Elle Reeve, a technology correspondent for “Vice News Tonight,” shows little emotion as she interviews white nationalists spewing hate in the chilling documentary “Charlottesville: Race and Terror.” That was by design.
“I grew up around some rough people,” says Reeve, who was heckled and filmed by white nationalists during the making of the documentary. “If you act scared, they will give you a reason to be scared. I knew I could not let my face show any fear.”
Slate called the film that went viral in August “an argument for not looking away.” Prior to joining “Vice News Tonight,” Elle was a senior editor at The New Republic and politics editor at The Atlantic’s site The Wire. Her writing has appeared in the Daily Beast and on TheAtlantic.com.
During a conversation at the Nieman Foundation in October with former MSNBC executive producer Jamieson Lesko, a 2018 Nieman Fellow, Reeve—who has been covering the alt-right for a year and a half, first for The New Republic and since June 2016 for “Vice News Tonight”—discussed the making of the documentary. It started when a production assistant for “Vice News Tonight” pitched the idea of doing a story on the upcoming march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Reeve looked into it and believed it was going to be significant. The plan had been to do a three-minute piece. “I was told by my boss to be emotionally prepared for it never to run,” she says. “We didn’t have a show on Friday during that part of the season. It was maybe going to be old news by Monday.” Once the “Vice News Tonight,” crew witnessed hundreds of torch-carrying marchers shouting in unison “Jews will not replace us,” they decided the story might be bigger than expected and they went after it. That weekend a Virginia woman, Heather Heyer, was killed while protesting another rally in Charlottesville of white supremacists.
On planning for Charlottesville
A lot of thought went into our coverage when we were just thinking of a three-minute piece before we ever went to Charlottesville. The night before, I called my producer, Josh Davis, and we talked for an hour and a half. We had many conference calls. We talked a lot with the Washington bureau chief, Shawna Thomas, who is an African American woman.
It’s like, “What are we doing? Are we making the world a worse place by introducing it to white supremacist Christopher Cantwell?” That being said, these guys have the internet. They have so many platforms. It’s not going to go away if we ignore it.
On covering the alt-right
I’ve been covering this for a while. Every time I would talk about it, my friends would say, “Well, they don’t really mean it though, right? I mean there’s not that many of them.” I feel like that’s denial. I think it is very dangerous to ignore this. So that is one reason I am very happy with the final product because it made people wake up to it.
I’ve gotten a lot of hostility from them, but also have tried to cut through a lot of stereotypes. People particularly assume that white supremacists are poor and somewhere in Alabama, and ultimately have no political power. These people are quite young, very well-educated, and from the North. They’re very well organized. They respect that I present the true them. It’s not easy.
They have hours and hours and hours of podcasts. There’s one called “The Daily Shoah,” a pun on “The Daily Show” and the Holocaust. They have a website called WeSearchr that posts journalism bounties. You put up $5,000 for Megyn Kelly’s divorce records. Someone tries to fulfill that. They can raise $100,000 almost overnight. They have done that several times this year. They have Hatreon, Goyfundme. They have think tanks. They have magazines. They have 4chan. They recruit through video‑game platforms as well.
I let them be rude to me. They’ve got this macho code of conduct. Cantwell’s the kind of guy who says things like, “I’m a man of my word, so I’m going to keep my word even though I don’t like what you’re doing.” I know how to operate within that system.
It’s really tricky. They’re recording you all the time. They might try to manipulate that. They might post that. You have to be really careful when talking to them. I just try to keep it pretty short, ask them open‑ended questions about what they believe.
It’s a very misogynist movement. They think that I’m feeble‑minded because I’m a woman. They think that I believe in egalitarianism because I’ve been tricked by Jews into believing that because I’m a conformist, that I’m genetically more conformist than men are.
When we had the interview in the park before the march, Christopher Cantwell had a semi‑circle of some dozen and a half, two dozen supporters heckling me. In the documentary, you can hear a man, there’s Mike Peinovich behind David Duke in our piece, shouting at me, “Say hi to your ex‑husband. Say hi to your Jew boyfriend.”
This is my first TV job. I’ve always done print before, and you can seamlessly meld into the scene when you’re a print reporter, something that you just can’t do at all with TV cameras. I do like it in one way, which is it’s so easy to get under these guys’ skin.
I do think that’s part of being female. All I have to do is not give approval, and they get upset. I find that powerful and kind of fun because sexism is working on my side for once.
I think they also wanted to show off in front of their friends and hurt my feelings.
