CNN interviewed white supremacist Richard Spencer during a Tuesday segment on President Donald Trump’s racist tweets, in another example of a news outlet normalizing far-right radicals by giving them a mainstream platform.
The segment on Jake Tapper’s The Lead covered neo-Nazis’ support for Trump’s racist attacks on four progressive congresswomen of color. The spot included an interview with Spencer who said Trump is playing a “con game” and that his attacks were not racist enough.
“He gives us nothing outside of racist tweets,” he said. “And by racist tweets, I mean tweets that are meaningless and cheap and express the kind of sentiments you might hear from your drunk uncle while he’s watching [Sean] Hannity.”
CNN correspondent Sara Sidner also interviewed Joanna Mendelson, a senior investigative reporter at the Anti-Defamation League, who spoke about the effect of Trump’s racist tweets.
“Essentially, it normalizes hate and it makes it acceptable,” Mendelson said of the tweets.
Indeed, Spencer shared the CNN segment on his Twitter account shortly after it aired.
“The CNN anchors didn't understand that Spencer was trying to position Trump as a moderate and to mock other white supremacists who supported Trump,” said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. “Spencer was saying that Trump was performing racism on Twitter, but that his policies do not go far enough to be considered support for white supremacists goals.”
CNN and Sidner did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Tapper tweeted that Sidner “covers racists and white supremacists for us (among other subjects) and does a great job. She did a taped package for cnn about the reaction of white supremacists to the president’s tweets.”
Spencer is an open white nationalist who advocates for “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” Spencer was a key player and featured speaker at Unite the Right, the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a neo-Nazi murdered an anti-racist protester. (Spencer is currently being sued over the event.) Open neo-Nazi groups like the Traditionalist Worker Party have provided security at his events. He has repeatedly invoked Nazi slogans and imagery, including calling media the “lügenpresse” ("lying press") and leading a Hitler-type salute of Trump. Spencer is so racist he is banned from most countries in Europe.
Spencer has also been accused of domestic abuse, allegedly beating his now-estranged wife throughout their relationship, including while she was pregnant—accusations he denies.
Academics have cautioned against offering white supremacists wide exposure, such as on-air interviews in slick studios.
“Spencer will turn this into a new wave of attention within his own media ecosystem, where CNN has now just legitimated a litany of white supremacists, many of who were relegated to online obscurity,” said Donovan.
CNN is the most-recent mainstream news outlet to struggle with how to handle the outsized stature of the racist far right since they leapt to support Trump during his presidential campaign. Last year, NBC’s Today show hosted the leader of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa, who repeated the group’s recruitment talking points. In 2016, Mother Jones ran a heavily criticized article describing Spencer as “dapper” in the headline. The New York Times ran a similarly soft-focused article on Tony Hovater as a harmless young man from the Midwest despite his membership in the violent Traditionalist Worker Party.
—With additional reporting by Lloyd Grove