November 30, 2016
Call a fig a fig: AP releases press standards for reporting on the so-called alt-right
by Simon Reichley
We here at MobyLives make a living off the assumption that words, and the ways you use them, matter. For example, it matters that the president-elect is incapable of completing a full sentence, not because it makes him look like a clown, but because it suggests a profound disconnect from the minimum shared reality that language and grammar force us all to inhabit when we communicate with each other. It matters that, faced with Trump’s anti-fact blitzkrieg over the weekend, several papers decided to describe what was obviously and unambiguously a lie as an “allegation,” not because they are wrong (they are) but because they have infected their own language with the dangerous instability of meaning that is the basis of Trump’s authority.
It also matters that many people have fallen into the bad habit of calling virulent racists, politically organized white supremacists, and neo-fascist agitators by a false name: “the alt-right.”
On Monday, in response to this weird and dangerous ambiguity, John Daniszewski, Vice President for Standards at the Associated Press, published an online guide for journalists and writers covering the “alt-right.” The problem with the term, as Danszewski sees it, is that it “is not well known and… may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.” Very reasonable!
The guidelines that Daniszewski provides can be simplified as follows: (1) Don’t assume people know what “alt-right” really means, or that their real political agenda is common knowledge, (2) tell people what it does mean and what their goals really are, and (3) don’t let racists and fascists determine their own public image. Report on the facts, their actions, history, and affiliations.
Let’s give it a go:
The so-called “alt-right” is a gross collective of white supremacists with populist, authoritarian instincts, that thrives in the warm, dark, and wet corners of the internet, much like black mold in a poorly ventilated, water damaged basement. They are neo-Nazis with computer science degrees, Stormfront members with nice ties, and Klansmen with shakily accredited PhDs.
Wow, that felt good. The truth will set you free!
The AP guide seems to be part of a wave of self-reflection that is washing over the establishment press. According to a report in the New York Times, NPR, ThinkProgress, and the Washington Post have all circulated revised standards for their coverage of this burgeoning white supremacy movement, either publicly or internally. Phil Corbett, the Times’ standards editor, said that, while the term has not been banned at the paper, reporters are encouraged to define it clearly.
On the one hand, great — we are almost certainly in this for the long haul, so we may as well start laying down ground rules for talking about the degenerate toad-fuckers currently preparing to run this country into the ground. On the other hand, WHERE WERE YOU A YEAR AGO YOU IRRESPONSIBLE NOSE-RAGS‽
While we applaud the efforts of Daniszewski and his counterparts throughout the media, it is nearly unbearable that, in the face of so much bullshit, we are now being treated to a sanctimonious New York Times article in which all the adults in the room gently self-flagellate until they’re hard enough to get back to the real business of doing the news.
Note: An earlier version of this piece ran under the title “Call a spade a spade.” We have since been referred to this NPR article by Lakshmi Gandhi. We intended the title to be taken in the innocuous spirit from which the phrase originated, referring to a garden spade (in the original Greek, “σκαφείον”), with no racial overtones. We have decided, nonetheless, to take Gandhi’s advice, and avoid the phrase, lest our intentions be misunderstood. Besides, it’s apparently likely that the “figs” in the original expression were euphemisms for things “objectionable in polite conversation,” which, as regular readers will know, are among our most favorite things of all.
Simon Reichley is assistant to the publishers and office manager at Melville House.