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Ku Klux Klan Media

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Is the media unwittingly playing into the hands of neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups by giving them the national and international publicity they crave?

Or is the Fourth Estate doing what it’s supposed to do—reporting the news, thereby upholding John and Jane Q. Citizen’s “right to know”?

Hate groups see media attention as validation, even if it’s not, and as a way to win recruits. Their opponents say putting them on TV and in newspapers will naturally discredit and doom them and their cause.

The more Americans learn about white supremacist groups, the more likely they will reject them, argued a woman who helped organize the protest against the deadly “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Viriginia.

“I think this is the beginning of the end for this spectacularized part of the movement,” Laura Goldblatt said in a New York Times story by Richard Fausset and Alan Feuer.

On the other hand, Richard Spencer, a leader of the white supremacy movement, told the Times reporters that the rally “was a huge moral victory in terms of the show of force.”

“We achieved all of our objectives,” said white supremacist Matthew Heimbach in the story. “We showed that our movement is not just online, but growing physically.”

“We achieved all of our objectives,” said white supremacist Matthew Heimbach in the story. “We showed that our movement is not just online, but growing physically.”

The “Unite the Right Rally” was all about grabbing the media’s attention, Keegan Hankes of the Southern Poverty Law Center told Variety’s Cynthia Littleton. “They used the controversy around the [Confederate Gen. Robert E.] Lee statue as a peg but what you really have is all these little hate groups competing in the same space trying to make a name for themselves. They’ll use media coverage and strategically controlled images (from the gathering) to bring in new members.”

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Littleton wrote that Hankes acknowledged that some of more extreme statements and actions which got on TV and in print probably dismayed organizers of the racist rally. “The goal of the rally was to raise awareness of the movement among people who might be sympathetic to some of their public policy goals — such as curbing immigration — but [who] would be turned off by unabashedly racist rhetoric.”

Issy Lapowski of Wired wrote that in covering the “alt-right,” the mainstream media is struggling with a conundrum: “Ignore these groups and risk allowing a potential public threat to go unreported; shine too bright a light on them and risk amplifying their message—or worse, attracting new acolytes to the cause.”

He added: “There’s no right approach to covering this growing movement, but one thing is certain: The press has erred on the side of overexposure. It’s positioned the alt-right in the center of President Trump's story, in part because of the shock value of the movement’s actions. This fringe group has taken the country’s implicit history of racism and made it explicit, which is certainly newsworthy. But that's brought unpleasant side effects, namely, giving the leaders of these hate groups coverage disproportionate to their influence. After all, it took a whole lot of mainstream Republicans to help usher Trump into office. Trump received the greatest number of primary votes in the history of the Republican party. He also won the general election with 88 percent of Republican party votes, according to exit polls. The right got Trump elected; the alt-right was merely a subset.”

In any event, about 30 years ago, a small KKK group showed up in the Kentucky town where I was a newspaper reporter. They donned their hoods and sheets at the entrance road to the local TV station.

The TV station sent neither a reporter nor a camera operator. The newspaper ignored them, too, as did the local radio stations.

All the attention the Klan got was monitoring from two officers in a police car.

After a while, the Kluxers doffed their robes, furled their Confederate flags and quietly left, deprived of the publicity they came for.

So, does extensive media coverage hurt or help hate groups? “It strikes me that the many thousands of people across the U.S. who protested against the neo-Nazi hate groups may have answered the question,” said Ken Wolf, an author and retired history professor at Murray, Ky., State University, my alma mater. “The sheer numbers of those who opposed what happened in Charlottesville, as well as Trump's response, may help limit future ‘acolytes to the cause’ to those who are mentally ill or psychologically sick.”

But the historian hedged: “We can only hope.” Indeed.

Berry Craig

Berry Craig