When we got in the van [with Cantwell and other white supremacists in Charlottesville], I think that surprised them. Lots of people ask me about the van. They don’t expect me to be in there. I think part of that is because I’m female. That works for me too, throwing them off guard. It mellows the hostility a little bit.
The guards, the protesters trying to keep us out [of the area set aside in Charlottesville for protesters], they’re like, “That’s that bitch from Vice. That’s the bitch from Vice.” I’m like, “Yeah, let me in. That’s right. I’m that bitch from Vice. Now let me go in there,” and they did. It worked. I’m a very competitive person. It was like I’m not going to let this go. That’s what I was thinking.
I think it’s absolutely critical that we stay on top of a rising fascist movement in the country, not just because of the president who sometimes exceeds the expectations of these activists. Something to really think about is that these men argue that there’s something innately wrong with African Americans, that they are less than for some genetic reason.
Obviously, that’s despicable, but there is a lot of much more mainstream commentary that makes the same argument in coded language, that says that there’s a culture of poverty, that there’s some kind of problem in the culture of black people and that’s why there are disparate outcomes. That’s why there’s a giant wealth gap between black people and white people.
That is on a continuum. Those beliefs are connected. I think when you have mainstream politicians saying makers versus takers, that kind of stuff, there’s pressure not to call that out for what it is. It is racism. It’s not that many steps away from this white supremacist movement.
On de-escalating hostility
There was this really big man who was filming me. They stopped the van for a second to get another guy in. That was when he was like, “We’ll all push the media out if we have to.”
I could sense in the back less hostile emotions, and so that’s why I turned to Robert Ray of the Daily Stormer. You can hear me stumble. At first I was going to say, “Who are you?” but I knew that he would like it better if I let him know that I recognized who he was. I was like, “What do you do for the Stormer?” Then the emotion calmed down, and they let us stay.
On interviewing Christopher Cantwell
When you’re getting set up for an interview, you have to make small talk but not about the thing you’re there to talk about. It’s so hard to do that with the Nazis because they want to make everything racist. You can’t talk about pop culture with them, because they’ll try to bait you into saying something racist or agreeing with something racist.
With Cantwell, we ended up talking about fruit. I noticed he had a whole bunch of bananas and two pounds of strawberries on his TV stand. I was like, “Oh, wow, I don’t know anyone other than me who likes fruit that much.” We just started talking about fruit. I love mangos. He said his favorite fruit was the kiwi. He goes, “You know, kiwi doesn’t look like something you’d want to eat from the outside,” which my friend pointed out to me later is such an obvious metaphor. You shouldn’t judge the thing from what it looks like on the outside.
When we arranged to have a post-march interview, he said that he would cancel it if we didn’t get there by 8 p.m. We were right at 7:55, so I went up first. Tracy Jarrett, an African-American producer, and cameraman Zach Caldwell came in. Tracy’s standing next to me, and I could tell he [Cantwell] looked surprised. I was like, “Josh had to fly back to New York. This is my producer, Tracy Jarrett,” and he shook her hand, and we just went about business. I just thought that if I act like everything was cool, he’s going to act like everything’s cool.
When he says of Charlottesville that it’s tough to top, he’s got that smirk. I know he’s trying to make me upset. I’m just trying to get him to explain his logic. The person who died was white. He’s saying blacks are killing each other from coast to coast. I felt like his beliefs are on display in all of their ugliness.
On the aftermath
This piece had a lot of consequences for the alt-right. One, Cantwell is in jail as are, I think, four other protesters. One reason he’s been held without bond are the statements at the end of the video about how we’re going to see a lot more people die. And it is one reason why I’ve gotten some attention, recently, from the alt‑right people, because they believe he’s a political prisoner for what he said.
More importantly, the tech industry has dealt a real blow to them in the wake of this. They’ve been kicked off of Squarespace, Discord. All of their communications, all the way down to payment processors such as Swipe, have been affected. They’re not able to collect funds. About a week after Charlottesville, I talked to Richard Spencer, who was complaining that the only way he could raise money was through cashing physical checks at his bank.
Within the alt‑right world, the reaction’s been mixed. Some of it is the typical misogyny, like I’m so ugly. Some have some respect that I got into the van. Cantwell himself called me after it aired but before he was in jail and said that he thought it was fair and that I didn’t misrepresent him.
On future coverage
I can’t give a solid answer because I don’t know. They’re really savvy about the media. They’re really, really good at social media. Now that the whole world knows that these guys exist, you can’t just do the straight-on coverage of their events. You can’t ignore it either.