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How the New York Times made 'The Charlottesville Lie' hoax possible

Originally published August 7, 2019

Amid the spate of mass shootings last week, Saturday’s massacre of at least 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso posed a particular problem for conservatives. In addition to being the deadliest of the slaughters, it was also the only one with an overtly electoral mission: Massacring Hispanic people to help Republicans win.

Before opening fire, the killer published a manifesto in which he said his goal was to stop “The Democrat party (sic)” fromown[ing] America.” His words were practically lifted from a Trump rally: that Democrats “intend to use open borders, free healthcare for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup”—boosting the Hispanic vote to make Texas “a Democrat stronghold” and win presidential elections.

This act of ethnic cleansing occurred right as a national consensus was finally starting to harden against Trump’s overtly white supremacist rhetoric and policy. The president’s allies rushed to deflect attention.

Conveniently for the Trump camp, the massacre came days before the second anniversary of another white supremacist act of terror: the August 2017 Nazi rampage through Charlottesville, Va. A right-wing propaganda outfit had already been planning to use the occasion to gaslight the public about a defining moment of the Trump presidency: the three-day span in which he reacted to the terror by equivocating, blaming the victims, and finally declaring there were “very fine people on both sides.”

With the body count rising in El Paso, the conservative YouTube channel “PragerU” pushed out a video called “The Charlottesville Lie.” Boosted by the movement’s algorithm-juicing network and Fox News personalities, it went viral.

Its argument was that Trump hadn’t praised Nazis but a different group supposedly at the Nazi rally: innocent protesters who had merely come to picket for a Confederate statue. The claim rested on a single piece of evidence: an article in the New York Times.

But the article was wrong. Written a day after Trump’s most notorious comments—its lead byline a reporter with an established track record of apologia for the president’s movement—it contained a fundamental error. The piece in turn was indicative of a larger blindspot about the goals and tactics of Trump’s America on the part of the country’s most influential newspaper. Left uncorrected for two years, it has served as the bedrock of a pernicious lie, now being used to confuse millions of people amid a rise in white nationalist terror.

Before diving into what the article got wrong, it’s worth taking a close look at what actually happened in Charlottesville in August 2017. On the second weekend of the month, far-right groups planned a rally. They chose the college town in part because it symbolized the national debate over removing Confederate statues: The city council had voted to take down a 1924 statue of Robert E. Lee the year before, a decision alt-right groups and the KKK had already held rallies to protest.

But the August event was not really about the statue. There were no imminent plans for the Lee statue to be removed, as the case was tied up in court. Instead its real, stated purpose was to forge a coalition of alt-right, traditional white supremacist, and perhaps—if they could—even mainstream conservative groups in the Trump era.

A poster for the event

On Friday, August 11, 2017, the white supremacists gathered at the University of Virginia and marched with torches to the statue of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

Chanting the Nazi slogan “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!”—a reference to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory regularly promoted by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson—they surrounded a small number of counter-protesters who’d come to monitor them. Things got ugly fast:

Charlottesville residents had been dreading the rally. Once the violence began, immediately, no one who wasn’t either part of the alt-right rally or willing to confront it directly was going to go downtown.

As the conservative writer and Charlottesville-area resident Robert Tracinski has written:

I know very fine people who oppose the removal of the monuments based on high-minded notions about preserving history. I’m one of them. So I know that we weren’t there that night. Only the white nationalists were there.

The next day, August 12, hundreds of white supremacists filled the tiny downtown. They were heavily armed and gearing for a fight. Counter-protesters came ready to oppose the Nazis. A smaller number of them were armed as well.

Those in the streets that day describe an atmosphere of violence, chaos, and fear. With fights breaking out across the area, police declared an unlawful assembly and refused to allow the organized rally to begin. The governor declared a state of emergency. This was not a place or time where peaceful, independent protests over a statue were going to happen.

At 1:40 p.m., James A. Fields, who marched with the white-supremacist group Vanguard America, plowed his Dodge Charger into a crowd leaving the counter-protest on Charlottesville’s central pedestrian mall. Many were injured. 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed.

