Ugly Voices: What's the Point of Covering Hate?

Posted December 9, 2020
By Ivor Shapiro

It’s a 44-year-old story that no self-respecting news organization anywhere would publish today—certainly not in the form it took. 

And is that a good thing?

The September 29th, 1976, piece by the Chicago Sun-Times's young but already nationally acclaimed columnist, Bob Greene, reported that a recently distributed leaflet promised imminent anti-Semitic demonstrations in Jewish-populated suburbs north of Chicago. The targeted areas included the village of Skokie, Illinois, whose population included many survivors of the Holocaust.

The leaflet was "headlined 'WE ARE COMING!' and decorated with a swastika," Greene wrote.

Greene interviewed the Nazi campaign's two organizers, Frank Collin and Mike Kelly, and quoted them baldly, without rebuttal and without the reader-discretion warning that would be customary today. 

Collin and Kelly expressed pride at having allegedly drawn "thousands" out in protest against "the blacks." Now, they wanted to draw in "good people… fierce anti-Semites… who are forced to live among the Jews."

Greene's piece was published on the fifth day of the Jewish New Year festival and survives today only as a blurry microfilm image. 

This undiluted Chicago Sun-Times column sparked a series of events that made history in free-expression law.

Here are the last few lines—especially ugly words that you may well prefer to skip: 

Told that many of the people who found leaflets on their doorsteps reacted with fear and anger, Kelly said:

"Those are your average insane Jews."

Informed that a number of the persons expressing concern … are survivors of Hitler's death camps, Kelly said:

"Good I hope they're horrified. I hope they're shocked. Because we're coming after them again. I don't care if someone's mother or father or brother died in the gas chambers. The unfortunate thing is not that there were 6 million Jews who died. The unfortunate thing is that there were so many Jewish survivors."

The pain with which Skokie's death-camp survivors, especially, might have read Greene's column is fully imaginable to no one except those who have likewise seen genocide

But, wait. By repeating the hateful words italicized above, didn't I also hurt at least some of my readers, perhaps including you? Why would I do such a thing, relaying hate? What's the point?

I've been wondering about the point of covering hate since watching unsparing footage on VICE News of the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville in August, 2017. As mentioned in last month’s column, I later invited third-year journalism students to view and discuss that Peabody Award-winning documentary, in which reporter Elle Reeve interviewed white nationalist leaders on camera in often-disconcerting intimacy. 

In three separate tutorial groups, about a hundred undergraduates from all backgrounds debated the film's reporting and editing tactics. Several said they'd never before heard racist words spoken so matter-of-factly; the ugly language was made even scarier by their self-evidently dangerous context. 

It was jarring—but should it have been softened? Should VICE have framed the ugliest footage in contrary perspectives? While the students weren't asked to vote, I was aware of a complicated consensus among most of their comments. They suggested no universal answer to the question of self-censorship; rather, the content and tone of reporting should depend on the circumstances— including a subjective assessment of audience readiness and an event's particular news value. 

In the case of the VICE report, students agreed that it risked bruising the hated by megaphoning the hate. But for most, that risk was outweighed by the good of exposing the world as it is. People needed to see, among other shocking realities, just how wrong the American president was about "very fine people on both sides" at Charlottesville. 

And many students said the shocking and, yes, painful engagement with uncensored words and images was inextricably part of what made the VICE feature "work." They supported its publication despite knowing that the film would inevitably find its way to viewers who'd agree with, or be encouraged by, the most appalling of the statements aired. 

Which is, of course, precisely why reporters' attention (Greene's in 1976 as Reeve's four decades later) is often welcomed by malcontents who are openly suspicious of journalists' motives.

And that, in turn, is one reason progressives within and outside news media struggle with the idea of providing a voice to views they find (well, yes) deplorable.

The alternative is, of course, cancellation, a polite word for the self-censorship widely expected of today's writers, editors, and producers. And of book publishers, and art galleries, and librarians. Our current cultural moment requires rapid-fire judgments about the essence of art or argument; it makes nuance harder to find and censorship harder to resist.

It was tough controversies of these kind that led me from a passing acquaintance with the case of National Socialist Party v. Skokie (1977) to seeking out the Sun-Times story that, by most accounts, started it all. When a steadfast Ryerson librarian's email finally arrived, I knew the grainy attachment would provide unpleasant reading. 

But nothing left me ready me for the experience of seeing actual words, as spoken, like those italicized on your own screen, above. 

I felt—how to say this?— something burning but icy, something like a needle probing into my spine.

Which is, I think, the point. 

To encounter undiluted hate is more than just instructive or explanatory. The effect is closer to sudden food poisoning. It's a gut-spasm; it leaves you sick.

Of course, the merit of trigger warnings is that readers should not be forced into that kind of hurt. Encountering truth or art may affect you and me differently, so you have a right to choose. It's personal.

