Journalists should be conspicuously fair, even with groups nobody likes.

In the last couple decades, Americans (at least those who occupy seats in academia and mainstream media) appear to have lost their ability to distinguish between upholding a principle and supporting any given people who might benefit from that principle from time to time.  Nobody likes to defend groups that are broadly deplored, like Nazis and the KKK, but it has become risky to do so, even where the principle is clear.

The latest disfavored group to ricochet through Rhode Island’s media echo chamber is PINE — the People’s Initiative of New England.  The group’s purpose is to transform New England into a “White Homeland” that would secede from the United States.  Like all such separatist groups (e.g., the black Rise of the Moors group that had an armed standoff with police on 95 a few years ago), the group’s mission is objectionable and kooky.  Personally, I suspect I’d be welcomed by none, inasmuch as I’m white, Catholic, conservative, and have had conversations that left me with the impression my Jewish last name was getting a provisional pass based on this or that policy agreement.

Nonetheless, coverage of PINE’s appearance in Cumberland offers some warning signs of its own.  Ethan Shorey’s article in The Valley Breeze is an example of the way in which journalists’ ideological poses and disregard for precision can undermine their profession and our ability to understand the world.

Consider the headline:  “Supremacist group visits sites in Cumberland.”  Strictly speaking, nothing in the literature the group was distributing suggests “supremacy.”  That doesn’t mean they aren’t objectionable, but anthropologically, a distinction exists between a subculture that prioritizes its ethnic identity as a foundation for cohesion and health and one that believes its members are superior, implying subjugation and expansion.  This is true regardless of the race in question.

Imposing “supremacist” as pejorative when it doesn’t strictly apply obscures understanding of the variety of groups and complicates identification of the causes of their problematic kookiness.  If their motivation is retrenchment for social health, that’s not only a signal that they may correctly be identifying a problem (albeit with the wrong solution), but also an opportunity to undermine their divisiveness by addressing those problems in a better way.  Transforming them into cartoon villains for the purpose of elite bonding lets grievances fester and invites conflict.

Similarly, Shorey later goes on to report that an “attempt to catch up with members and get them to explain their hatred for non-whites was not successful.”  To be sure, the assumption of “hatred” would be fair from a reader of the news, but embedded in a supposed news article this way, it only conveys the reporter’s inability to write a few hundred words objectively.  People pick up on such things, and even those who aren’t as extreme as PINE may wonder, when dealing with Shorey, whether he’ll give them a fair hearing.  (I certainly wouldn’t expect it, myself.)

If our society is to have any hope of a future, we must renew our consensus about core principles, including among others the importance of clear, logical distinctions and of venues in which people can expect to be considered fairly.  Without such principles, we’ll cease to be able to communicate or even coexist.


Featured image by Justin Katz using Dall-E 3 and Photoshop.

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