FBI cracks a plot to kill blacks and Jews, allegedly planned by members of a little-known religion. How do you cover the story?
If you're like many mainstream media, you ignore or downplay the religion.
The guys in question are Virginians who allegedly wanted to buy guns and bombs, then attack synagogues and black churches. Unfortunately for them, their contacts were undercover FBI agents, who then arrested them.
Oh yeah, FBI also said they were Norse neo-pagans.
How did the media handle all this? We'll start our survey with the typically spare hard-news story from the Associated Press:
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Two men described by authorities as white supremacists have been charged in Virginia with trying to illegally buy weapons and explosives to use in attacks on synagogues and black churches.
Robert C. Doyle and Ronald Beasley Chaney III tried to buy an automatic weapon, explosives and a pistol with a silencer from three undercover agents posing as illegal firearms dealers, FBI agent James R. Rudisill wrote in an affidavit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Richmond.
If the FBI is right, they're clearly racist anti-Semites. What about their spiritual leanings? AP doesn't tell us until more than halfway down, and only very little:
According to Rudisill's affidavit, Doyle and the younger Chaney "ascribe to a white supremacy extremist version of the Asatru faith," a pagan sect that emphasizes Norse gods and traditions. The affidavit says the FBI learned that Doyle planned to host a meeting at his home in late September to discuss "shooting or bombing the occupants of black churches and Jewish synagogues, conducting acts of violence against persons of Jewish faith, and doing harm to a gun store owner in the state of Oklahoma."
The AP report is based partly on one by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That story says pretty much the same phrases about Asatru and bombing black and Jewish congregations. It unhelpfully adds that "Asatru is a pagan religion."
CNN heavy hitters Wolf Blitzer and Pamela Brown mention only the men's membership in a "white supremacist group." They reference the case of Dylann Roof, the church bomber in Charleston, S.C., but only because he and the new defendants both talked about starting a race war.
Even a local CBS affiliate that boasted of having broken the story, merely added that police and FBI agents raided two other homes, including that of Chaney's father.
Ah, but the Washington Post was on the job. They'd help us understand, right? Well, kinda:
A man who identified himself as Chaney’s brother noted that Chaney was not charged explicitly with trying to harm people at places of worship for their race or religion.
“I do not believe that my brother would harm anyone for their race or religion in or around a place of worship,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “I have not heard him espouse any of those views; however, I’ve had very limited contact with him.”
Did WaPo check this with a religion professor or perhaps an Asaturar? Nope, didn’t. Which is odd, given the 1,000-word indepth on Asatru by the Religion News Service, which the Post ran Oct. 16. That article has leader Stephen McNallen saying his members focus more on their culture than hating others:
When asked about the relationship between Asatru and racism, McNallen said: “We view Asatru as a native religion with a special appeal to native Europeans. But just because you love your own family you don’t also hate the family next door.”
Ironically, we get some details in RT, aka Russia Today:
Sometimes known as “Odinism,” Asatru is a neo-pagan religious movement worshiping Old Norse gods (Aesir) that arose in the US during the 1960s. The exact number of its adherents has been estimated by anywhere from 7,000 to 20,000.
In 2013, the US Department of Veterans Affairs officially approved the use of the Asatru symbol, the “Hammer of Thor,” on grave markers of US service personnel who practiced the faith.
The Christian Science Monitor goes much deeper into Norse beliefs:
According to criminal complaints, the three were affiliated with Asatru, a neo-pagan religious movement. One branch, Odinism, has gained a white supremacist following in the United States, in part due to its growing popularity in prison gangs.
Followers "claim they are opposed to racism," Joshua Rood, a religion professor at the University of Iceland, told Vice last spring. "But they define racism very differently from the average person. They say, 'We're not racist. We just believe in keeping ethnicity separate.' "
My main complaint with the Monitor is when it speaks broadly about "horrific acts of violence committed by a wide array of conservative extremists, who range from white supremacists and Neo-Nazis … to Christian Identity adherents and anti-government militias." What? Those nutjobs are "conservative extremists"? Granted, the newspaper is mainly quoting someone with the Anti-Defamation League; but why not ask some critical questions -- like, "Is there any difference between those groups and most conservatives?"
The Vice article, BTW, differs with the RNS story. Published last May, the 1,700-word that indepth says the "folk" emphasis of American Asatru resembles that of Odinism, the parent religion from Europe.
"[Odinists] claim they are opposed to racism, but they define racism very differently from the average person," Joshua Rood, that Icelandic prof, tells Vice. "They say, 'We're not racist. We just believe in keeping ethnicity separate.' Which ... it's racist."
But why not let pagans speak for themselves? People like Alyxander Folmer, a blogger on the Patheos Pagan Channel. About a year and a half ago, he posted this anti-racism rant:
Like it or not, there is a small segment of the modern Heathen community that not only buys into this kind of blatant racism, but co-opts our faith and uses our religion as an excuse to do so without having to admit that they ARE racist. These people twist the idea of ancestor veneration and cultural pride as a way to justify and mask their hate, as if using religious reasoning for their behavior somehow exempts them from the consequences of their actions. I refuse to allow them to abuse and dishonor our faith, our community, and our gods. We have the power to speak up and strip away that religious mask they wear.
I'll bet Folmer would have gladly talked to the media.
Now, I'm not calling for some witch hunt, or Norse hunt in this case. If bigotry is not basic for most Asaturars and/or Odinists, fine. But so many media ask so little about a central question in this case. Here we have a story about members of a religion who are charged with wanting to shoot and blow up members of two other religions (and of another race). And journalists aren't curious about that?