White supremacy isn’t new, and newsrooms shouldn’t cover it like it is

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer called it “unprecedented,” and Fox‘s News Chris Wallace said in his six decades of covering national politics, he had “never seen anything like it.”  Following the fatal insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, many cable news anchors in the U.S. reacted with shock.

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The anchors pushed a narrative that no one could have predicted what happened that day — opting to apply the principle of hindsight to assess the insurrection. But for many journalists of color in these same newsrooms, the insurrection and the U.S. Senate’s February decision to acquit former President Donald Trump of his role in inciting the riot was not a surprise.

We have had to confront the longstanding and daily impacts of white supremacy in America in our daily lives and have experienced the lengths people will go to justify white violence and white rage. 

Legacy newsrooms and magazines have failed to explain these dynamics for years. So it’s no surprise that a large swath of the American audience was shocked by the insurrection. It’s safe to say that they felt that way because they struggle to grapple with how fundamentally racist this country is. It’s why many continue to search for an explanation not only for the insurrection, but for the continued hesitance from prominent right-wing voices to hold the former president and his supporters accountable.

One explanation from The New Yorker hinges on social media: Twitter should’ve banned Trump from the platform sooner. Maybe then, writer Andrew Marantz suggests, his followers wouldn’t have been incited to storm the Capitol. Marantz is correct: social media platforms aided and abetted the spread of pro-Trump beliefs and misinformation. But they are not the only reason that the insurrection happened. 

Edward Ongweso Jr, a writer at VICE’s Motherboard, said that many journalists were surprised by the insurrection because they want to look away from the history and reality of the country they live in.

”People in America don’t want to grasp how fundamentally racist this country is, how much violence goes on every day,” he said. “Technology is an arrangement — it’s a series of choices that are informed by politics, culture, economics, and social relations.” 

In a previous life, Ongweso Jr. was an organizer working with Lyft and Uber drivers; now, he’s writing and reporting on the ways that Big Tech has restructured social relations and capital. While it’s easy to blame technology for the insurrection because it feels like it’s everywhere, he said it’s not a black box. Simply assigning blame to social media can be a cop-out that obscures power, capital, and labor relations. 

“If we got rid of Twitter and Facebook and Fox News, we would still have white supremacists and nationalists — they’re endemic to the political system,” Ongweso Jr. said. 

Ongweso Jr. pointed to people who brought their Confederate flags inside the Capitol, saying that white supremacy and nationalism are an old movement that predates technological systems. 

You cannot erase racism — nor white supremacy — from a country’s DNA. After all, this is a country that was built on Black labor, all while valuing the labor of non-white folks as lesser than the labor of white people; a country where the legacy of whiteness is inseparable from journalistic standards of objectivity and ideas of success. 

White supremacy isn’t new

White supremacist violence is not a rarity — take coverage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally, the racially motivated mass shooting in El Paso in 2019, the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, or the Christmas Day Nashville bombing that took place only a few weeks before the Capitol insurrection.  

Yet, many newsrooms failed at calling out white supremacy for what it is, often choosing to reframe Trump’s broad support due to economic anxiety or pushing the idea that Trump had support because he cared about the so-called American Heartland more than his counterparts.

The result is a failure to acknowledge the ways white supremacist narratives are made acceptable by many newsrooms.

“We still get people who say it’s their freedom of speech,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, the founder of One People’s Project, an organization that has focused on finding and exposing the threat of bigoted right-wing groups and individuals for over 20 years.

Jenkins said politicians and newsrooms’ failure to seriously analyze white supremacist violence reflects a cultural impulse to protect whiteness.

After becoming more aware of white supremacist narratives in political discourse and coverage when serving in the Air Force, Jenkins founded One People’s Project. He said that despite the efforts of groups like his, it has been difficult getting people to stand up and take notice of white supremacist violence, even as it has intensified under the Trump administration. 

“I started listening to more talk radio and noticing that a lot of the talk that was coming out from people like Bob Grant or Rush Limbaugh, I would first hear coming from the white supremacists,” Jenkins said. “There was a uniform way in approaching the right that really wasn’t helping because they were still gaining a lot of momentum in the 1990s.”

The mythical “other”

America has evaded, for the most part, contextualization in U.S. newsrooms. American expansion, war, and manifest destiny have wreaked havoc — mass genocide of Native Americans, fomenting political instability in Latin America, upending the governance of Native Hawaiians, sending men to fight in the Vietnam War, resulting in mass death on both sides — and that’s just a shortlist.

Ongweso Jr. also said that violence persists in and outside of America today. 

