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It’s a constant dilemma for journalists: Should the media devote attention to public figures whose views are broadly deemed reprehensible? Or should they ignore them for fear of amplifying their message?
When it comes to the case of the controversial conservative Milo Yiannopoulos — a former editor with Breitbart News who resigned in 2017 after statements he made about pedophilia — I’ve decided that it’s important to understand what he stands for and why he is coming to one of the bluest states in the country. He is scheduled to appear at ticketed events in Honolulu this Friday and Saturday.
Supporters have portrayed Yiannopoulos as a free speech martyr maligned by the mainstream media and wrongly banned on Facebook and Twitter. But to detractors he is a white supremacist, a figure associated with the alt-right movement and neo-Nazis — the most reviled followers of Donald Trump.
Yiannopolous’ planned visit has already upset some, including the chair of the LGBT Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
“His views of the world have no place in Hawaii, the most diverse place on the planet,” said Michael Golojuch Jr. “He espouses xenophobic views of the world with his racism, white supremacy, misogyny and transphobic views. None of that is acceptable, and the cherry on top of it is his advocacy of pedophilia.”
Opposition to Yiannopolous may have led Hawaiian Brian’s to cancel the Friday evening event. Yiannopoulos and musician Ricky Rebel were booked at the family friendly pool hall, bar and arcade on Kapiolani Boulevard, according to promotional materials.
But Yiannopolous promoter Nick Ochs said that that gig is now cancelled as he seeks to secure an alternate site, one that would be disclosed only to ticket buyers. Hawaiian Brian’s did not respond to an inquiry.
This is not the first time Yiannopolous has been rejected as a speaker. Talking Points Memo reported Monday that he was barred from the Midwest FurFest in Chicago after complaints. The annual convention features people dressed up in anthropomorphic costumes.
Ochs, a University of Hawaii Manoa journalism student and president of a Proud Boys chapter in Hawaii, said Yiannopoulos and Rebel are still set for a meet and greet on the fourth floor of Nauru Tower this Saturday. Nauru Tower is a luxury condominium located near Ala Moana Beach Park.
“Tickets are $100 each and include a picture, signature and unforgettable experience,” said a press release from Ochs.
In spite of the Hawaiian Brian’s setback, Ochs said via text that he still believes the events could be successful.
“I brought him because no matter how much leftists and big corporations try to censor us or cut us out of normal life and business, we’re not going to stop saying exactly what we believe,” he said.
Golojuch said he is wrestling whether to publicly protest the Nauru Tower event. He shares some of the same concerns I have.
“The question is, do we draw more attention to him by protesting, or do we turn our backs to him and ignore him, taking his bully pulpit away from him?” he said. “As far as the caucus is concerned, his views deserve nobody’s time. But we do have to be aware of our enemies and know what they are saying, especially when they come from our own community.”
Honolulu would not seem to be the kind of city where Yiannopoulos might find a large audience. Republicans are scarce in local politics and Trump lost to Hillary Clinton here in 2016 by a 2-to-1 margin.
But more than 128,000 people in the state voted for Trump, so it’s obvious that the president appeals to many locally. And, even though Hawaii has a reputation as a place of tolerance, it is home to a diversity of viewpoints.
Take the Proud Boys chapter, for example.
The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies Proud Boys as a hate group that frequently spews white nationalist memes and “maintain affiliations with known extremists. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric. Proud Boys have appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings like the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville.”
In my profile of the Proud Boys last year, Ochs thoroughly rejected that label, stating the Proud Boys have black and gay members.
As for Yiannopoulos, Ochs’ press release described Yiannopoulos as “the most censored, most lied-about man in the world, banned from stepping foot on entire continents for his unapologetic commitment to free expression.”
Yiannopoulos is quoted in the press release as saying, “The left has gone into overdrive to try and censor and defame me. When Ricky Rebel reached out, I was really excited to partner with him on this unique live event.”
Critics describe Yiannopoulos in harsh terms.
The Anti-Defamation League calls him “a controversial right-wing media personality and provocateur … who specializes in attacking groups he dislikes. He particularly despises the left and promotes what he calls ‘a new cultural libertarianism.’”
“Yiannopoulos is a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, transphobic troll who is extremely good at getting people to pay attention to him,” said ADL.
I was to interview Yiannopoulos Tuesday morning, but that was postponed, apparently in light of the Hawaiian Brian’s cancellation.
Ochs said Yiannopoulos was not available to speak Wednesday, either.
The year 2019 has been rough for Yiannopoulos.
In March he was banned from Australia due to his social media comments about the New Zealand mosque shootings. (He called Islam a “barbaric, alien” religious culture.)
Earlier this month, Vice reported that Yiannopoulos was financially broke because his bans on some social media platforms have cut him off from audiences.
Why am I giving oxygen to the man? How to report on figures like Yiannopoulos is top of mind for me right now.
Last week I attended a panel discussion at a journalism conference in New Orleans that addressed white supremacy activity online. Yiannopoulos’ name came up several times.
A main takeaway was the need for journalists to be careful of giving white supremacists and similar groups the attention they crave. Reporting on them in the traditional media works to legitimize these groups, moving them from the radical fringes into the mainstream and helping them to grow.
Another takeaway from the journalism panel was the responsibility of the media to accurately portray the extreme groups they report on.
I agree, and I can see how this column might make me an enabler of sorts.
But I don’t think the media should entirely ignore figures like Yiannopoulos when they come to town.
If they are white supremacists, then call them out for what they are rather than how they might prefer to be seen — for example, as groups claiming they are “protecting” white identity in a manner no different than that of other subcultures.
That’s a risk for journalists, who may be retaliated against. Yiannopoulos is on record for advocating violence toward journalists. But that’s our job.
During a crisis like this, it’s more important than ever to dig beyond the news, to figure out what government policies mean for ordinary citizens and how those policies were put together.
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