The New York Times over the weekend published a nicely turned satire — “Choose Your Own Public Apology” — lampooning the men who’ve attempted to make amends for their histories of sexual harassment. In the same time frame, the newspaper’s leadership was figuring out how best to phrase its own regret over a profile of 29-year-old Ohio white nationalist Tony Hovater, whom reporter Richard Fausset depicted as a run-of-the-mill guy with some extreme viewpoints.
“We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers,” New York Times national editor Marc Lacey wrote in a carefully drafted response to the social-media backlash against the Hovater profile.
“We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.”
There was a lot of backlash, with some high points duly credited by Lacey’s post.
“We described Mr. Hovater as a bigot, a Nazi sympathizer who posted images on Facebook of a Nazi-like America full of happy white people and swastikas everywhere,” Lacey writes. “We understand that some readers wanted more pushback, and we hear that loud and clear.”
Twitter is a superb ex post facto editor, and its dwellers have suggested some excellent ways in which the Times could have added weight to its piece. Angus Johnston, for instance, posted an interesting thread mining a podcast that was mentioned only briefly in the Fausset profile. And BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel noted that the story failed to account for the radicalizing influence of the internet.
No editor — whether at The New York Times or elsewhere — can possibly foresee all the legitimate gripes that’ll surface on social media about a pending story. And the story did get plenty of attention, as Lacey indicates: “Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article,” he wrote. Such agony wasn’t reflected in the piece.
ERIK WEMPLE, WASHINGTON
Editor’s note: Erik Wemple is media critic at The Washington Post.