For example, in the Philippines, the United States provides military aid to President Rodrigo Duterte — a populist president who has shut down the biggest television news network in the nation and whose campaign against terrorism threatens the safety of activists and journalists alike. In America, Black people are dying. People who are going hungry will continue to do so because the government isn’t providing them enough support, as The Counter reported

Still, for journalists like Jake Tapper, Wolf Blitzer, and Martha Raddatz, the way to articulate the severity of the insurrection was to compare the violence done by the majority-white, pro-Trump group to violence in Baghdad, Bogotá, and Kabul. 

This type of “othering” commentary, said Khury Peterson-Smith, the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, is linked to denial about the relationship between American imperialism and white supremacist ideology and how that relationship affects people of color in the states. 

“There is an idea that the United States is a bystander looking at the rest of the world and seeing chaos while everybody here enjoys freedoms,” Peterson-Smith, who researches the U.S. empire, migration, and borders, said. 

According to Petersen-Smith, American foreign policy relies on the idea that the U.S. is a bastion of freedom. He said the common narrative surrounding that policy is that violence like coups and anti-government movements belongs to ‘other’ countries. But that narrative is rooted in racism, orientalism, and other principles of American exceptionalism — the same ones that are part of any white supremacist ideology.

“There is a tremendous effort to obscure the role we play in destabilizing countries and regions around the world,” Petersen-Smith said, “What we saw after the Capitol attack was this idea that this doesn’t belong here, this belongs in the so-called Third World.”

Though Petersen-Smith was shocked by the videos and photos that he saw streaming during the attack, he said he wasn’t surprised. 

“At least once a year, there is a high-profile act of violence by police and far-right elements that targets Black people, and there is always an incredible amount of denial that follows,” Petersen-Smith said. “You experience gaslighting because you know your parents and your ancestors experienced this, but you’re also being told this is the world’s greatest democracy.”

White people, he added, have a history of getting radically different treatment from law enforcement compared to people of color. The disparities between Black Lives Matter protesters who were arrested, kettled, and tear-gassed this summer by police and the pro-Trump mob who faced minimal pushback when breaching the Capitol were further evidence of that.

“Every beat is the white supremacy beat”

Journalists don’t have to operate from a place of evading those truths. Newsrooms aren’t hopeless — they can take steps to ensure that news coverage contextualizes current events properly. Ongweso Jr. thinks it’s essential to center the voices of reporters and people who anticipated some kind of white supremacist uprising in the wake of the insurrection. 

“Reporting what’s going on in the traditional narrative is not going to yield the analysis that we need,” he said.

And there are already newsrooms dedicated to doing that. 

Scalawag Magazine, a publication dedicated to nuanced narratives about the American South, says in its mission that its staff is “in a generative, reciprocal relationship with community, organizers, and movements.” City Bureau, a non-profit Chicago newsroom, is guided by the principle that “to combat journalism’s history of paternalism and white supremacy, often dressed as objectivity, we must unlearn the notion of a singular truth.”

Prism, a nonprofit news outlet with Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian folks at its helm, is another newsroom that aims to center invisibilized and underreported groups by centering LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and female stories. 

Ashton Lattimore, Prism’s editor-in-chief, said that in pursuing underreported narratives and speaking to members of communities historically hurt by the media, reporters should recognize the totality of whoever they’re talking with.

“If you’re a Black woman who is on the frontlines of fighting for criminal justice reform or abolition, you don’t see your whole existence as being an abolitionist,” Lattimore said. “Your entire life is connected to racial and gender justice. Both at work and in the reporting that you do, you have to take care not to flatten people into a single aspect of themselves.” 

She added that regardless of the beat a reporter is assigned to, they are on the white supremacy beat. 

“If you don’t know that, I have serious concerns about the type of journalism you’re going to be producing,” she said. 

One way newsrooms can start reshaping how they respond to the current moment, Lattimore said, is by following Prism’s model of letting journalists of color shape and inform coverage while understanding why it’s essential to let them lead. 

“The way that people of color understand the history of this country is very different than it was taught to us in high school and the way that a lot of legacy, mainstream media organizations view it,” Lattimore said. “The presumed innocence of the American project, the idea that ‘This isn’t who we are,’ that’s not the place we’re starting from.” 

She encouraged newsrooms to lift up stories from Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities that center on their agency and their response to what’s happening. For Lattimore, storytelling through journalism is a potent tool. 

“While I understand our work [as journalists] as being political, we are not on the front lines of doing organizing work,” she said. “But it’s on us to tell the truth in a way that accurately reflects what’s happening and the power of the people involved.” 

Lattimore said that reporters must call things what they are — if something is racist, call it that. If something is white supremacist, call it that. 

And if people say that’s a conflict of interest? Lattimore has something to say to them. 

“I don’t think there’s any conflict between a journalist and being on the side of justice.”

Janelle Salanga is the deputy editor at The Objective. Siona Peterous is a writer and audio producer who focuses on issues of race, foreign policy, and migration. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider.

Our stories are funded by readers like you. 

The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

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