When ‘alt-right’ Strikes the Wrong Note

When Alternative right strikes the wrong note

United Against Hate

Tom Law

News organisations have been publishing new guidelines on how to describe the extreme right wing movement – so-called “alt-right” – that is thought to have helped Donald Trump win the recent United States Presidential election. Some have banned using the phrase. Others take a more nuanced approach.

The Associated Press has issued new guidelines which state:

Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience. In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.

Other news media have been equally strong. The Globe and Mail in Canada has described the term as “Orwellian Newspeak”.

On the other hand, the London-based Guardian newspaper with outposts in the United States and Australia has opted to keep using the term but reinforced the need to make clear the nature of the group and what they stand for.

Ian Dunt, editor of politics.co.uk backs the Guardian’s stance, but one of the paper’s columnists, Owen Jones, disagrees, arguing strongly in this video that members of ‘alt-right’ are racists and fascists and should not be allowed to use the term to normalise their views.

Jones signs off by asking what our response should be.

Well, ethical and independent reporting and editing will be a good start. For example non-profit public interest news website, ProPublica has decided to take up the challenge by devoting a reporter and a beat to hate crimes and the alt-right.

ProPublica’s editor told CNN’s Reliable Sources : “I think a better term than alt-right is white supremacy. We have to call it what it is.” On the same programme Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor and Publisher of The Nation said: “We are not going normalise, we are going to scrutinise” adding that it was “time for deep fearless reporting and to find reporters that have a spine.”

This commitment to core journalistic work is winning more support. There has been a spike in donations and subscriptions to many news organisations since Trump became president-elect.

The question whether this support lasts will depend on how media are able to communicate to their audiences a clear definition of terms like of ‘white supremacy’, ‘fascist’ and ‘neo-Nazi,’ which journalists may believe they understand but which may be viewed differently by their readers and viewers.

It was pointed out last week in a debate at the South East Europe Media Forum (SEEMF) in Belgrade, where war and ideological conflict is deeply felt, that we cannot assume that a journalist’s understanding of what ‘fascist’ means in its historical and literal sense is shared by the media audience.

Perhaps we should follow the advice of George Gallup, one of the founding fathers of modern polling, who famously suggested that pollsters should test what people understand words to mean every few years.

The terms and words we use require reflection and periodic review. Perhaps journalists should focus on what ‘alt-right’ as a movement promotes and what its individual supporters do, rather than assuming that describing people as ‘fascists’ will resonate and be clearly understood by everyone.

“Ethnic Albanian,” for instance, is often a useful short hand term for reporting on Kosovo, the SEEMF conference noted, but studies show that even educated international audiences don’t understand exactly what this means.

Free speech academic Cherian George argues that the answer is not to restrict ‘alt-right’ websites like Breitbart but to work harder at countering it.

While journalists must understand the grievances that have contributed to popularity of Trump and the ‘alt-right’, George warns against moral relativism.

Racism, sexism and incitement to intense hatred is always intolerable. It is not “normal” or acceptable, but that cannot be taken for granted. Journalists may have to work harder to find new ways to counter this political trend by offering clearer definitions and giving voice to views that are not being heard.