The 22-minute “Vice News Tonight” documentary “Charlottesville: Race and Terror” provided a chilling look at the white supremacists behind the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August. It quickly went viral.
“They were really, really, really angry. I grew up around some rough people. If you act scared, they will give you a reason to be scared. I knew I could not let my face show any fear.”
But Elle Reeve, the “Vice News Tonight” correspondent who took viewers behind the scenes in Charlottesville and introduced them to the now-notorious white nationalist Christopher Cantwell, says the doc almost never happened: “We were planning on doing a three-minute piece, and I was told by my boss to be emotionally prepared for it never to run at all. Things changed.”
“Charlottesville: Race and Terror,” which originally aired Aug. 14 as a special episode of “Vice News Tonight” on HBO, has since been seen by tens of millions of people — 46 million, by some estimates — across different platforms, including YouTube.
Reeve, who before joining Vice was a senior editor at The New Republic and politics editor at The Atlantic’s now-defunct The Wire, recently visited the Nieman Foundation and chatted with Nieman Fellow and former MSNBC executive producer Jamieson Lesko about the decisions and reporting behind making the documentary, annotating clips from the episode. Their conversation has been edited and condensed:
Jamieson: Ultimately, I think it’s probably smart for us to start with what the intention was. Was this a documentary from the start for you? Was this a story that you were assigned, or was this something that you’d been in discussion with them about because of your sourcing?
Elle: No. We were planning on doing a three‑minute piece, and I was told by my boss to be emotionally prepared for it never to run at all. Things changed.
I’d been covering the alt‑right for a year and a half. Our just‑out‑of‑college production assistant Joe pitched [covering the march], so my bosses asked me to look into it. Was it going to be a thing?
I started calling people, and everyone I called knew about it. Even given that activists will overestimate how many people will show up, it seemed like it would be significant, so we decided to go.
It was me, a producer, two camera guys, a sound guy and the PA Joe.
“I’ve been covering this for a while. Every time I would, 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.”
Jamieson: I’m curious about the mechanism behind it, how you managed to gain entrée. There was a really interesting quote from the VICE executive in charge of the show, Josh Tyrangiel. [He] was quoted as saying that, in the past, your reporting helped you secure multiple interviews with protest leaders, and therefore you “have some credibility with these folks.”
Can you set the stage for us, briefly, about the development of these relationships, characterize the nature of them, and how you’ve managed to navigate assumed queasiness?
Elle: I’ve been covering them a long time. Before Trump was elected, it was really easy to get them on the phone. They wanted attention. It’s an online movement, so you can look at how they interact with each other online. You can follow it. You can see all of their slang, all the issues they’re upset with, so it’s very easy to get caught up on what they’re interested in.
I’ve done these stories, over time. 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 not like the people in this audience, that they 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. Some of them I have a cordial relationship with, like you just say please and thank you. Others, 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.”
Jamieson: Final question in this sort of back story area is about safety. Who ultimately within the structure of your team is in charge of the final decision? You go into that hotel room where Cantwell is fired up and actually has firearms.
I don’t want to make a pun out of firearms but he’s revved up. In these situations, is there someone making the decision other than you as to what you’re doing? Are you listening to the producers?
Elle: Me and Josh [were] talking [about safety] the whole time. We did have a security briefing before. We went down there with gas masks and helmets, also flak jackets, but they got lost in LaGuardia.
We’re just like, “Oh, this feels unsafe. Let’s get to higher ground.”
Jamieson: What was your role or involvement in the shot selection and the final presentation? Because as a correspondent, some have power, some don’t.
Elle: Minimal. There were parts that we knew had to get that. In the final interview, he says that the death of Heather Heyer is justified. We knew that was going in. I knew the minute he said it that that was going in even as I was like, “Ah, how do I respond to this?”
Most of the time, I would be in the hotel room. It’s 4:30 in the morning. I’m falling asleep while my producer and our cameraman are figuring out how to edit and send back to New York.
Jamieson: Would you characterize yourself as being happy with the final product? And can you state your personal intention with this? Was that in line with what you understand VICE and HBO’s intention?
Elle: Yeah, I’m happy with it. [And my intention was] to show that this is real. I’ve been covering this for a while. Every time I would, 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.
Jamieson: It’s hard to watch, isn’t it? I can tell from your face it’s hard to watch.
Elle: I just remember what it was like.
