White Supremacy Amplifies Media’s Worst Impulses

Structural white supremacy continues to sully the space for responsible journalism.

Sometimes in its quest to better inform, media ends up inadvertently empowering the very worst in radical rhetoric. The recent spur of mass shootings motivated by “the Great Replacement” doctrine are definitive proof of it. The media often amplifies white supremacist rhetoric without challenging it, and it is that which explains why the dominant perspective about white supremacy is one that coddles it and reassures its existence.

It sounds like an easy task to condemn these shooters for who they truly are–archnemeses for the dream of liberal democracy we’ve been striving to build since the dawn of the French Revolution. But what ends up happening all-too-often, is a softening of the idea that white supremacy had much to do with it at all. The collective affect of this harmful doctrine is often reduced to a question of individual responsibility — i.e. putting the onus on the shooter rather than societal externalities — and any nefarious actors contributing to the spread of radical white supremacist ideology are absolved of responsibility as the media struggles to account for their role in recent atrocities.

One of the reasons why that is, is the media constantly shifting the goalpost for what a white supremacist must do, before serious inquiry is pursued into their motivations and how they relate to the current political climate. It’s easy to look at the manifestos drafted by the shooters as definitive proof that their act was not conducted in pure lonesome conditions–clearly there were outside forces pushing a great deal for the shootings to happen. But reading the story through the media’s eyes, you’d almost come away with an overly complex answer to a simple question that would not have flown nowhere near serious consideration were the perpetrators of such crimes not as melanin-deficient.

The sanitization of white-bred domestic terrorism came into sharp focus when the New York Times’ print edition of the El Paso coverage placed emphasis on Trump’s appeal to bipartisan condemnation of acts of terror, completely forgoing how his rise into power was the very instrument through which white nationalism feels now more-than-ever emboldened to carry out hate crimes in both physical and immaterial forms.

It particularly does not bode well for Donald Trump, considering that when given the opportunity to not divide the nation on a convoluted response to a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, he chose instead to establish a false equivalency between those who think mass-displacement is a worthy cause, and those who simply wish to live worry-free. Positing the theory that Antifa-adjacent groups are anywhere near as violent as far-right extremist groups is quite simply preposterous. This false notion, that many notable mainstream media figures — including CNN’s Jake Tapper — gleefully fed into, is now under credible threat of enactment because of their complicity.

Fortunately, there’s active work done in academia to understand this phenomenon. In her appearance on the Ezra Klein show, Whitney Phillips, Assistant Professor at Syracuse University spoke much about the research she’d done, probing the media space for instances mentioning white supremacy, and whether amplifying these perspectives is always a worthwhile pursuit in an age where attention is a scarce resource.

For Whitney, the calculus is simple: The message in need of urgent communication when the ugly head of white supremacy rears itself is one of focusing on the core issues amplifying white supremacy’s spread in the first place, rather than preaching the gospel of pluralism to those who’d already become part of the tolerant left.

Part of that, is reporting on the story verbatim without any valuable critique. The fallacy of “nonpartisan journalism” such as it were. “You have, not just racism merging with partisanship, but you have racism merging with structural white supremacy,” Whitney Phillips told Ezra Klein. Phillips further clarified by adding that it’s not “the kind of white supremacy that a person wearing a hood would wear but, structural white supremacy where white people are exalted at the central position. [Their perspectives] universalized.” And watching the current media landscape come to grips with the fact that those who we always placed at the center of care and attention, are now a greater threat to average American lives than Islamist extremism ever was — despite what FOX News’ Tucker Carlson might say — is quite a sight to behold.

There’s a particular precarity to which minorities continue to be vilified, and blamed for the problem of white supremacy as if it was of their own making. It’s seen when mainstream media consistently depicts white men in more favorable postures on article previews, dubbing them as angels who’d only the unseen hand of Satan were able to corrupt; and showing anyone else of a different color, sexuality, gender or ethnic background as a vicious monster on social sedatives just awaiting an opportunity to cause civil unrest.

This problem is not unique to the New York Times, or cable news–it’s everywhere. Even a respectable outlet like the Guardian couldn’t resist offering an opinion spot for Iman Amrani, who co-signed Jordan Peterson’s demands to reach out to disenfranchised white men on terms they dictate, ignoring the heavy lacing of misogyny and racism it often comes packaged with. Elsewhere, Sam Harris just this May, guested on Vox’s Recode Decode podcast, espousing in great detail about the illusive threat of jihadism, even as much of toxic online culture could be attributed to his role in propping up the New Atheist movement. Who the perspectives of are constantly being viewed as lesser-than, are the ones expressed by minorities. Mainstream media consistently offers an equal footing for structural white supremacy within its premises, as it does to its impossibly-thin roster of non-white writers.

As if the space wasn’t already sullied by the likes of David Brooks, Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss — NYT’s chosen trio of troll columnists — mainstream media often continued to either amplify the voices of those who’re most ill-qualified to answer the pressing questions of today, or just regurgitated an ongoing narrative of condemnation without critically examining the content of harmful ideology and just knowing when silence supplants the need for ill-informed input. As carefully strategic as the short spurts of bloody violence are, mainstream media has to be equally as choosy with what perspectives it chooses to amplify–especially in a time where unleashing live ammunition has become fueled by a deep hatred for their least heard.