Did the Express-News Expose Hate Speech or Just Give it a Megaphone?

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Billingsley on the ground after a man identified as Arturo Trejo tore down his "God Hates Fags" sign - PHOTO BY BRYAN RINDFUSS
  • Photo by Bryan Rindfuss
  • Billingsley on the ground after a man identified as Arturo Trejo tore down his "God Hates Fags" sign

It’s become a familiar sight: the hate-filled protester determined to disrupt a somber vigil for victims of a horrific attack.

Like Steven Billingsley, a young self-professed homophobe and white supremacist who, with a skeleton mask covering his face, walked around the perimeter of Crockett Park last week as the San Antonio LGBTQ community gathered to mourn the 49 people murdered in an attack on an Orlando gay club earlier this month. Billingsley waived a “God Hates Fags” sign marked with what appeared to be swastikas. While most ignored Billingsley as cops kept him at the perimeter of the park, a man identified by a police report as Arturo Trejo grabbed his sign once he moved closer to the crowd. A San Antonio Express-News photographer snapped a photo of Billingsley making a “Seig Heil” salute as police removed both men from the park.

It was a minor scuffle, a brief distraction and a disturbing example of unvarnished hate. That is, until the Express-News published Billingsley’s 214-word homophobic and racist manifesto in a story by columnist Brian Chasnoff Friday night. In quoting Billingsley’s vitriol, Chasnoff warned that “we must remain watchful and aware,” and ended his column by pointing to Dylan Roof, another young white supremacist who, as Chasnoff put it, “turned hate speech into a hate crime” when he murdered nine black parishioners last year in a South Carolina church. As Chasnoff's story caught fire on social media, the response was one of fear.

Determining when and if and how to publish someone’s message of hate is one of those ethical gray areas in journalism that’s only been underscored by a Republican presidential primary season that saw the rise of a candidate who scored near-constant media attention by spouting inflammatory things about Hispanics, muslims and women. To keep the press from becoming a megaphone for hate speech, journalism ethics groups urge reporters to ask not just whether something is offensive and inflammatory but newsworthy – and if it is, how to provide appropriate balance and context to that message. This year’s election cycle proves just how messy that can be in practice.

Rabbi Mara Nathan with San Antonio’s Temple Beth-El, who spoke at last week’s vigil in Crockett Park, said that when the national political discourse is driven in part by speech demonizing whole other groups of people, it can be hard to know where the line is between exposing hate speech and giving it a platform. “In politics this year, we’ve just seen this unleashing of hatred that is so potent and so personal,” she said, warning that media, even with good intentions, can risk becoming “an echo-chamber of hate.”

Chasnoff's story published verbatim a Facebook message from the Nazi-sympathizing protester in Crockett Park last week. In it, the guy claims he’s part of nascent white supremacist group and vows “you can expect to hear more from us in the future.” While Dena Marks, associate director with of Anti-Defamation League's southwest region, wouldn’t comment specifically on Chasnoff’s column, she did suggest some questions for reporters who are considering amplifying someone’s hate speech. Are you drawing more attention to someone’s hate-filled message than it otherwise deserves? What are you accomplishing by drawing attention to that hate? (When reached Monday, Chasnoff said the column speaks for itself.)

Unvarnished hate is scary because we've had so many recent reminders of what it can lead to — death at Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, or a gay nightclub in Orlando. And while Billingsley's message of hate may be alarming, consider that the claim to fame of his “new and rising” hate group appears to be some Nazi flyers anonymously posted around college campuses in Virginia and Boston. Perhaps Billingsley doesn't deserve the megaphone, an audience, or our fear. 


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