When he starts saying that he’s making himself more capable of violence, you can see me smile because I was like, “Oh, yes. This dude is crazy.” I couldn’t believe he was doing that.
If you want to talk about my reactions, Trayvon Martin was [killed in] 2012. I was working at a news website, The Atlantic Wire, which no longer exists. I was writing about Trayvon Martin so much. It was my job,… We had to collect the photos to illustrate it, so I looked at so many pictures of that kid’s face. He’s a real person to me. He’s not an abstract news story. He just felt so real to me.
In that moment, I know all the details of that case. Do we go into how the fistfight went down with George Zimmerman? No, this piece is not about Trayvon Martin. I want to get out why he believes what he believes but still interject when I can. Also, the reason I picked the two mass shooters is because they’re on 4chan, which is the beating heart of the alt‑right.
Jamieson: For you, it’s an internal negotiation as to do you engage and start fact-checking him or counterpointing him.
Elle: Yeah. Everything he says, it’s like you put a pin in this thing and this thing and this thing. Then when you hear the sentence winding down, it’s like, “OK, which one do I select? This one.”
Jamieson: I’m curious. You went there with some of the names, but then by the time he got to the point towards the end there where he’s talking about Kushner and that whole dynamic, you just decided to move right on. The clip played to your next question. You just completely ignored what he said at that point, and you moved into talking about the right adopting the political style of the left.
In that decision, what was going through your mind? Was it that he’s so far off the rails, it’s so crazy, it’s too crazy?
Elle: What is the response to Donald Trump should not let his daughter have sex with a Jewish man? There’s like misogyny and anti‑Semitism wrapped up in that. The only response is, “That’s crazy.” There’s not a statistic or something. That’s offensive.
Another thing to understand is that these guys have taken the term trigger warning, and they’ve turned it into their own verb, to trigger. If you go to YouTube, there’s basically a whole genre of alt‑right figure triggers feminist, triggers social justice warrior. That is supposed to get a reaction from me. He wants me to have an emotional response because it’s about women. I wanted to deny him that.
Jamieson: Your objective is to get him to show his craz[iness] as much as possible to expose [it], but then you have to keep it moving in order to stay on task. Is that a fair assessment?
Because I think, from the perspective of a journalist, there’s the empathic understanding of you’re there to do a story, not let someone just dictate to you whatever hate or horror they feel is important to get out.
There’s that walk between being used almost by them as a tool and also not engaging to a point where they’re going to turn their hostility on you, your team if you had concern. I’m curious if…
At this stage in the game, it all seems pretty mild as we’ll see throughout the course of this documentary and these couple of days. Things certainly seem to escalate. For you, the intention or the explanation I suppose would be to anyone who’s saying, “She’s pushing him but letting him get away with stuff.”
Elle: This is what he believes. It’s the whole package. It’s the misogyny that’s very tied up in sexual relations. There’s anti‑Semitism, and there’s the racism. They are very fixated on Black Lives Matter, which is important because that’s … activism that’s at the heart of the north. That’s American cities. That’s not just Southern hicks being racist to each other. That strikes at the heart of liberalism too, the critiques of police violence in urban areas. It’s very important to expose that.
Jamieson: In your mind, you know nothing…. The major planned event has yet to occur.
Are you somewhere back there trying to keep him sweet as well so that you can continue to have access to him? Because that’s often a consideration of people who have some kind of an agreement to film someone over the course of time; was the nature of your agreement with Cantwell and his group at that point that you’re allowed to kind of shadow them through the day? Or were you just kind of popping up?
Elle: It wasn’t clear if we would have more. This was all that we agreed initially. I just thought that he would want to talk to me later no matter what I said. I didn’t think that there was anything that we could do that would make him not want to talk to me.
Jamieson: He’s gotten himself maced. You have the conversation. It’s pretty clear that he’s now amped up. What is going through your mind at this point? Do you have an understanding of whether or not you can continue to shadow him?
Elle: When I ran into him while he was being maced, that was luck. We [my producer, sound guy and I] had gotten separated from our camera crew. That’s why that section of it is shot on an iPhone. We were standing kind of in this higher area. The cops wouldn’t let us get into the protester area. We had lost Cantwell. I didn’t know how we were going to get in. Then he just appeared. Then he was pouring himself with milk.
