Three weeks ago, Gambit Weekly put an extraordinarily shallow man on our cover. In the 1960s, C.J. Trahan, as Johnny Rebel, recorded an album's worth of racist songs in a renowned south Louisiana studio. The story of Johnny Rebel was merely an ugly footnote in local music history -- until last year, when the singer became a fad in "hatecore" music. Now, his music serves as a recruiting tool for racist groups worldwide. For them, Johnny Rebel is a living legend.
Our story cited Mark Potok, a hate music expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., who says that white power groups use music to attract teens. We also referred to the Anti-Defamation League's report, Bigots Who Rock, which states that "[s]ince the 1960s, when racist country singer Johnny Rebel recorded songs such as 'N-- Hatin' Me,' more than 500 hate rock groups have formed world-wide." (The full report is available online at www.adl.org.)
When asked about these songs, Trahan's answers are as banal as Eichmann's defense in Jerusalem. He says he did the songs for money, that he was just giving rhyme to the political mood of the era. Above all, he claims, he's no racist. This from the man whose song titles include "Some Niggers Never Die (They Just Smell That Way)."
For years, Trahan went unnoticed. Even people in his hometown of Crowley -- and in his family, he says -- didn't know his full story. Many readers of Gambit Weekly have since told us that it should have stayed that way (see "Letters," p. 6). We heard from some who said that by publishing anecdotes from Trahan's life, we "humanized" the horror of racism. Or that by letting Trahan explain his views -- and by listing Web sites that sell and promote his music -- we naively gave haters a platform.
These are legitimate criticisms. In fact, the Johnny Rebel story divided our own newsroom. Did the story belong on our pages? Would any story on such a figure belong here? If so, what form should that story take?
Mark Potok has heard similar questions before. Before joining the Southern Poverty Law Center, he worked as a journalist for 20 years and covered the radical right and militia movement for USA Today. In the 1950s and early '60s, Potok says, many American newspapers adopted a "quarantine policy" about media-grabbing fringe groups like the American Nazi Party. "That approach is totally out of the question now," Potok says. "There's cable, there's talk radio, the Internet, and people are forced to confront these ideas in some way. My response is always, more press is better, but more responsible press."
Potok says Gambit Weekly's article satisfies his criteria for responsible reporting. "Scrape under the surface with these groups," he says. "It's not about loving white people, it's about hating the others. Given Trahan's song titles, it's difficult to imagine people getting the wrong picture of him."
Meanwhile, don't expect Johnny Rebel to go away. In the past, hatecore was limited to heavy metal. Currently, the racist National Alliance is peddling a new CD by what it calls a rising country star. Potok also names a racist Celtic band. "There's an active effort to go into other genres of music," he says.
What's the best way to combat these messages? Head-on, says Potok. Parents of teenagers should take their kids to white power Web sites and start a dialogue on the Holocaust and the history of race relations and immigration. "The bad alternative is that, when the kid is 17, he goes up there and discovers a whole secret world that he thinks his parents are too stupid to know about." Some of these kids will check out a band and attend a concert, he warns. Some will join the movement.
It is always risky to write about hate groups. "Every story is going to mean that they are going to get a few more members," Potok says. "But I think it's clearly worth the cost. Because you're telling people something that is important."
Three weeks ago, Gambit Weekly took that risk. We are still debating the story that resulted, but we believe that you want us to continue to report on important-- and controversial -- topics. So we will keep wrestling with how best to do so. Because somewhere in south Louisiana, a 65-year-old musician has a brand-new album to sell. He is a banal man, but there is evil in his music. Whether anyone is buying his message is a question that concerns us all.