By Bogdan Mohora
After more than 30 years as a reporter, Lauren Donovan found herself immersed in unfamiliar territory. She had been tipped off that a well-known white supremacist and neo-Nazi had been quietly buying up land in a small North Dakota town with the aim of creating a white nationalist community. Over the course of a year, Craig Paul Cobb, a fugitive wanted in Canada for inciting hate, purchased 13 lots in Leith, a town of just 19 residents. In the meantime, through white nationalist websites, Cobb encouraged likeminded individuals to take up residence in and near Leith and to seek public office and influence legislation.
Before long, Donovan was interviewing Cobb at his home, a man who was described by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Hatewatch blog editor, Mark Potok, as “one of the most vicious neo-Nazi activists around.”
Donovan broke the story, which originally ran in the Bismarck Tribune, before making its way to media outlets across the country. It was most of America’s introduction to Craig Cobb, who with 13 properties has become the most successful neo-Nazi activist to attempt an all-white enclave.
“As a reporter, I hadn’t had the opportunity to think about these issues. I had no contact with people like this before,” Donovan said in a recent interview. “In the last two weeks [of reporting], I’ve had an education.”
Donovan saw her lack of experience reporting on white nationalist groups as an advantage when it came to telling Cobb’s story. “I’d never been exposed to the language they use and the way of thinking they share. I only wanted to give a fair portrayal of who he is and what he believes without trying to second guess myself.”
Donovan’s encounter with Cobb raises questions for journalists reporting on racist and extremist groups. Is it possible to give a fair portrayal of a man like Cobb whose ideology appropriates that of the Nazi party? How should journalists write about groups that promote white racial superiority and whose members seek public office to advance their ideals?
“This is always the crux of journalism,” said Lauren. “In the case of Craig Cobb, I was most interested in being fair and accurate and letting readers come to a more complete understanding of the man and his philosophies so that they could draw their own conclusions. I don’t believe journalism proselytizes; rather, it informs.”
Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that there has been a surge in the number of hate groups in the U.S., from 602 in 2000 to 1,018 in 2011. On the heels of that report, The Daily Beast wrote that there was a “stampede” of white supremacists seeking (and winning significant votes) for public office.
If the trend continues, more journalists would have to navigate the challenges of reporting on hate groups. Since the movements are generally more active in smaller cities and towns, one of the challenges will be having enough resources to dig deep into them.
“I didn’t have any reporting backup or assistance. A story of this magnitude should have had two, or three reporters working various angles. I did my best to grasp the topic in the time that I had,” said Donovan.
With more coverage also comes the risk that journalists can unknowingly become publicists for these groups’ causes. While many white nationalist groups vigilantly guard themselves against the media, ultimately, they have agendas to promote and are not always totally averse to media attention.
“If you give them more ink, you give them more credibility,” said Sven Berg, a reporter for the Idaho Statesman. But, he added, in the end as a reporter, “you have to believe that more information is better.”
Last year, Berg found that Hammerfest, a large gathering of skinheads, was set to take place in Boise, Idaho. The festival was organized by The Hammerskins, a group the Anti-Defamation League describes as, “the most violent and best-organized neo-Nazi skinhead group in the United States,” and whose members have been convicted of murder and other crimes. Wade Michael Page, who shot and killed six and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last year, was a Hammerskin.
“I’m interested in what moves people outside of the mainstream to adopt the positions that most people would consider vile,” said Berg.
People in the city of 200,000 were nervous about the gathering, partially fueled by the fact that the Hammerskins were keeping the exact location a secret. “The fact that days before the event, no one knew where it would be held, spoke to a certain mentality,” Berg said. “It was trying in a way to investigate. They have a deep mistrust of the media.” Like the Hammerskins and Craig Cobb, many groups with white nationalist agendas often operate surreptitiously, which, coupled with some groups’ reputation for violence, creates a unique challenge for reporters.
While attacks against journalists by racist groups are rare, they do happen. In one instance, Jerusalem Post reporter Gil Shefler was attacked in June 2012, while he was in Athens covering Golden Dawn, an extremist organization whose activities have been compared to that of neo-Nazis.
Neither Berg nor Donovan felt in danger at any time, but Donovan experienced some unexpected fallout. The day after she broke the story of Craig Cobb’s land grab, the neo-Nazi’s employer pulled him aside and fired him.
“When he told me he was fired, his attitude was, ‘This has happened before,’” Lauren said. “That the exposure cost him his job but that the benefit was that it drew attention to his cause.”
In her profile of Cobb, Donovan wrote that he was prepared to protect and defend himself, short of a Molotov cocktail being thrown through his front window. Those were Cobb’s words. But some people sympathetic to his cause considered this an incitement of violence; that her work was subversively encouraging violence against Cobb.
After her stories had circulated online, a colleague called to let her know that photos of her, along with personal details and information about her children, had been posted on white supremacist websites. It was a reaction that had not even crossed her mind. “It was unsettling, to say the least, that someone went through the trouble to find photos,” Donovan said, adding that the threats wouldn’t deter her from reporting on the activities of men like Cobb in the future.