David Zurawik

Torch-lit Charlottesville images, Vice News report ignited moral fire

It's been almost a week since the torchlit white supremacist rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, but the images of those Tiki flames illuminating hate-filled white faces are still very much with me.

They are permanently burned into my memory — and, I suspect, much of the nation's shared consciousness.


And that's a good thing. I believe these images triggered a moral awakening in some white viewers, which led to moral outrage when President Donald Trump refused to categorically denounce the people carrying those torches and the violence they generated that turned deadly.

We move so fast from news cycle to news cycle in these digital times that we almost never stop to think about the specific ways in which media moments are created and the profound effects they can have on us long after we have moved on with the relentless churn of news.


The initial reporting and photography in Charlottesville definitely warrant reflection, both from a journalism and cultural lens, given that the events they documented could be a watershed moment in the Trump presidency and, perhaps, even race relations in this country.

Overall, nobody did better journalism in Charlottesville than Vice News. And I mean nobody — even The New York Times and The Washington Post, which have done such great work in covering all things Trump-related.

The "Vice News Tonight" video "Charlottesville: Race and Terror" that aired Monday night on HBO and has been available since then to nonsubscribers on YouTube is the best 22 minutes of video journalism I can remember seeing.

The excellence of the report starts with access. "Vice News Tonight," with correspondent Elle Reeve and a seven-person production crew, was in Charlottesville ready to roll Friday when most of the big dogs of American journalism weren't. CNN, NBC and others were still captivated by the Vice video as late Thursday, using some of their pictures and soundbites.

What did Vice know that many other news operations didn't, and how did they come to know it?

"So, Elle's a good reporter and she spends a lot of time covering internet behavior," Josh Tyrangiel, executive vice president of news at Vice Media, said in a phone interview.

"And in doing that, she's come across the self-proclaimed alt-right and has done a lot of reading and reporting about the differences and distinctions these groups make between each other and themselves. She has come to really understand who and what they are."

Tyrangiel said Reeve and the producers at "Vice News Tonight" heard about the "Unite the Right" march and rally about five days before it took place, because of how plugged in she has been.


"The fact that 200 people were going to meet on an American college campus with no hoods on, with nothing protecting their anonymity, to basically espouse all these views they've been espousing online for 15 years, we all viewed that as a very important leap from the digital space into the physical space. And we decided we were going to be down there Friday night because we just didn't know what was going to happen," Tyrangiel said.

And so, the report opens with torches and the hate-filled faces and the chants of "You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! Blood and soil!"

(The latter phrase reprises a nationalistic chant from Nazi Germany that defined true German identity in terms of ethnicity, blood, and connection to the land, soil.)

It would be hard for anyone who looked in the faces of the men carrying the torches and heard their chants in the opening of the Vice video to agree with the president's claim during an impromptu news conference Tuesday that there "were fine people on both sides" in Charlottesville.

As Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary to George W. Bush, tweeted Tuesday, "I can't believe VICE got this access. There are NO good members of the Klan or the Nazis."

That was only the first level of excellence. Reeve, a strong and focused interviewer, was shown in conversation at several points with white nationalist organizers of the rally. At one point, she and a videographer jumped into the van with some of the rally leaders and interviewed them as the group was hurrying from one part of Charlottesville to another.


Just as the Vice images showed us the faces of hate, her running conversation with one of the most vocal and aggressive of the white nationalists, Christopher Cantwell, allowed viewers to hear the voice of it as well.

Speaking of the president's Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and daughter Ivanka Trump, Cantwell told Reeve, "I don't think that you could feel about race the way I do and watch that Kushner [expletive] walk around with that beautiful girl, OK?"

When asked by Reeve how he feels about Trump in terms of race, Cantwell said he'd like a leader who is "a lot more racist than Donald Trump." Cantwell defined that as a "leader who does not give his daughter to a Jew."

At the end of the report, Reeve visits Cantwell in a hotel room on Sunday night, a day after 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed by a white nationalist who drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville.

Cantwell, who was a speaker at the rally, called the weekend a success and showed no remorse for Heyer's death.

"We knew we were going to meet a lot resistance. The fact that no one on our side died, I'd go ahead and call that points for us," he said.


"A lot more people are going to die before we're done here, frankly," he added after proudly displaying a mini-arsenal of handguns and assault rifles.

Reeve firmly stood her ground in the face of Cantwell's ugly braggadocio, reminding him several times that an innocent woman died in Saturday's conflict. Yet she is also a skilled enough interviewer that she gave him room to expose the darkness in his heart and mind. His promise of more violence to come throws the video forward in a deeply disturbing way.

As outstanding as the work of Vice was in Charlottesville, it wasn't the only source of images that rocked the nation. In fact, it was not even the primary source of those initial images of the Friday night rally. After all, the Vice video did not air on HBO until Monday night.

The best photographs of the torch parade that first night, in my estimation, came from Samuel Corum, a staff photojournalist for the Turkish-based Anadolu Agency who operates out of Washington. Andrew Shurtleff, of Charlottesville's The Daily Progress, also captured strong images of the torch-bearing marchers Friday night.

It seemed as if the pictures from Corum and Shurtleff were everywhere on social media Saturday morning.

Vox included five photographs Saturday in an online article headlined, "The most striking photos from the white supremacist Charlottesville protest," and three of them were by Corum.


In a phone interview, Corum said that when he found the rallygoers gathering in a park as dusk turned to night, he could picture in his mind's eye what the tableau was going to look like when all the torches were lit in the middle of the darkness.

Turning what he saw in his head into the images that flooded social media is the photojournalism part of the story. But the role those pictures played in shaping our response to Charlottesville is the culture part.

There are two things worth thinking about it terms of the images he and other photographers shot that night.

First, the way the photographs and videos of the Charlottesville march evoked images from filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's epic Nazi propaganda documentary "The Triumph of the Will." Nothing says Nazis like a torchlit parade thanks largely to that landmark film. The images shot by Corum, Vice and a few others connected directly to our shared memory bank of Nazi imagery, stirring deep and powerful emotions in some viewers.

But, more importantly, I think those images of the angry white faces lit by the torches also drove some white viewers to admit — if only to themselves — how deep prejudice and hate runs in this nation. And in looking at the faces in those photographs, maybe they saw and felt for a second what parts of the world look like to some of those who are not white or Christian.

That's what I meant by a moral awakening. Now, if only it could be extended to Pennsylvania Avenue.