These leaders know how to manipulate journalists
Vegard Tenold Aase grew up in Norway’s second city, Bergen. He has written for Norwegian newspapers, as well as such American publications as Rolling Stone magazine and the New York Times. The Emmy-nominated journalist lives and works in New York and he’s specializing in extremism.  

“These leaders know how to manipulate journalists”

Few journalists have interviewed as many extremists as Norwegian Vegard Tenold Aase, correspondent for New York-based VICE News. He urges colleagues not to take the task lightly.

“I know nothing about sports. That’s why I don’t write about sports. I don’t review operas either. Naturally, editors don’t send amateurs on those kinds of assignments. They understand that knowledge is the key to critical journalism. Yet extremism seems to be an exception. It seems they think any reporter is qualified to interview a fascist,” says Tenold Aase.

Vegard Tenold Aase faced a pistol pointed at his Adam’s apple at a Klu Klux Klan gathering. He was caught in the crossfire between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists wielding bricks. For several years, he lived close to American extremists, resulting in the book “Everything you love will burn: Inside the rebirth of white nationalism in America” in 2017.

More fascinated than appalled

“It started with me writing a thesis at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Then I heard that there were neo-Nazis living in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. That was strange, I thought, being someone from orderly and tolerant Norway,” he says.

His first articles suggested that he was more fascinated than appalled by the extremism he was describing. That all changed on 22 July 2011, when terror attacks by a right-wing extremist left 77 people dead at home in Norway.

“I saw the need for deeper understanding, and I became more aware of the dangers of poorly founded journalism about extremism.”

Warned about inviting Bannon

When Trump’s then-adviser Steve Bannon was invited to Nordic Media Days in 2019, Tenold Aase was among those who warned against it. It may seem paradoxical that a journalist who had published interviews with countless conspiracy theorists and demagogues was critical about others giving the same kind of people a speaker’s podium.

“I’m not opposed to interviewing extremists, but we must know why we are doing it and we must understand how to do it. These leaders are calculating. They know how to appear more harmless than they are. They know what it takes to manipulate journalists,” he says.

Tenold Aase finds it disturbing to read cozy “fluff” interviews with neo-Nazis in major American newspapers. The basis seems to be that “these people could have been like you and me”.

“When I started covering extremists, they were as naive as I was. The majority weren’t used to the news media. So, it was easy for me, a bald and innocent foreigner from Bergen, Norway, to gain access. Now many extremists are professional communicators. In the United States, a new form of extremism has turned the country upside down.”

What can journalism contribute? What should we do to fight extremism?

“We need to take a step back. Here in the US, we experienced the storming of Congress, we have the QAnon movement, and a deep division in the population. But we must not assume that everyone who was there in Washington on January 6 were fascists and extremists. We need to explain where all that anger comes from.”

But is it possible for us – many people will think that we haven’t earned their trust; that liberal, privileged and urban journalists don’t understand their own era?

“That is correct here in the United States. The press hasn’t done a good enough job. I think the death of community journalism has had a big impact. People need journalists close to them who understand everyday life. We know that many white people are furious, they feel let down by the system. There are people who feel that they are deprived of opportunities. Such currents are far more journalistically interesting than interviewing individuals who have found answers in extremist ideology.”

What about the future here in the Nordics? Any advice?

“I have noticed the election results in Sweden and that certain circles are on the rise. My advice would be to understand why people are angry. There can be legitimate reasons for deep dissatisfaction. This is what journalism should highlight.”

Author Gard Steiro

Gard Steiro
Publisher, VG
Years in Schibsted: 22