I was like, “This is our only chance to get in with these guys.” We still didn’t have our camera guys. They started leading [Cantwell] in a chain because he was blinded by the mace into the protest area. We just followed him. … If you just act like, “Yeah, you want me here,” they’ll kind of go along with that. We just decided to stick with him.
I’m a very competitive person. It was like, “I’m not going to let this go.” That’s what I was thinking.
Jamieson: In the van, your facial expression might be interpreted as kind of smiling. That might be the adrenaline of the situation. That might be private delight that this is a competitive win.
Can you explain that and your decision‑making process to stay in [the van] when they’re debating with each other as to whether or not you’re really welcome?
Elle: They were really, really, really angry. I grew up around some rough people. If you act scared, they will give you a reason to be scared. I knew I could not let my face show any fear. I’m a nerd. I’m maxing out on my social skills in these moments, but I could sense this hostility.
Then there was also this really big man who was filming me too. 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 just felt this slight hesitation like, “OK, they’re not going to drag us out.” I was already like, “I’m not getting out unless they pull us out, and if they pull us out, OK. I can’t fall on the ground because then they’ll stomp our face.”
I could sense in the back [there was] this less hostile emotion, and so that’s why I turned to him. 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.
Jamieson: [Your crew] followed your lead. Did you blindly, as in you weren’t looking at them, trust that they were with you because you had already had a pact going into this?
Elle: Yeah, he took off towards the van. We were like, “Should we get in the van? Yes, go.”
I should say the cameraman is a Filipino man, Orlando de Guzman, and Josh Davis was the producer sitting next to him, who is Jewish. [Robert Ray of The Daily Stormer is] shouting about vermin. I’m like making these calculations. That’s my friend. He was talking about my friends.
I know Josh well, and I had worked with Orlando before. I had faith in them. I knew. I don’t know [how, but] I just knew we’d be OK.
Jamieson: First, let’s talk about placement, because it appears that there are five distinct angles in this sequence, one being a rooftop shot or a drone.
Elle: That’s not us. A lot of these are taken from social media. Some of the versions of this have the captions and everything, and some don’t, but it does have a tiny attribution in what ran on HBO, which was taken from someone on the street versus what’s our own.
Jamieson: OK, because I think when you’re watching without the credit … [and] without that sort of TV mentality in mind, you’re wondering, “Is VICE in all these places at the same time, and if so, did they know something was going to happen on this street? Was there a heads up? Was there an indication that something may be brewing in a way that they need to cover from up above and various angles?”
We’ve got that shot. There’s a shot as the car is racing past. There’s a head‑on as the car is coming forward, then in the sequence, it goes back and forth between them, but then a fresh shot of the car backing up the street. Then of course, the camera that’s on you. That’s actually a collection of outside source video, and the only camera that’s rolling that’s VICE, is that your stand‑up?
Elle: Me, but also these. There’s no credit there, all these people being injured and treated, and Heather Heyer getting CPR. That’s us.
Jamieson: Anyone who hasn’t had the distinct displeasure of doing a stand‑up in front of a camera in the middle of a horrifying scene of human carnage probably can’t fully appreciate what is going through your body, let alone your mind, in a moment like that.
Can you talk us through [that moment]? You’re trying to keep your composure. You don’t know how many people are injured. You’re starting the stand‑up from a place of what you don’t know, and you’re, it seems, trying to hang on and not actually cry.
Elle: Yeah, we were in a building right on the corner when the crash happened. It’s a very, very hot day, 95 degrees. We saw these people marching, so we decided to follow them. It was so hot, we stepped into this large doorway, maybe five‑feet deep, to get some shade.
These people were going by, and then all of the sudden, there’s this horrible sound, and people screaming and people running. I thought it was a gun, at first. I pressed my back against the wall. Then I realized it’s not a gun. We were trying to figure out what happened.
Many of the marchers were Antifa who were very skeptical of the press, and of course, when anyone is injured, people have this sense that journalists are like vultures, coming in to prey on their misery, so you have to be so careful in how you talk to them.
I don’t like doing stand‑ups, and my producer—who I love very much—was making me do a lot of them. That’s why I say in the thing, “I don’t know what’s going on. All I know is that people are hurt and crying and stuff.” He was like, “Say what you know.” You can’t go back and do it, once you have the facts. Once the moment is gone, it’s gone.
