Mérték Media Ombudsman – Neo-Nazi violence in the US

On 12 August 2017, a far-right rally — the organisers of which also included neo-Nazi groups – was held in the US city of Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in violent incidents between the far-right demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. U.S. President Donald Trump did not expressly condemn the racist extremists, and instead referred to violence from “both sides.” Our analysis seeks to examine whether the online media were helpful in illuminating the issue, whether their coverage of the subject served to comprehensively inform the public and provided a basis for the formation of sound opinions about it. This analysis is the third instalment of our new monthly Mérték Ombudsman series.

With the support of the Google Digital News, Mérték Media Monitor strives to promote the emergence of an online media environment that fosters critical thinking and a desire for objectivity on the part of both media consumers and journalists. One aspect of this project is the creation of a media ombudsman-type platform that publishes critical analyses on the online media’s coverage of certain events, on the reports and editorial contents concerning the given event. Each of the individual instalments in the series will take a detailed look at the way in which the online media present a current issue. The goal is not to evaluate the performance of a particular media outlet or journalist, but to provide the most comprehensive analysis possible of issues that were widely covered in the media.

On 12 August 2017 a far-right rally was held in the US city of Charlottesville, Virginia. The goal of the demonstration – the organisers of which also included neo-Nazi groups – was to protest a decision to remove a statue of General Robert Lee, the military leader of the pro-slavery southern Confederacy in the US Civil War, from a public park. As a result of the rally, there were violent incidents between the far-right demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. One man who had ties to white supremacist groups drove a car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one person and injuring at least 19. U.S. President Donald Trump did not expressly condemn the racist extremists, and instead referred to violence from “both sides.” In response to criticisms of his statement, he doubled down on this position, which led his critics to conclude that the president had drawn a moral equivalence between the white supremacists and those who protested against them.

The coverage of this issue in the Hungarian media we reviewed – 24.hu, 444.hu, 888.hu, alfahir.hu, atlatszo.hu, hvg.hu, index.hu, mno.hu origo.hu – differed widely in terms of the number of items published and their lengths.

Hvg.hu was most active in covering the relevant events, publishing 23 articles in the period investigated. This was followed by index.hu and 24.hu, which published 18 and 15 articles, respectively. By contrast, 888.hu devoted only 10 articles to the issue, while origo.hu did not cover it at all. There was also relatively little interest on the part of alfahir.hu (6 articles) and mno.hu (8).

Among the 101 articles published on the issue by all the abovementioned media outlets combined, there were only four with some type of in-depth analysis that did not purely rely on other sources but involved some independent journalistic activity resulting in the author’s/authors’ own intellectual output. One of these is an analysis by index.hu published on 16 August, entitled “They defended a statue, killing a woman.” One of the three other articles was an opinion piece published on hvg.hu, which analysed the events from a particular perspective, while the other two were reactions to the aforementioned article and were also published on hvg.hu.

The apparent divide in the way the issue was handled by the various media, which ranged from relatively intense focus to a lack of interest – and in fact total neglect, in one case – fairly obviously reflects the political orientation of the media outlets in question. It is probably not an oversimplification to say that the line that divided the media that covered the issue with greater intensity from those that evinced little interest was the respective media’s attitude towards the government, that is whether they were pro-government or critical of the government. Specifically, media that tend to be critical of the government were more detailed in their coverage, while those that generally side with the government were more likely to ignore this issue, likely because it was somewhat of an embarrassment for Donald Trump.

Since the Hungarian prime minister sided openly with Trump during the presidential campaign, the political attitudes of the Hungarian media towards domestic politics are also clearly reflected in their respective assessments of American politics: news portals that generally support the positions of the Hungarian government tend to side with Trump, while those portals that are critics of the Hungarian government identify with the positions of the US president’s opponents in the Democratic Party.

It is striking in this context that while the pro-government news site 888.hu devoted only a few (10) articles to the issue (though at least it did address it), origo.hu did not publish a single item about the entire affair. One explanation may be that 888.hu is more of the “tabloid” arm of the pro-government media segment, while origo.hu, by contrast, is more of a staunch politics site. Due to its general outlook, 888.hu simply could not ignore this juicy topic, which was captured in dramatic images, involved violence and spread through a variety of online platforms.

Yet even the logic suggested by the pro-government/critical of the government dichotomy is not sufficient to explain why mno.hu, which is generally critical of the government, devoted relatively few (only eight) article to the issue. The explanation may be that the daily Magyar Nemzet, which provides the print background for mno.hu, focuses more on issues on which it can add its own background research to the information already accessible by anyone on the internet. Neither the series of events in Virginia nor their afterlife in Washington D.C. fell into this category, however.

Otherwise media that are critical of Donald Trump (as well as of the policies of the Hungarian government that is expressly laudatory of Trump) covered the Charlottesville events with great intensity. They showed in substantial detail how the US president’s inconsistent statements – certain elements of which were flat-out contradictory – clearly betrayed an interest in minimising the responsibility borne by the American far-right, and how Trump’s comments sought to suggest that the extremist hate-mongers and those who protested against them were somehow morally equivalent. At the same time, it also pointed out that Trump is to some extent beholden to the domestic far-right because of the significant role the latter played in his unexpected election victory.

The segment of the Hungarian media that is more supportive of Trump – which tends to be the pro-government media but also includes some other rightwing outlets, such as alfahir.hu – only covered these events to a minimal extent, they sought to quickly put this issue behind them and focused on the public disorder aspect of the events. The more sophisticated items in these media took the position that “both camps have their own mobs,” and correspondingly they sought to present arguments showing that the president had offered an accurate assessment of the events when he laid the responsibility for the violence on both sides. More tabloid-oriented pro-government media, which do not shy back from disseminating cheap propaganda, also used this issue to talk about a liberal conspiracy and suggested that “George Soros’s hands” played a role in these events.

One impact of the media outlets’ substantial dependence on the Hungarian news agency MTI and the BBC in covering this issue was that the various items published in the otherwise politically diverse media were very similar in their wording. The use of the word “Nazi,” for example, was not limited to the left-liberal media, while the “Jews” were not mentioned only in the rightwing media. Instead, the differences were more apparent in the headlines and in the leads, since this was where the focus and the emphasis of the given item was most readily apparent.

An interesting aspect of the use of sources in this context has to do with the fact that the reporting concerned an American issue/event. In the United States, the use of Twitter, which is designed for sharing short messages, is very common – far more widespread at this point than in Hungary. As a result, in the coverage of this issue in the Hungarian online media tweets practically emerged as news sources that were equal in importance to traditional news sources. There was an item that presented reactions to a Trump statement by practically copy-pasting a series of Twitter posts, merely adding a little text to connect them.

The  full analysis is available on Mérték’s website (in Hungarian).