Media critic David Zurawik on Frontline’s latest report, “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville is a righteous reminder of the hateful events in Virginia and role the media play. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
If the only thing Frontline's latest report, "Documenting Hate: Charlottesville," did was serve as a righteous reminder of the hateful events in Virginia last August it would still be one of the most worthwhile TV productions of the summer.
The role media plays in shaping national memory is one of its most important cultural functions, and the violence and death visited on that university town by white supremacists and neo-Nazis carrying Tiki torches and brandishing clubs and guns needs to be remembered and denounced as often as possible.
But this compelling joint investigation by Frontline and ProPublica, which premieres Tuesday night at 10 on PBS, does more than ask us to stop and remember the events that left one counter-protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, dead and others severely injured.
It also serves as a textbook on what skilled, dogged, multi-platform investigative journalism looks like today as it shows ProPublica reporter and Frontline correspondent A.C. Thompson pushing beyond what seems like a wall of indifference or worse from Virginia and federal law enforcement officials to shed light on the rising tide of hate unleashed in America during the last two years. In the process, he tracks down two of the white supremacists involved in violent attacks on counter-protesters, neither or whom the authorities had shown much interest in trying to find.
One, a Ph.D. student at UCLA, was working with a national security clearance at the defense contractor Northrop Grumman in California, while another was on active duty in the Marines. Both initially denied ever being in Charlottesville, but Thompson is far too skilled a reporter to be thrown off track by weak lies.
Beyond its exemplary journalism, "Documenting Hate" also helps viewers understand how President Donald Trump's inflammatory rhetoric has opened the door to hate groups, emboldening them to crawl out from under their internet rocks and march without masks through places like Charlottesville, Berkeley and Huntington Beach both in support of him and in an attempt to intimidate others.
After showing videotape of Trump from last August trying to create a moral equivalence between the eo-Nazis and counter-protesters, saying there was "blame on both sides," the Frontline report shows videotape of Matthew Heimbach, a white nationalist, saying of Trump, "He's opened up a door. His movement has opened up a door. But it's up to us to take the initiative."
How Vice News helped ignite a moral fire with its deep coverage of Charlottesville. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)
With one or two clicks of Google, you can find video and accounts of Heimbach, a Towson University graduate, taking that initiative, shoving a black woman at a 2016 Trump rally in Louisville and appearing to shout, "Get out! Get out!"— just like Trump shouts from the podium when his followers force a heckler out of the hall.
The Frontline report further shows members of one hate group, the California-based Rise Above Movement (RAM), carrying a banner and marching at a Make American Great Rally for Trump in Huntington Beach and also violently attacking counter-protesters in Charlottesville.
Frontline and ProPublica are careful not go beyond their journalistic evidence and data, but as you watch the report, you can't help but see the connection between the ugly words hurled by Trump at enemies in his rallies and the violence in places like Charlottesville. And that seems especially relevant in this week of multiple Trump rallies and some especially nasty moments.
The underbelly of democracy is the uncontrollable mob, and that is what Trump plays to as he encourages chants like, "lock her up," stoking a dangerously febrile energy of resentment and anger at his rallies.
Trump is spending more and more time at his rallies, and the rhetoric is getting uglier and uglier.
No, uglier is too nice a word. What we saw going on Tuesday night at a rally in Tampa with Trump supporters heckling, cursing and threatening CNN correspondent Jim Acosta is both reprehensible and frightening. It's frightening in the kind of potentially deadly violence it seems to be on the very verge of triggering.
The faces, gestures and words of Trump followers who were screaming at Acosta and angrily thrusting their middle fingers in his direction as he tried to do a stand-up report were sick. Faces were distorted by anger and hate while the audio on mainstream videos was virtually nothing but bleeps.
"Just a sample of the sad scene we faced at the Trump rally in Tampa," Acosta wrote with video he posted of the scene. "I'm very worried that the hostility whipped up by Trump and some in conservative media will result in somebody getting hurt. We should not treat our fellow Americans this way. The press is not the enemy."
You would think last August after the menacing torchlit parade and "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in the death of Heyer, that the president of the United States would not have been saying there was blame on both sides and that there were some "very fine people" among the white supremacists and neo-Nazis. But there he was, getting angrier by the minute at the questions challenging his moral equivalence during an impromptu press session and saying, "OK, What about the alt-left? … Do they have some semblance of guilt? … I think they do."
And you would think this August after the killing of five employees of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, he would not be attacking journalists verbally to incite rallygoers as he points derisively at correspondents and camera crews covering his events. But there he was again this week doing a modern-day version of the late Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini at the podium with his jaw thrust out in a pose of arrogance and dominance as the crowd heckled his enemies in the press.
When it comes to targets of Trump's enmity — immigrants, people of color and the press — he not only tries to dehumanize them through such scorn and ridicule, he walks right up to the line of inciting violence against them. I believe that in the fevered swamp of his tribal rallies, Trump is now actually crossing the line in the way he encourages and smiles at the ugly words, threats and chants hurled at correspondents like Acosta.
Such encouragement is not necessarily even protected speech under the First Amendment — not that the First Amendment seems to mean anything to Trump and his White House press officers beyond the misguided belief that they should be able to say any hateful, false, slanderous and inflammatory thing they want from the largest pulpit in the land.
While "Documenting Hate: Charlottesville" triggered a meditation for me on Trump's role in the rise of hate, I suspect many viewers will find Thompson's reportorial journey the most compelling aspect of the production. And there is good reason for that: He does great work using every tool at his disposal to get the story, from his cellphone, to videotape footage, to gathering paper documents, knocking on doors, poring over thousands of encrypted text messages, and confronting someone on the street who is trying to avoid him.
Beyond the two white supremacists he tracks down, he also raises provocative questions and tries to get answers to them. Why was police and FBI intelligence so poor in advance of the torchlit parade on Aug. 11? Why did the local police who were there not intercede as hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists encircled, menaced and attacked a small group of counter-protesters at the university that Friday night? Why did police not do anything to stop the vicious beating on Aug. 12 of a black man in a parking garage next to a police station in Charlottesville? According to the report, the man was beaten with pipes, boards and poles, and police stood nearby doing nothing. Why didn't police do the same kind of work Thompson did to track down some of the people who took park in the most violent acts on Aug. 11 and 12?
Not all the questions are answered in "Documenting Hate: Charlottesville." But the good news is that it's only Part One of a two part joint production by Frontline and ProPublica. Part Two, a documentary on neo-Nazis, will air later this fall.
I'll be there.
"Documenting Hate: Charlottesville" premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on MPT and WETA.