It is hardly controversial to say that right-wing extremism is on the rise. The Anti-Defamation League has reported a 35 percent rise in the number of murders committed by right-wing extremists in the last year, and we can all clearly see what’s going on around us, on the internet and elsewhere. What has been controversial, however, is the way this rise has been covered in certain media outlets. There’s the school of thought that bigots should never be put on television or be personally interviewed for articles, because doing so gives them a platform to spread their hate, along with the attention they crave. Others think that it must be covered because it’s a newsworthy issue, and that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
Then there’s my school of thought, which is that sunshine can be a great disinfectant, but that the gentle, flattering lighting of a private interview room on The Today Show simply doesn’t provide it. The problem isn’t that it’s being done at all, but that it isn’t being done well.
As someone who has covered right-wing extremism since well before Charlottesville, I’ve given a lot of thought to where these types of interviews go wrong, and what can be done to make them actually effective in terms of making people understand the seriousness of radicalization in America without suggesting that these assholes or their ideas be taken seriously. And what I keep coming back to is the old-school daytime talk shows.
Say what you will about these shows—that they were trashy, that they were exploitative, that they were fanatically obsessed with yelling at women who wore “slutty” clothes, that in many cases they didn’t really know what the hell they were even doing other than getting high ratings—but you probably never came away from one unsure of who the “villain” was supposed to be.
When Today interviewed Nick Sandmann this week, the show did so in good faith. It allowed him 15 minutes to robotically regurgitate the talking points given to him by the PR firm his parents hired, and he was taken at his word that he was just a nice kid and not the smug asshole we all saw with our lying eyes. The end of the segment showed a Native American person having a conversation with a man wearing a MAGA hat, expressing the hope that those conversations could keep happening.
When Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes was interviewed on Nightline, he was given room to say that the Proud Boys were not racist or misogynist, to blame all of his bad PR on Vic Berger editing his work in order to make it appear offensive, and was taken at his word. When Patrick Casey of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa was interviewed on Today, NBC’s Peter Alexander spent more time talking about the group’s sartorial choices and their well-spokenness than pushing him on his actual beliefs.
The intent with these interviews, often, has been to “bridge the divide” in America brought on Donald Trump, to give their subjects a fair and balanced hearing. They get to give the “family-friendly” version of their views, and are usually far less off-the-rails than they are on their own YouTube channels and podcasts. This is not disinfecting, it’s frog-boiling.
When creeps like this were interviewed on daytime talk shows, however, the intent was to warn people about them, to make them look like the fools they are, and to agitate them out of their talking points so they’d show their true, repulsive selves. To get them to the point where they’d throw a chair at Geraldo Rivera’s face. To give them enough rope to hang themselves with, because that’s where the “disinfecting” happens.
Phil Donahue was good at this. He’d have some Holocaust deniers on his namesake show, he’d let them go on and on, being very polite to them, asking them questions, and then he’d bring out the experts to refute whatever they were saying. And then he’d bring out the Holocaust survivors. And then someone in the audience would ask the Holocaust denier what the denier’s qualifications were and, surprise, he had none. End product? Everyone gets to see just how ignorant they actually are. Bonus end product? David Cole—the Holocaust denier featured on that program and many others back in the day—was so despised by all of America that he ended up changing his identity.
This is what a lot of people think they are doing when they interview extremists. They think they are doing the Phil Donahue thing. They are not doing the Phil Donahue thing. Because they leave out the part where they give them enough rope. They leave out the part where the subject gets pushed just enough to show their ugly. These news program interviews, frankly, are just not long enough to get to that point.
Of course, not all talk shows were quite as classy as Donahue, but that wasn’t necessarily a drawback. In fact, there’s something to be said for the fact that trashy, sideshow-esque shows are a far more appropriate venue for white supremacists than Nightline.
