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'The media should tell the truth about the alt-right'

The alt-right is a phenomenon, and matters to public life – so the media should report on it by telling the truth about it, writes Julien Mercille.

Julien Mercille Associate professor, UCD

EVERYBODY SHOULD NOW have heard about the piece published by the Irish Times on the so-called “alt-right”, written by Nick Pell.

The article presented a glossary of terms used by alt-right people, terms which turn out to be filled with racism, misogyny, and other discriminatory ideas.

The reaction to the piece was instantaneous and it still generates a lot of criticism on social media and elsewhere. Many are outraged and wonder, “How could the Irish Times give a platform to such an aggressive ideology? How could a respected media outlet spread hate and vitriol so explicitly?”

To publish or not?

The issue of what the media should or should not publish has received a lot of attention recently, given the far-right movements that have gained strength in Europe, and, of course, Donald Trump’s rise to power.

My take on what should appear in the media is simple: the media should tell the truth about what matters.

There’s two parts to this:

Tell the truth: this means not to mislead or print falsehoods. Sure, sometimes, the truth is uncertain and difficult to tell, and in such cases competing viewpoints should be outlined in order to clarify the issues for readers. But in many cases, the truth is pretty well known, or not difficult to find out.

The Irish media doesn’t have a great record in this case. For example, between 2000 and 2007, we were told repeatedly that there was no dangerous housing bubble. Yet, it collapsed and brought down the economy, with bad consequences up to this day.

Then, since 2008, we have been told that austerity was the way to go to revive our economy, whereas in fact, any competent economist knows that austerity makes things worse in an economic downturn.

What matters: here, there is some room for debate, but surely we can agree that a lot of what we see in the media is either irrelevant to our lives or sensationalist stories published to catch people’s attention, but with little news value.

Just think of all the gossip about celebrities, stories about what Enda Kenny’s wife thinks of him, or how Ryan Tubridy chooses his ties before his shows, etc.

That’s not of public interest. Yet it appears regularly on every front page and news bulletin. On the other hand, we hear very little about significant progressive movements that have emerged in reaction to the crisis and that offer important ideas about social problems in Ireland, such as the rise of Podemos in Spain, Bloco in Portugal, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, etc. And how is Bernie Sanders’ movement faring post-election?

You won’t get information about this in the Irish press—because they’re progressive movements that challenge the establishment responsible for the mess we’re now in.

Platforms

Therefore, should the media give a platform to the alt-right? Those people are white supremacists and racists whose ideas are supported by nothing other than myths and delusions.

For example, the New York Times reported on a speech given by Richard Spencer, the leading ideologue of the alt-right:

He railed against Jews and, with a smile, quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German. America, he said, belonged to white people, whom he called the ‘children of the sun,’ a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized.

Spencer declared that the choice facing white people is to “conquer or die.” “To be white is to be a creator, an explorer, a conqueror,” he said.

My view is that publishing the piece itself is not so important one way or another, the problem is the lack of progressive views in the media.

The Pell piece provided definitions of alt-right terms. In my opinion, not the greatest value, but actually more informative than many pieces in the media at large that say virtually nothing. That being said, sure, I can think of better pieces to write about the alt-right. And this is where the main problem comes in: we need more progressive pieces on the alt-right and other topics.

Still, it is a phenomenon, and it certainly matters to public life. Therefore, what the media should do is to report on it by telling the truth about it.

Did Nick Pell’s piece achieve that? Personally, I can easily think of better pieces to write about the alt-right, but that’s not a reason not to print it. The real problem, though, is the lack of truly progressive views in the media: that’s what is missing.

Will we have a response from Irish Times editors about that, just like they responded to those who didn’t like the Pell piece?

The rise of the alt-right

For example, if the media is serious about understanding the rise of the alt-right, it should talk about its roots. One key reason why we are confronted with a number of far-right movements and Trump is because it has become easy for charismatic or clownish figures to tap into popular resentment.

There’s been a deep economic crisis in the years since 2008, and for the last three or four decades, inequality has risen in most countries, people have seen their work and life conditions worsen or stagnate, many have lost jobs, others are precarious, and desperate.

Scapegoats are easy to find: immigrants, black people, gays, feminists, millenials, etc. The media has supported such misplaced ideas, partly because they are sensationalist stories that grow audiences and bring in sorely needed advertising revenues. That’s why Trump’s campaign was covered so intensely, giving him the best and cheapest platform he could dream of.

If the media started to talk about inequality seriously and regularly, along with deteriorating work conditions, health care, housing and other pressing needs, the myths of the alt-right would evaporate quickly. But the media won’t do that, because it is too conservative.

Julien Mercille is an associate professor at University College Dublin. Twitter: @JulienMercille.

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Julien Mercille  / Associate professor, UCD

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