Are media giving neo-Nazis the oxygen of publicity or exposing ugly truth?

A recent New York Times profile of a Holocaust denier was criticised as overly sympathetic but journalists face tough decisions when covering the far right

A counter-demonstrator attempts to shout down white nationalist Matthew Heinbach as they are surrounded by journalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, on 14 August. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When Alfred Münzer, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor, read a major newspaper profile of a young “Nazi sympathizer next door”, he was shaken.

The New York Times profile, which focused on a 29-year-old Holocaust denier’s pop culture tastes and listed items in his wedding registry, has been criticized as painting a neo-Nazi in an overly sympathetic light. Many readers argued it should not have been published at all.

Münzer, who volunteers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, thought the profile lacked some crucial context. But he also believed it told an important story.

“The fact that there are really ordinary people who have beliefs that are really so reminiscent of Nazi Germany is absolutely frightening,” said Münzer, whose two older sisters and father died in Nazi concentration camps. “This is not just a crazy fringe.”

Münzer has been increasingly disturbed by what he has seen in the US over the past two years: a presidential campaign driven by racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic rhetoric and policies; hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching openly through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August; a president who had to be prompted to explicitly condemn those neo-Nazis, rather than casting blame for violent clashes on “many sides”.

Then on Wednesday, as Americans debated the ethics of giving media attention to hate groups, Donald Trump tweeted three pieces of anti-Muslim propaganda from a fringe Islamophobic group, Britain First.

“To me, it’s incredible that an American president would retweet hate messages like that,” Münzer said. “It’s just totally incredible.”

Trump’s tweets sparked international headlines about a racist group with a few hundred members which is best known for harassment campaigns. A rightwing terrorist shouted “Britain first” before killing MP Jo Cox last year. The party’s deputy, found guilty last year of religiously aggravated harassment, received just 56 votes in her last run for parliament. Britain First was recently deregistered by the UK election watchdog, after failing to update its…

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