How to interview the far right

What happens when you do a primetime interview with a far-right politician … but don’t actually ask them about refugee issues?

For The Atlantic yesterday, I looked at one such interview: German broadcaster ZDF sat down with Alexander Gauland, the co-leader of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), and asked him about everything but immigration. On retirement, climate change and digitalization, among others, Gauland struggled to explain his party’s positions—often stating that he had no actual answer to give.

That interview, which aired Sunday evening in Germany, is a study in contrasts with the way the American media handled the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Washington the same day: news organizations sent a collective horde of journalists down to cover what ultimately ended up being just a few dozen rally-goers.

We as an industry—on both sides of the Atlantic—have struggled to figure out how to cover the far right. When they get into parliaments or governments, their actions and issues are inherently newsworthy; however, overemphasizing or sensationalizing such news also runs the risk of tacitly helping such parties reinforce their rhetoric.

ZDF’s Gauland interview falls into one school of thought on dealing with the far right: treat them the same as you would any other politician, and if they fail to produce substantive answers it’s on them. “These should be questions that should be easy to answer for any political leader, because they are so important for the future of Germany,” University of Kiel political scientist Marcel Dirsus told me. “The AfD wants to talk about refugees because this is where they can score points, but they clearly don’t have answers on any of the other topics.”