"There's no doubt in your mind that Duke is a racist?" bellowed John McLaughlin (McLaughlin Group, 10/25/91). His question was directed at Jack Germond, the token liberal in the Group, who hedged and equivocated, unable or unwilling to state the obvious about Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke.
"I don't know whether in his heart he's a racist or not," Germond finally replied. "How do I know that?"
The mainstream press generally doesn't like outsiders challenging the two-party political establishment, and most journalists clearly were non kindly disposed toward Duke. But news media consistently deferred to Duke when framing his candidacy, calling him a "former Ku Klux Klan leader" and an "ex-Nazi." Such descriptions are deceptive, for there is little that is "former" or "ex-" about Duke's white supremacist beliefs.
News media continually emphasized Duke's past in a way that obscured his current status as a neo-fascist ideologue. Typical was this misleading New York Times headline (11/15/91): "Duke Forgiven His Past By Out-of-State Donors." The article featured a New York-area supporter who first contributed to Duke's 1988 presidential campaign--without indicating that in 1988 Duke ran as the candidate of the avowedly racist and anti-Semitic Populist Party. News media often missed the fact that much of Duke's financial and political support was generated because of his past, not in spite of it.
Pity the Poor Republicans
A typical media spin treated Duke's candidacy primarily as a major embarrassment for the Republic Party. Newsweek (11/4/91) referred to "all the pain Duke has caused the party," while a New York Times headline (10/22/91) declared, "Ex-Klan Leader's Vote Sends Message to a Pained GOP." Neither article acknowledged the pain and suffering experienced by African Americans, who bore the brunt of Duke's racist campaign. Casting the issue in terms of political football, news coverage of Duke often showed more empathy for Republican politicians than people of color.
A number of editorials and news reports pointed out that Duke's rhetoric echoed mainstream Republicans who run on racial code issues--attacking welfare and affirmative action as discrimination against whites. But Bush's repudiation of Duke and endorsement of his gubernatorial opponent, Edwin Edwards, received lots more media attention than his failure to condemn the myth of "reverse racism" that his administration helped to create—and that Duke exploited on the campaign trail. As one of Bush's closest political advisors admitted to Time (11/25/91) after Duke lost the election, "Some of us would like to get beyond this business of scaring people and dividing them against blacks, but it's hard to argue against a formula that's seen as successful."
Racism: Forgotten Scourge
The GOP's race-baiting strategy has been aided and abetted by a press corps that has done little to dispel the myth of reverse discrimination against whites. For the past 10 years, TV pundits have hammered home a constant refrain: "Why should white people be made to suffer for the sins of the past?"
But racism is hardly a historical relic, as ABC's Primetime Live (9/26/91) showed when it filmed two clean-cut collegiate types—one black and one white—seeking jobs from the same employer, seeking housing from the same landlord and looking to buy a car from the same dealer. ABC's hidden cameras provided vivid footage of how the black man encountered discrimination at every institution.
This was a rare television investigation of racism. If done week after week—as often, let's say, as TV news focuses on the "war on drugs"—it would debunk the malarkey coming from Duke and other politicians about "rampant discrimination against white people."
Another theme news media prepackaged for Duke was the idea that complaints about racist speech are often evidence of intolerant "political correctness." The torrent of articles on the "P.C." menace has helped shift attention away from racism towards the alleged overzealousness of anti-racist activists. On Nightline (11/15/91) and elsewhere, Duke deflected criticism of his racial appeals by claiming to be a victim of "politically correct" speech codes.
During the campaign and after his defeat, Duke took up a familiar right-wing riff by complaining that the "liberal media" were biased against him—as if nonpartisan media would have given the unrepentant former Grand Wizard equal parts positive and negative coverage.
Duke's complaints about the media ring hollow, given the soft treatment he received during frequent national TV interviews. In an hour-long chat on CNN's Larry King Live (11/4/91), Duke was handled with kid gloves, as if he were a hot new TV star. James Gill of the New Orleans Times-Picayune (11/6/91) described the show as "a solid hour of largely uninterrupted propaganda and uncontradicted lies" and called it "indistinguishable from a campaign commercial."
