Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press
Reporters haven’t lacked for stories about hate groups and lone wolves whether it’s Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, Milwaukee’s acid attack on a Latino, Dallas’ shooting of a transgender woman, or El Paso’s Walmart massacre. So I was surprised to see journalist from around the region looking relaxed and hanging out together at an event convened by Chattanooga’s Council Against Hate, Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Lookout, and sponsor BlueCross BlueShield of TN. I expected them to look stoic and even jaded given the thick skins they’ve had to develop. But the passion for their work was awesome and so was their excitement about doing research undercover.
No doubt these journalists need more than just thick skins. How about body armor? Or maybe a bunker with a generous supply of chocolate chip cookies? Don’t ask how much weight I put on as media liaison at Tulsa’s Jewish Federation after the Oklahoma City bombing. Neo-Nazis left pamphlets on our porches informing folks that killing Blacks and Jews was OK because they weren’t actually human beings. The FBI showed us undercover videos of the nearby arsenals of a white supremacist commune. Then there was the call from a national TV station wanting my explanation for why Oklahoma was so weird. Pass the cookies, please.
The Oklahoma City bombing wasn’t the weird aberration it seemed. Not then, and not now. Hate groups, white supremacists, and home-grown militias have always been among us. But technology now allows them to connect and influence like never before. We see evidence of the growing hate almost daily and the affect reaches across generations. When I see students giving the Heil Hitler salute and swastikas on the UTC campus during Black History Month, I go from cookie binging to hiding under the covers.
The journalists were awesome in their determination to let us know about these incidents. But they also voiced concern about being used for publicity by these hate groups. No one wants their reporting to ramp up the efforts of a Supremacist intimidating an activist or a recruiter enticing young men into a hate group. Balancing reporting with restraint was a major issue for the panelists. Should hate be outed or silenced?
That question resonates well beyond the newsroom. If you’re an educator, policy planner, business executive, or faith leader, you need to be involved in similar must-have discussions and must-do research. You’re unlikely to go under cover, but ask yourself if you can recognize hate messages embedded in your student’s gaming, texting, and Youtube choices? Do you know what preparations your city planners have for confrontations with hate groups? How has your company prepared if a lone wolf decides to perpetrate hate violence on your store? Do you help your congregants become aware of hate messages online regarding diverse religions and tell them how to counteract these messages?
Journalists are determined to navigate the worsening trends and our city’s decision makers need to do the same. If leaders don’t talk together, inform and instruct, how will we know what’s happening? And how will be know the most effective way to respond? We’re fortunate to live in a city that supports such collaboration with multiple programs including the Council Against Hate. As Mayor Andy Berke said in his opening remarks at this event, “Our city will stand up to hate. It’s an important part of who we are.” If you aren’t already involved in counteracting hate, join the effort at a Council team near you. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”