Trump reacts

Two hours after the attack, Trump addressed the nation from his vacation estate in Bedminster, New Jersey. (He was there during the El Paso massacre too.) Instead of condemning the white supremacists, he seemed to blame to the victims of the day’s attacks, condemning “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”

Trump’s equivocation in the face of terror and an open Nazi rally sparked a backlash. Even Sen. Lindsay Graham said the speech convinced white supremacists that “they have a friend in Donald Trump.”

In a pattern that would repeat itself, Trump, caving to pressure, reluctantly held a second press conference. Two days later, reading stiltedly from a teleprompter, he called racism “evil” and condemned the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.

The gesture did not work. The headliner of the white-supremacist rally, Richard Spencer, called Trump’s second set of remarks “kumbaya nonsense.” “I don't think Donald Trump is a dumb person,” he said. “And only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”

That set the stage for Trump’s most infamous comments: a third, impromptu press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower, three days after the car attack. You can read the full transcript here.

As is often the case, Trump’s main objective was to defend himself—in this case from the criticism of his “many sides” remark. His most famous line— “You also had people that were very fine people on both sides”—was in essence the other side of the coin of what he’d said a few days earlier.

With reporters shouting for clarification, he offered his “proof”:

TRUMP: Excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.

This was, in the moment, confusing. There had been a flurry of pictures from the events, but none of peaceful protesters unaffiliated with the white-supremacist march there merely to support the Lee statue. Had the president seen something everyone else hadn’t? Was he talking about neo-Nazis? The reporters shouted for clarification:

TRUMP: I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally—but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.

Again, this made no sense. There was no record of anyone being part of the neo-Nazi and white-nationalist group who were not either neo-Nazis or white nationalists. A reporter followed up:

REPORTER: I just didn’t understand what you were saying. You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly?

That’s when Trump gave away the game:

TRUMP: No, no. There were people in that rally, and I looked the night before. If you look, they were people protesting very quietly, the taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee.

Suddenly it became clear what pictures Trump had seen:

It was unequivocal. If you look back in the transcript, it was Trump’s second insistence that his original “many sides” comment had referred to “the night before”—the evening of August 11. It was the Nazi torch rally. (Trump, it seems, mistook Jefferson for Lee.)

Here’s another angle:

Maybe Trump was lying. Maybe, in the four days since the torch rally or the three since the car attack, he had hallicinated “people protesting very quietly” who were never there. Or maybe he regarded a group of violent white supremacists as “very fine people” because some of them were his supporters:

Spinning the Unspinnable

To make its case, PragerU’s viral video from this week makes a series of blatant lies.

First, it falsely shows Trump condemning men with Tiki torches—the exact group from “the night before” that Trump had described as “very fine people”:

Then it depicts two entirely fictitious groups of people—skinny hipsters holding signs around the Lee statue:

This is what the area around the statue actually looked like on August 12:

So what do the video propagandists cite as evidence for the existence of these made-up people?

Enter The Times

On August 16, the day after Trump’s calamity of a third press conference, the Times presented a front-page story with a nonsensical headline: 

The lead reporter, Jeremy W. Peters, was based in Washington, and has made a career out of finding sympathetic angles about Trump and his supporters, even where they don’t exist. The August 16 story wasn’t even his first post-Charlottesville attempt at a clean-up on Aisle Trump. Hours before the president tried and failed to salvage his initial remarks with a second press conference, Peters tried to do it for him.

The crucial part comes in the thirteenth paragraph of the August 16 story. It quotes Michelle Piercy, whom the Times identifies as “a night shift worker at a Wichita, Kan., retirement home, who drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.”

It appeared the Times had found what no one else has, before or since: One of Trump’s “very fine people.” She practically repeated the line herself:

“Good people can go to Charlottesville,” said Michelle Piercy … After listening to Mr. Trump on Tuesday, she said it was as if he had channeled her and her friends — all gun-loving defenders of free speech, she said, who had no interest in standing with Nazis or white supremacists: “It’s almost like he talked to one of our people.”

The PragerU video quoted this at length.