But here, for what it may be worth, is what my encounter with Chicago's Nazis, via Greene of the Sun-Times, did to me.

It made me feel more Jewish. 

I have not been observant since my early teens. My frankly weird path through post-adolescence drew me into an anti-apartheid activist community for whom social justice was literally a religious calling. By my 20s, I was a liberal Christian; in my reactive 30s, an atheist. Then and since, I have seen Jewishness mostly as my home culture, part of my identity rather than a matter of faith. 

That's my brain talking, of course. But when I hear anti-Semitism expressed, I respond with my Jewish heart and aforementioned gut. 

So I felt personally hated when I peered through the literal darkness of Bob Greene's column. This wasn't monochrome pre-war pre-TV newsreel footage. This was Chicago, 1976. 

Hell, didn't I visit Chicago some time around then? Might I have shared a sidewalk with men saying things like that, just out of earshot? 

Feeling the needle of nakedly spoken Nazism in my spine made me frailer. More exposed. 

Endangered.

Human.

Transformative gut-awareness is why journalists sometimes want to do more than inform and explain. It's why writers use words that make readers shiver. It's why artists shake the ground under audiences' feet. 

And that's what happened in 1976 when people read Greene's column. Icy-hot racist invective burst a well of ink; hundreds of news stories followed, locally and nationally, and public rage grew over the prospect of swastika flags parading through American streets with Hitler's death camps still in living memory.

Specifically, in Skokie. 

Ivor Shapiro's brief account of the "Skokie case" relies on this highly readable 1999 book by Philippa Strum.

Here's the nub of the complex legal maneuvers that followed. Collin informed police that his group planned to picket outside Skokie's Village Hall. Local officials knew the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects the right to public assembly, but were besieged by camp survivors' demands to do something anyway. And so the village defied its own legal advice and slapped an impossibly high "insurance" charge on the picket's organizers. 

That's when Collin placed a call to the local office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Legal director David Goldberger answered, and the rest is legal history.

Goldberger is both Jewish and a hard-core liberal, but his commitment to the core democratic principle of free speech allows him no shame at having spent much of his career representing right-wing ideologues. In a phone interview, he credited his father, a small businessman who talked a lot about two things: freedom and fairness. 

Plus, his own lifelong experience of prejudice pulled him toward a sense of, as he puts it: "If you can push them around, then you can push me around." 

Free-speech cases arise when government-empowered bullies seek to shut underdog dissidents' mouths, Goldberger says. 

The ACLU team successfully argued in the US Supreme Court that censorship efforts should succeed only to prevent provable harm. "There is no provable objective harm from the advocacy of things that are profoundly offensive," Goldberger explains. "So the harm is subjective—'It feels bad. It makes me uncomfortable.'"

The Village of Skokie argued back that subjective or not, psychological harm to Holocaust survivors was greater than discomfort; it was termed "menticide," something roughly equivalent to what's termed post-traumatic stress today. And Goldberger essentially agrees: "There's pain, a visceral, emotional pain." 

But the legal question was: is psychological pain ever enough to merit legal—rather than social—protection? Goldberger draws an analogy to the pain one might experience when a long-time spouse "runs off with your best friend. That's very, very profound pain." But the law can't save you from it. "That's what we ought to trust Society to deal with."

In the Skokie case, likewise, "We argued that this was a type of harm best handled by the audience choosing to absent themselves from the site of the expression." 

As for press coverage of the Skokie case, Goldberger says it made him "furious." The stories skewed toward sensationalism, exaggerating the scale and stakes of the proposed "march" (as the proposed picket was consistently mischaracterized) and the public seemed "fascinated" over the irony of a Jew representing a Nazi. 

You can LISTEN HERE to a four-minute excerpt from Ivor Shapiro's interview with US free-speech lawyer David Goldberger

"You know, 'Why would a Jewish lawyer do such a thing? And why would any lawyer do such a thing?' 

"And I kept saying, 'That's the whole point. If you can frighten lawyers off from doing this sort of thing, then you have no rights.'" 

Goldberger says that in some ways he'd have been happier for Skokie coverage to have been buried on inside pages. "But a case like that has a life of its own," he says, "and it became a great teacher of free speech."

Today, people who recognize the name "Skokie" world-wide think not just of a conflict between Nazis and Jews, but one between hatred, on one side, and freedom, on the other.

Free expression won that war, in two ways. 

One: when Americans assemble in public spaces, governments can't stop them based on the cause they're promoting. 

And two: local Holocaust survivors' determination to tell their own collective story led to the building of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Centre. 

According to its website, the stirring 65,000-square-foot space serves not only as a memorial but as a place for young people to "learn the terrible dangers of prejudice and hatred.”

The address: 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie, Illinois.

 

Ivor Shapiro is a full professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Free Expression. He welcomes comments and suggestions by email or on Twitter.