Interviewing The Far-Right Is Bad, So Why Do Journalists Keep Doing It?

Setting aside that it's offensive to have to watch a nazi get interviewed, it's also pretty dangerous.

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Donald Trump’s election loss has been punctuated by a sharp end to the media’s repetition of his lies. Even as he was thrashing at the podium on election night, lashing out at imagined enemies, and vowing to fight his losing result — the media in the US finally turned away.

In most cases, news networks in the USA began cutting away from his speech once he started lying. Recently, even Fox News repeated the same strategy and cut away from Kayleigh McEnany’s press conference where she repeated his misinformation.

This is notable, because it is one of the primary ways media can combat the spread of misinformation, pointed out Greg Barton, Research Professor of Global Islamic Politics at Monash University.

“A promising sign was that we saw Twitter begin to flag the President’s lies and news networks turn away when he began to lie in his second speech,” he said. “We need to be consistent, and held to a consistent standard.”

But while the US was ignoring Trump, Australian networks continued to blindly platform him — sometimes uncritically. When this was pointed out, it prompted journalists here to call out this behaviour.

Professor Barton said that while the issue is not black and white, those whose views tip into inciting hatred should not be tolerated.

One example is Trump’s ex-advisor, Steve Bannon — a revolting ideologue of the right. His views include conspiracies of racial replacement, anti-semitism, and the creation of white enthno-states.

Professor Barton said Bannon was past the point of being a worthwhile interviewee, because after leaving the White House it was no longer exposing the racist motive of government policies.

And yet, some in the Australian media see his views as worthy of engaging with.

When this mindset leads to amplifying and legitimising fringe views, it often does incredible damage.  What is true for climate change (which the Guardian has taken a strong stance on) is also true for other unscientific, and in many cases bigoted ideas — which only seem to benefit from their legitimisation.

Questioning the likes of Bannon on such a respected program as Four Corners won’t change his views or reveal them to be a fraud. We already know reasonable people no longer hold these ideas as true. We have now rightfully placed them in a box marked ‘hatred’. No reasoned argument will change the views of a man who deliberately and knowingly incites racial hatred in pursuit of his beliefs.

Worse than them having no effect on the person spouting hatred, or on other people who enthusiastically believe their perspective — this practice also introduces these ideas and far-right concepts to a new audience, no matter how unreceptive it is thought they may be.

A staple of far-right messaging is dog-whistling, which is difficult to combat in an interview setting. The idea is to just toe the line to stay within the realms of respectability, so their hateful message continues to be amplified.

“It is a constant cat and mouse game to track down the current code that’s being slammed. In public discourse of course what people like Donald Trump have done is play around with ambiguity,” Professor Barton said. “If Donald says ‘stand back and stand by’ for the Proud Boys, is he preparing them for action? It’’s easy for him to say it’s not.

“He can spin on it but then someone like Mitch McConnell can turn around and say: ‘no he actually meant this.’

“It is tricky to deal with an incitement to hatred at that dog whistle level.”

Professor Barton said the best way to do this was to de-platform anyone known for inciting hatred or violence, as a rule. While this leaves some grey area, he said it would be next to impossible to have a hard-and fast rule, and conceded mistakes would be made.

Far-right figures have fed off this tacit validation and amplification in the past. Blair Cottrell’s notoriety has almost vanished since his banning from mainstream platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and a stated aim of himself and his allies was to “go mainstream” in the media. Debunking his views on Hack does not defeat him — it is helping him achieve his goal.

Looking at all the damage done in the past four years by letting people who hold nazi-like views onto our television sets and onto our news websites, should give senior journalists cause for pause.

Both-sidesing climate change clearly failed to kill climate change denialism ideas and and has in part contributed to the quagmire of discourse we’re in now, where neither major party represents the views of most Australians.

If you’re a white journalist defending the practice of amplifying such an out and proud Nazi against the wishes of your peers of colour, I think the answer why is pretty clear: it doesn’t affect you.

White journalists don’t feel the same way that we do about interviewing Steve Bannon or Blair Cottrell because they aren’t their targets — for them the question is hypothetical, for us it is existential.

These journalists defending this practice should talk to their colleagues of colour (if they have any) about how it makes them feel to watch their bosses or peers help to amplify views which position them as subhuman, or less deserving of rights — especially when it is within the ideologues interests to be platformed in such a way.

It is always minority journalists who stand up to criticise these actions. When Steve Bannon was on Four Corners, it was two journalists of colour who worked at the ABC at the time who led the charge in calling it out.

It makes this Black journalist feel like my humanity is up for debate. If you can’t understand why, interview me instead of a Nazi.

Jim Malo is a journalist with an interest in politics and social justice. He tweets at @thejimmalo.