 15 minutes of fame in the mainstream media spotlight when he gave the Nazi salute in triumph when Trump was elected. While there is no evidence that Spencer has Trump’s ear, those who follow him clearly make up the president’s base.

Sarah Posner, an investigative journalist who has covered the far right for Rolling Stone and many other publications, calls Spencer “a very charismatic figure, whose odious views are becoming more mainstream.”   

I asked Posner, who famously elicited the quote from Steve Bannon that Breitbart was “the platform of the alt-right,” if she had any qualms that we journalists were turning these marginal figures into celebrities, thus making their often alarming views more credible.

She didn’t. It was clearly Donald Trump, not the press, who was responsible for bringing the fringe conspiracy theorists front and center, she says. “If Trump hadn’t run, they would have been in the same place – on the margins. None of the other Republican candidates would have brought them to where they are now ...  Trump’s campaign energized them in a way they have never been energized before. They feel like they’ve been brought out of the shadows.”

If she needed any real evidence of that, she said, it was in front of her at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which she has covered for years. In her CPAC coverage this year, she described the conservative movement as having  “morphed fully into a Trump-Alt-Right-white-nationalism.”

Traditional conservative Republicans, she wrote, are now willing “to look the other way as the movement mutates from 20th century conservatism to a Trump-Alt-Right-white-nationalism.” This willingness, she says is far worse than willful blindness. “They are deploying conspiracy theories to deflect any criticism of Trump by blaming the left not only for making up Trump scandals, but also for being the true diabolical force behind any wrongdoing.”

For much of the newly influential alt-right – “the left” in all its nefarious conspiratorial glory is openly synonymous with “the Jews.” The fact that there is a serious spike in anti-Semitic incidents just as this movement’s media outlets and social media platforms now have a direct line to the president of the United States must be taken seriously by Jewish and Israeli journalists, and by the Jewish community at large. Like all religious and ethnic groups impacted by this wave of hate, we ignore them at our own risk.