NPR Is Criticized After White Nationalist Ranks the Races by Intelligence on Air

An NPR interview with the organizer of last year’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, ignited complaints on Friday about how news organizations cover white nationalism.

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Daniel Victor
, New York Times

An NPR interview with the organizer of last year’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, ignited complaints on Friday about how news organizations cover white nationalism.

In a “Morning Edition” segment, radio host Noel King interviewed Jason Kessler, a white nationalist who is planning a rally in Washington this weekend on the anniversary of last year’s rally, which was the scene of racist chants and deadly violence.

King preceded the discussion, which was part of a weeklong series about the anniversary of the Charlottesville rally, with a warning: “Some of what you’re about to hear is racist and offensive.”

She was correct. In the interview Friday, which lasted about five minutes, Kessler relayed junk science and ranked the intelligence of various races.

King at times pushed back and interrupted Kessler. Before he made his remarks on race-ranking, which he has supported by citing a political scientist, she said the scholar’s work had been “debunked by scientists and sociologists, and is deemed racist by many.”

She asked Kessler: “You said that you’re not a white supremacist, but you do think there are differences between races. What are the differences?”

After he answered with his intelligence rankings, claiming black people were the least smart, she said: “You don’t sound like someone who wants to unite people when you say something like that. You sound like someone who wants to tick people off.”

Critics said the interview allowed Kessler too much leeway to spread his message.

“The interview appropriately used some degree of skepticism, but not enough,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview.

DeRay Mckesson, a prominent voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, was among those who suggested Kessler never should have been interviewed.

NPR is far from alone among news organizations wrestling with how to cover the rising threat of white nationalism while not inadvertently lending the movement credibility. The New York Times, for one, fielded criticism in November of a profile of a white nationalist, prompting a response from The Times’ national editor and the reporter.

Greenblatt said that simply ignoring the white nationalists and supremacists was not an answer. The ADL has documented an increase in extremist activity in recent years and he said it was important for news outlets to cover the story so people can understand how bigotry spreads.

But journalists have a responsibility to avoid becoming accidental conduits of hate, he said. Kessler’s views, he added, could have been conveyed without directly interviewing him.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to hand the microphone to an individual like Kessler, who has demonstrated again and again he’s not really interested in contributing to the public conversation,” Greenblatt said.

NPR stood by the report Friday. Terence Samuel, the deputy managing editor of NPR News, said in an interview that he was “proud of the job Noel did this morning.”

“I think it’s important for us to cover race and racism, and quite frankly, if you’re going to do that, you have to talk to racists,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable, but we do that all the time.”

Kenya Young, the executive producer of “Morning Edition,” said editors were satisfied that King had asked the right questions and pushed back sufficiently. And she disagreed with criticism that Kessler shouldn’t be interviewed.

“I don’t know how you tell this story without talking to the person who was at the center of it,” she said.

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