Elle: That happened while I was doing my stand‑up. This man came up to me and was like, “Can I say something?” I was like, “Yeah.”
He did, and then he walked off, and we didn’t get his name, but … before the show aired, obviously, we had interviewed other activists in town. Josh did all this reporting, and we got [Tim Porter’s] name. That’s why it has his name up there.
We did do a follow‑up interview with him a few days later. This was one of the incredible things about that scene. People try to equate the two groups, the alt‑right and Antifa. Some want to call it the alt‑left, which I think is unwise.
All these people that I talked to were beating themselves up because they hadn’t done more, including this guy, Tim. He was like, “I wish I could have pulled her out, I could have done something…I jumped out of the way instead of grabbing her or other people.”
This other woman was just sobbing. She’s like, “I didn’t know how to do CPR, and I didn’t do anything. Someone else did.” They were just crying, while the other side—not all of them—but many would want to see that death was justified or OK, or a cost of doing business.
Jamieson: I’m curious who made [the decision] how to treat President Trump’s response, because I think the choice VICE made here is a really interesting one. The point there being the screen was black. Can you talk us through the decision‑making process, if you were privy to it?
Elle: I wasn’t. I was still reporting, so I wasn’t part of that decision. [However,] I think it’s a good one. … First of all, no image makes you really think about the words. There were these insurance ads once that used rotoscoping instead of real people, and it made you listen to their words so much more. It changes. It dials down the president as a figure, his charisma, and makes his words the thing that the people we’ll be talking to next [in the video] are playing off of.
Jamieson: This is the final scene in which now the knowledge is widespread that someone has lost their life. Can you explain how this hotel interview [came to be], what the circumstances were? Did you get a phone call and had to get there right away? Did you know this was going to happen?
Elle: We had talked about having a follow‑up interview with him on Saturday night, and he cancelled that. We weren’t sure we were going to do it, but we talked to Shawna at the DC bureau, and we’re like, “OK, yes, let’s get this final interview.”
Cantwell had gotten wind of a possible warrant out for his arrest, so he was afraid that he was going to get raided by police. He drove to a hotel two and a half hours away, so we drove to North Carolina.
I was afraid he was going to catfish me. I was like, “Can you show me something that confirms where you are?” He sent me a screenshot of the WiFi.
Jamieson: You got in the car with your team, with not that much notice, but you drove. You had two and a half hours to think about what you were going to say, and anticipate?
Elle: Yeah. The team had shifted, so Josh had flown back to New York [to start editing on Sunday morning]. A new producer had flown in, Tracy Jarrett, an African American woman, and then we had one cameraman, Zach Caldwell.
Jamieson: You’ve got a pinch‑hit producer who has credibility with you, and potentially with Cantwell. You don’t know. You’re walking into his room with someone who’s African American. He doesn’t see this coming?
Elle: No. The entire way, I was thinking, “Do I give him a little speech? Do I say, again in that man code, ‘You’re going to be nice to my friends,’“ or, ‘I expect you to treat my friend with respect.’“ I’m planning out, “Do I say something?”
He had said that he would cancel the interview if we didn’t get there by 8:00 PM. We were right at 7:55, so I went up first, and I decided not to say anything. Tracy and Zach came in. Tracy’s standing next to me, and I could tell he 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.
Jamieson: You just went with it, but you were not expecting that, were you?
Elle: I just thought that if I act like everything was cool, he’s going to act like everything’s cool.
Jamieson: That exchange, how do you feel about it, watching it back? Understanding what was going on in the room, that you had an African American producer that you thrust into the situation as the camera person, may help explain to anyone who, at first, may have been critical of you to say, “Well, she should have pushed back harder. She knew someone died.”
How do you reflect on this line of questioning and exchange? Is there anything you would do differently about it?
Elle: We basically did that line of questioning twice, once at the very beginning, which is [what you see in the video], and once at the end. To be honest, I prefer the one at the end, but I have even less emotion on my face in it.
He’s arguing that the life of James Alex Fields, the person accused of driving the car, is worth more to him than the lives of any of the people who were in that area when they got hit. I was like, “To who?” He said, “To me.”
I know that people want to emote through me. I just wanted to get what he actually believes. You can see the smirk on his face. He’s trying to troll me.
When he says, “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 there. The person who died was white. He’s talking about the blacks are killing each other from coast to coast.
I felt like his beliefs are on display in all of their ugliness.