As the late talk-show host Morton Downey Jr. said, ever so frankly, in the documentary Talked To Death:
We are professionals. We are in this business to make money. To make money we have to get ratings. A lotta times, to get ratings, we have to make you look stupid, not ourselves. And we will always opt to make you look stupid. All right? So if you wanna be famous for being stupid, make sure you’re a guest on a talk show.
With extremists placed in the same category as “out-of-control teens,” paternity testing, men cheating on their wives with their mothers-in-law, people who claimed to be satanic ritual abuse survivors, and other people who were there to be “famous for being stupid,” viewers got the message, loud and clear: Ideas like “white genocide” or holocaust denial were things to be horrified by, rather than seriously considered as an alternate viewpoint. More than anyone else, bigots deserve to be famous for being stupid.
It was the informality of these shows that allowed for the host to actually get in the face of the Nazis or Ku Klux Klan members appearing on the program and directly confront them in a way that conventional journalism simply would not allow.
And then there was the audience.
There’s just something visceral about the ritual of booing at the bad guys, followed by an audience member getting up and telling them they are a horrible person and then being loudly cheered. If you’re a teenager and you’re watching this—as many of us did after school—it sets it up in your mind that you do not want to be the person being booed, you want to be the person being cheered for. It’s simplistic, sure, but with something like this, simplistic is sometimes better.
In a 1993 episode of The Ricki Lake Show about the women of the KKK, the panel also included a black woman, whose son was murdered by a member of the Klan. So while Rachel Pendergraft—now the spokeswoman for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Party—was up there waxing on about how the hate group was a non-violent civil rights organization for white people who just want to enjoy being white people in peace, that woman—identified onscreen by her first name, Loretta—was also sitting there as living, breathing evidence that Pendergraft was full of shit.
That mattered. It also mattered that regular people, in regular clothes, in the studio audience, were getting up and saying “I think this woman is full of shit,” and being cheered for. That they were booing the women on the stage.
One of the ways segments like the Sandmann interview fail is by not putting their subjects into any context. Sure, maybe they’re a tad hateful, but they’re sitting there in an interview room, by themselves, and you don’t see the people they actually hurt, and you don’t see the people who can actually refute their talking points. These are one-on-one interviews, done in a vacuum, often by someone whose goal it is to say “Come together, America, things aren’t that bad!”
A 2001 episode of The Jenny Jones Show focused on a subject we’re all too familiar with these days: internet hate sites. The guests included Matthew P. Hale (now in jail for trying to murder a judge), the white supremacist founder of the World Church Of The Creator, Stormfront founder Don Black and his young son Derek (who has since renounced white supremacy), and Shirley and Margie Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Jones probed them about children (children!) being able to see their websites. Graphics showed them engulfed in flames! Random people who had previously been audience members were brought up on stage to tell them they suck! And, as per usual, the ritualistic cheering of the good and booing of the bad.
It was clumsy, it was simplistic, and it also included a completely incongruous segment on a woman who ran a Marilyn Manson fan site. Still, it was better and more effective than whatever Today is trying to do.
These shows, once so ubiquitous, have largely gone out of fashion, replaced with classier programs like The View or friendlier fare like The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Maybe they faded from the zeitgeist because cable and streaming made it possible to watch whatever we want during the day, or because there’s no shock value in people dressing like goths anymore, or because, in one extreme example, an episode of The Jenny Jones Show led to a murder. Maybe we just evolved out of yelling at overweight people for dressing “too sexy for their size,” which would certainly be a point in our favor.
But Donahue, Jones, and company did do some things right. And when they put the spotlight on bigots, the message was clear: Americans should not be united with people like that, but against them.
Ironically, one of the few things that ever did “bring Americans together” was being united in hating that talk-show staple, the Westboro Baptist Church. The Phelpses and their followers were covered extensively in the media, and yet you never saw too many people going “Stop! Don’t give them a platform!” Why? Because no one in their right mind would have taken that lesson from the way they were portrayed in the media. If anything, their sheer repulsiveness made hating gay people an extremely embarrassing stance to take. The more they opened their mouths, the less anyone wanted to join their club.