Fortunately, the paper was not the only team to reach Piercy. Media Equalizer, a pro-Trump website, also got a hold of the Kansan, and included this crucial, if unintentional, corrective to the Times piece:

Michelle Piercy, who travelled to Charlottesville to participate as a neutral peacekeeper for American Warrior Revolution … knew there was going to be violence, but went anyway.

“We were made aware that the situation could be dangerous, and we were prepared.” Piercy says.

According to a lawsuit filed against armed groups after the riot, American Warrior Revolution is a “paramilitary group … active in the militia movement.” It brought 37 members, “many of them armed with semiautomatic weapons” to the rally.

In her interview with the pro-Trump site, neither Piercy nor the writer mentions the Lee statue. Rather, she says, the group was there to act as “peacekeepers”: protecting the Nazis’ right to free speech while “trying to … talk to Antifa and Black Lives Matter and let them know that the way they were protesting is the wrong way to go about it.”

That’s keeping with what researchers have found about such paramilitary groups. As Casey Michel wrote that week for Politico Magazine:

Despite the militias’ public statements of neutrality, evidence has mounted … that the militias have gravitated decisively toward one side … Their presence as a private security force for an increasingly public coalition of white nationalist factions—Ku Klux Klan followers, neo-Nazis and “alt-right” supporters—has transformed a movement that has already demonstrated a willingness to threaten violence.

Here’s an example of AWR’s merch:

According to the lawsuit, AWR’s leader boasted that they “had the justification to use deadly force that day, and mow people fucking down!” The group has been permanently enjoined from returning to Charlottesville “as a part of a unit of two or more persons acting in concert when armed.”

It is important to note that the militia was not part of the rally’s white-supremacist lineup. Piercy herself told the Equalizer that she did not support “white supremacy, Naziism, or alt-right causes.” But they certainly weren’t the skinny-jeansed pro-statue picketers in the PragerU cartoon either.

On the basis of this false data point, Peters, Martin, and Healy went on to offer this fictive-at-the-time, yet perhaps self-fulfilling piece of analysis:

Conservatives like Ms. Piercy, who have grown only more emboldened after Charlottesville, believe that the political and media elite hold them and Mr. Trump to a harsh double standard that demands they answer for the sins of a radical, racist fringe. They largely accept Mr. Trump’s contention that these same forces are using Charlottesville as an excuse to undermine his presidency, and by extension, their vote.

I reached out to both Peters and Jack Healy, who is listed on the story as having reported from Piercy’s hometown of Wichita, for comment. Neither replied.

The Times’ error resonated because it was, in a way, reassuring. It matched an assumption that many Americans made instinctively: that there must have been “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville. For many, the reality—that the president of the United States had just praised Nazis by pretending they weren’t Nazis—was too disturbing. PragerU’s fake cartoon is the image people want to have of America: a place where there might be some fringe extremists, but politics is fundamentally bloodless, and terror could never serve a mainstream political goal.

But we can not take such people at their word. They know optics, and they know how to manipulate them. Even the 21-year-old El Paso shooter ended his blood-soaked manifesto by insisting that he somehow wasn’t a white supremacist. For him, being thought of as racist was somehow worse than announcing his plan to murder dozens of people for their ethnicity.

That’s what makes this bigger than a question of sloppy reporting. The Times’ error is the type of error made by powerful people who understand politics as a game played by two competing but symmetrical teams, who hardly dare imagine anything could come along that would truly threaten that status quo. That approach is not up to the challenge of the rise of a fundamentally illiberal, violent faction in America headed by a fundamentally racist, authoritarian president of the United States.

It is why for the political press each new wave of white supremacist violence arrives like a surprise. It’s how the president’s terror-enabling reactions always seem like bewildering deviations instead of as further evidence of a clearly established strategy for power, and why they are so eager to buy his self-serving obfuscations after the fact.

The public is left unprepared to see what is coming. Left uncorrected and unexamined, it is the sort of mistake that will happen again and again.

Photos: Zach Roberts/NurPhoto/Getty Images, Edu Bayer/The New York Times, Seth Herald/The Atlantic

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