Ted Koppel served up softballs to Duke on Nightline (11/15/91)—he nagged the would-be governor about alleged gambling trips to Las Vegas, giving Duke yet another chance to rail against Edwards, his notoriously high-rolling opponent. If Koppel had brought on a second guest familiar with Duke's history, Duke might have been pressed about his supposed conversion from Nazism to Christianity, which had been exposed as a ruse a few days earlier. One potential guest contacted by Nightline, reporter Tyler Bridges of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, said he was later told by a Nightline staffer that Duke had vetoed his appearance on the show (New York Times, 11/20/91).
Phil Donahue (11/5/91) was tougher on the telegenic candidate, but he cut a deal with Duke, agreeing not to display on the screen Duke's past statements or pictures of him wearing Klan robes. Why allow Duke to dictate the terms of his TV appearances? Because Duke delivered high ratings—and revenues—for the networks. Ironically, Edwards waged a TV ad campaign in Louisiana warning voters that a Duke victory would be catastrophic for the state's already weak economy. Duke's election might have been bad for Louisiana's financial situation, but his candidacy was good news for profit-hungry network executives.
Toilet Paper Journalism
At times Duke toyed with his interlocutors, as when Dan Rather (CBS Evening News, 11/18/91) asked, "Do you still agree with any beliefs of Nazis, Hitler or the Ku Klux Klan?" Duke's retort: "Well, if Hitler advocated the use of toilet paper, I guess I'd agree with that."
Lame questions of this sort (what did Rather expect him to say?) enabled Duke to mask his true motives. None of the network news superstars challenged Duke to explain what he meant when he spoke about his long-range plan to dupe the U.S. public. Five years ago, doctoral student Evelyn Rich recorded Duke talking to another neo-Nazi fanatic at a California conference hosted by the Institute for Historical Review, a group dedicated to the idea that the Holocaust was a hoax.
"I hate to be Machiavellian," Duke said, "but I would suggest that you don't really talk much about National Socialism...publicly." When asked why not, Duke stated, "I'm trying to bring new people in, like a drummer. The difference is, they call you a Nazi and make it stick....It's going to hurt your ability to communicate with them. It's unfortunate it's like that....It might take decades to bring this government down."
Duke's comrade replied: "It doesn't take many people though, to start something rolling. Hitler started with several men." "Right!" said Duke. "And don't you think it can happen right now, if we put the right package together?"
As this candid discussion indicates, Duke's meteoric rise to prominence is not simply a product of what the New York Times (11/10/91) called Louisiana's "distinctive bayou fevers." His emergence as a national political figure is the culmination of many years of electoral maneuvering by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Taking a cue from Lyndon LaRouche's neofascist organization, which had scored victories in several Democratic primaries in 1987, Duke campaigned for President in 1988, first as a Democrat and then on the Populist Party ticket. A few weeks later, he entered Louisiana state politics, running successfully for a House seat as a Republican.
News media have failed to seriously probe the evolving history of the racialist right in the United States, its tactics and objectives, its short- and long-term plans for the future. They've also neglected to explore growing cooperation between the racialist right and right-wing Christian fundamentalists, traditionally divided over the fundamentalists' support for Israel. In a significant shift noted by investigator Russ Bellant, local leaders of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and other fundamentalist groups threw their weight behind Duke in Louisiana.
Since World War II, anti-Communism has been the glue that linked disparate right-wing forces in the United States. Now that the Cold War is over, race is once again looming as the preeminent unifying factor in conservative politics.
Duke's colleagues are already grooming a new breed of candidate in response to Duke's success. On the day after the Louisiana gubernatorial election, the Associated Press (Ann Arbor News, 11/17/91) disclosed that Thom Robb, grand wizard of Duke's old Klan group, is "building a training ground in the Ozarks for white supremacists who want to follow Duke's lead into the mainstream." The AP story, which was not carried by the New York Times or Washington Post, quoted Robb saying that potential leaders "will be taught to avoid statements that sound hateful and 'turn people off.' Their dress and speech will be honed."
Lenny Zeskin of the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal told the Undercurrents radio program (WBAI-New York, 10/28/91): "The real danger is that they have decided based on the success of the Duke candidacy to try and recruit young people who are not known as neo-Nazis or Klansmen into their ranks and run them for office on the same platforms and the same kinds of campaigns. These people will not be immediately identifiable. They won't have Duke's baggage. And they will be much more difficult to identify."
If Jack Germond on the McLaughlin Group couldn't tell that Duke is a racist, how will journalists spot the next wave of neo-Nazi candidates?
Extra! publisher Martin A. Lee is co-author of Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media. Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon contributed to this article.