Paper can't make judgments, editor says
USA Today Reader Editor Brent Jones responded to questions, prompted by a FAIR Action Alert (1/23/08), about the newspaper’s failure to identify a white supremacist group by arguing that doing so
would have been an illegitimate “judgment” on the part of the paper.
USA Today had run two stories on the Nationalist Movement, a group that marched against civil rights in Jena, La. on Martin Luther King Day, that characterized the group only by its self-description of “pro-majority.”
Of course, newspapers make judgments all the time– from what language to use to which stories to cover. For example, the paper made the judgment that a small demonstration by the Nationalist Movement merited coverage in a national
newspaper; it’s not as though all political gatherings involving a few dozen people are automatically reported.
These judgments routinely include choices about how to describe various groups. When USA Today refers to Al-Qaeda as a “terrorist group,” it’s not because that’s how the organization identifies itself; it’s because the paper believes that’s a phrase that conveys the group’s ideology and activities to its readers. In using or avoiding the word “terrorist,” the outlet is making a journalistic judgment; in neither case is it reporting “only the facts.”
Similarly, USA Today is making a judgment by choosing not to let readers know that the Nationalist Movement has a well-documented racist ideology. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented (9/23/07) the group’s leader and spokesperson Richard Barrett openly advocates against racial equality, and has called for the expulsion of non-whites from America.
In his 1982 autobiography The Commission…he calls for the “resettlement” of blacks, Jews, Latinos and other U.S. citizens in other countries.. He has led rallies of Klansmen and others and worked alongside some of the most extreme racists in America. In 1988, he hosted a “Warrior Weekend” for racist skinheads at his Learned, Miss., home and used a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. for target practice. More recently, he demanded a pardon for assassin Byron de la Beckwith, who was convicted of the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
The Anti-Defamation League likewise describes the National Movement as a “white supremacist” group, citing Barrett’s assertion that “the Negro race… possess[es] no creativity of its own [and] pulls the vitality away from civilization.”
Moreover, Barrett has publicly touted a pin that says “Never,” which he explained meant that “there should never be civil rights or integration” (Baton Rouge, La. Advocate).
USA Today claims that it didn’t identify the National Movement as a racist group because if it provides readers with a “full, accurate, factual picture, they can form their own judgments.” However, to treat the racism of white supremacists as a matter of “interpretation” detracts from rather than adds to the accuracy and comprehensiveness that the public deserves from a national newspaper.
Jones’ full response is below. FAIR thanks the activists who wrote to the paper.
Thank you for your e-mail about our coverage of Martin Luther King Day in Jena, La. Anytime a reader writes — even if the message is critical– we appreciate knowing that somebody is engaged with USA TODAY and concerned about what we report.
Your question — why don’t we call the Nationalists racists? — is one I’m sure many people would ask. The simple answer is that the term “racist” is a judgment, and judgments are open to interpretation. It’s the newspaper’s responsibility to report only the facts. That way, all sides on an issue can be confident that we’re reporting the truth without bias. If we give readers a full, accurate, factual picture, they can form their own judgments.
In this case, we quoted the group’s members as saying they are “pro-majority,” we noted the group’s all-white makeup, outlined its views and described members’ conduct. We think readers have enough facts to make their own judgment as to the kind of group this is.
Again, thank you for writing about this.
Reader Editor, USA TODAY