Home > Uncategorized > Who Draws the Line?

Who Draws the Line?

-first posted at RTDNA.org on June 16, 2009

The tragic shooting at the Holocaust Museum last week brought back to mind one of the only journalistic questions I’ve never been able to answer satisfactorily for myself.  This one has been a struggle for me since I was a young photographer back at WESH-TV in Orlando.  It was in the early 1980s and that part of Florida had seen a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity.  Our news director had assigned me—a white man—along with the regular nightside Orlando reporter—a black man—to cover a major cross burning one evening.  The controversy in the newsroom centered on whether we should send a black reporter to the scene.  Some thought he might be in danger and shouldn’t go.  Others agreed he should not be there, but only because he might become part of the story.  A third camp said the assignment should fall to the reporter who would normally be on duty in that shift.  That last camp won out and Lin Wright and I covered the event.  Lin didn’t become part of the story and he (and I) remained safe while there.  The story was an eye-opener, taking a 22-year-old from suburban St. Louis deep into southern racism.  Like many of my other photographer assignments, I treasured the chance to enter a world so different from what I had grown up knowing.  But this one troubled me, too.  Because I left that story wondering two things–whether we should air such hate-filled, non-mainstream views, and whether we should even have the power to decide not to cover it.  That’s right, NOT to cover it.

Flashing forward more than 25 years to the events of last week, I watched the hate agenda of anti-Semite James von Brunn hit the airwaves across the country.  Now, no one’s saying we shouldn’t have spent a good deal of time exploring von Brunn’s views, his website, and his previous violent attempts.  His words are as shocking as his actions, with brutal essays spread across the internet with titles like “Hitler’s Worst Mistake: He Didn’t Gas The Jews.”  But we can read this now with just a bit of academic distance. After all, we just want to understand the man who could attempt the attack at the museum.

But in an attempt to understand that attack, NBC, ABC, CBS and many others have come under scrutiny for interviewing associates of von Brunn’s with the same hate-filled views.  Perhaps the most controversial of these interviews were with John de Nugent.  de Nugent appears to run an ongoing campaign for president, with a website that, in part,  targets Michael Chertoff, Michael Mukasey, and Ben Bernanke as Jews in control of the government.  Viewers angry with the main networks for interviewing de Nugent about von Brunn argue his views are too hateful and outside the mainstream to be aired.  So here comes that question again that first hit me in that rural field outside Orlando.  Should someone be able to decide which views are too extreme to air?  And if someone should have that power, should it be us?

I’ve dealt with the question twice recently in my current job.  The National Socialist Party—neo-Nazis—chose our little college town for a march two years ago.  They said they liked Columbia because a lot of young people could hear their message here.  The group announced its march plans well in advance to generate publicity—and it worked.  I was bombarded by e-mails and calls from local residents asking me to ignore the group and cancel any plans to cover the march.  I told all who asked that I was in the camp that always called for more coverage as the solution to any problem.  To me, less coverage is a bad thing.  If we don’t cover something, how can our viewers be as fully informed as possible?  Most I talked to still disagreed, but I was comfortable with the decisions then and again last year when the Nazi’s returned for another march, this time in Jefferson City.

So I know that at this point, it sounds like I’m in favor of putting everyone on the air.  But that’s actually where this internal conflict I can never resolve rests right now.  Because somewhere inside there’s a line with the Klan and the neo-Nazis on one side—the air-able side—and something far worse on the other side.  These are the people I wouldn’t want to air.  Perhaps it would have been James von Brunn, perhaps it would have been John de Nugent.  I would have known it when I saw it.  But that’s just me.  There are others who wouldn’t air the Klan or the Nazis, still other who would air just about everything.

The real question—and danger—here is not what someone decides, but who does the deciding.  Most people wouldn’t quarrel too much with where I draw the line.  But what about the person who would say that Ron Paul is too far from the mainstream to air—or Jesse Jackson?  That’s what worries me.  I’m certainly not saying I want some set of external rules for deciding who’s acceptable to air—nothing could be farther from my point of view.  The media must be free to decide what they’ll cover and live with the consequences on the free market.  But with that responsibility still comes some discomfort.  I guess it goes back to that uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach while I stood there watching the cross burning in the dark Florida sky—an uneasy feeling from the responsibility I was just starting to shoulder.  I make the decisions now, at least for my small corner of the media.  And I can salve that uneasiness a little bit knowing that informing the public about all the ideas around them is better than turning our backs on some of the most extreme.

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