I’ve spent most of my adult life producing theater in New York City. In that time, on more occasions than I care to remember, only 20 people showed up in the audience when I’d hoped for hundreds. I thought of that with a smile yesterday watching the maybe two dozen sad white nationalists hold their “rally” in Washington. I know how bad that feels, the Public Address system and stage you paid for mocking you.
Jason Kessler and his gang more than deserved it, but you can see why they assumed they were going to sell out. The going narrative in our newspapers and cable news shows is that the Trump presidency has emboldened white supremacists, that they are no longer ashamed. After all, the president is winking at them. There were probably 20 journalists for every white nationalist at yesterday’s event precisely because the news media was testing its hypothesis.
Whether the news media devoted too much coverage to these 20 people begging for attention was a close call. Those against it can rightfully say that Kessler did nothing to earn the megaphone outlets like NPR gave him, that news outlets are intentionally overblowing the threat because they want to hurt Trump, or even that gasoline was being poured on a cultural fire.
But on the other hand, a year ago a woman was killed by a crazed white nationalist during this event. Even if only 20 showed up yesterday, it only takes one with a car. Further, the counterprotest was a much larger story this year. It could reasonably be described as a story worth covering. Lastly, outlets like CNN that road-blocked their afternoon broadcast to cover the score of bad people in a Washington park were testing an important hypothesis.
Here’s the Hypothesis
The going wisdom since Charlottesville is that Donald Trump has been blowing a dog trumpet to all the racists in America. The accusation is that he plays footsie with a dark, racist underbelly of our country. It is not a hypothesis without support. His weird claim that he didn’t know anything about David Duke in 2016, when Duke had been a primary reason he didn’t run for president on the Reform ticket in 2000, was an early troubling event.
His initial reaction to last year’s violence in Charlottesville wasn’t much better. Even his tweet this past week about disliking all racists seemed to avoid the central point. It is reasonable to ask why a president who seems obsessed with black athletes protesting, and calls them out constantly, can’t just one time tweet, “The white nationalists coming to DC are losers. Sad.”
All of the evidence listed above leads to the idea that white supremacists are ready for prime time. No longer a secluded group of crazies, they have taken over the GOP and are ready to rumble, goes the thinking. That is why so much money and manpower was spent covering the event. After all, last year the siren song of Richard Spencer had drawn hundreds of khaki-wearing, tiki-torch white warriors defying replacement. That very well could have happened again.
But it didn’t. The thing about a hypothesis is that when evidence pokes a hole in it, the hole has to be addressed and patched. A hole in a hypothesis doesn’t mean the whole thing is wrong. In fact, most discoveries require constant adjustment to the hypothesis. Yesterday’s sad display from the alt-right doesn’t prove that the president isn’t influenced by people who share some of their views (which he may amplify), but it does utterly degrade the argument that he is normalizing or allowing for outward displays of racism.
Cover Your Bet
CNN and most of the other news outlets made a bet on yesterday’s story. They went all in. They sent the big guns because if something had gone down, had the waking dragon of white supremacy lashed out, they needed to be there. But a bet is a bet. As it turned out, the damning display of a racist America they placed their chips on crapped out. So what is their loss?
That’s the key question. What do these outlets lose by being wrong about this? What they should lose is a bit of certainty about their underlying assumptions. Everyone who covers politics and culture is wrong a lot. That’s most of the job. The rest of the job is to say when you’re wrong and work through why. Yesterday the big news media got it wrong.
On those nights when only 20 people showed up at our show, I’d sit with my wife and coproducer and we’d say, “What did we do wrong?” It is my sincere hope that Kessler and everyone who marched with him yesterday ask themselves that question and turn towards a better path. But the news media has questions to answer too, and they aren’t easy ones. The drastic decline in attendance for Unite the Right this year is unambiguously good, but there is still good reason to feel uneasy. How should this be covered? At the very least, honestly.