Dilemma in reporting on extremism: Ignore it, or expose it?

04/15/2014 9:04 AM

04/15/2014 9:04 AM

Four years ago, I exchanged several phone calls and emails with the man known most commonly as F. Glenn Miller, now accused of killing three people in Johnson County.

Miller was angry that Missouri radio stations wanted to block offensive ads promoting his write-in Senate candidacy. “They don’t like what I say,” he told me.

That was true. Virtually no one likes what F. Glenn Miller says.

One of the central challenges in political reporting is figuring out how much exposure to give to people like Miller or the equally offensive displays of people like the late Fred Phelps. It takes only a few minutes with Miller’s twisted writings or Phelps’ bizarre theology to understand how truly extremist some people can be and how limited their reach is.

It also is clear Miller, Phelps and their ilk depend on mainstream media for sustenance. We wrote about the ad controversy several times in 2010, giving Miller far more attention than he would have received on his obscure websites and chat boards.

He sought publicity. He got it. And in the wake of the shootings, it’s hard to escape the thought that mainstream attention enables extremists like Miller and Phelps. Ignore them, one thinks, and they’ll just go away.

Except they won’t. In a country of 320 million people, it’s inevitable that a few minds will crumple into bigotry and hatred — minds now encouraged by digital technologies that allow racists to talk with one another, to share bitter conspiracy theories, to explain away their own failures and disappointments.

Other Millers are among us, as any visit to the comments section of some websites will show, and some are dangerous. Maybe the best strategy is to write

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about ultra-extremists, to shine a light into the darkest corners of their polluted fantasies so we can stop them.

Yet that approach also seems wrong. We can’t put people in jail for what they think or write, after all. It’s unlikely daily front-page coverage will stop the damage from the worst people out there. It could make it worse.

The journalist’s usual answer is balance — expose what you can without overexposing the rantings of an anti-Semite. The day I talked with Miller, I chatted with him as I would with any candidate.

Today I don’t know why I didn’t tell him he sounded like a crazy man. Balance is sometimes imperfect, too.

Some problems defy easy solutions. We can reject hate and prejudice, and we should, but some won’t.

Vigilance and community may be our only answers for now, unsatisfactory as that might be.

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