I'm a fan of Terry Gross, host of the NPR interview program "Fresh Air," normally one of the most interesting and thought-provoking shows on the air. That is why I felt sick about her interview yesterday with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. As I told two journalist friends, I haven't come so close to losing my cookies since I got food poisoning in 2005.
The normally incisive, probing, politely skeptical Gross took the day off yesterday. She reacted to Potok's claims of right-wing madness seizing the country with the thrilled revulsion of a horror-movie fan watching innocents being swept away by the mutant monster on a rampage down Main Street.
The program could hardly have gone better for Potok if he had scripted it. Indeed, he obviously did script some parts. Five different times Gross informed her nationwide audience that the SPLC "tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups."
Last week we published an expose of the Southern Poverty Law Center. It tracked the work Potok and colleague Heidi Beirich did to cook up an excuse to label the Federation for American Immigration Reform as a "hate group." We showed how that smear became the centerpiece of a campaign that was led by the National Council of La Raza. Its announced purpose was to "Stop the Hate" in the national discussion of immigration. We showed that its real purpose was to stop the debate by delegitimizing not only FAIR, but also the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA.
The campaign featured full-page newspaper advertisements trumpeting in bold lettering the fact that "The Federation for American Immigration Reform has been designated as HATE GROUP by the Southern Poverty Law Center." Calling on the press and elected officials to ignore FAIR, the ads demanded to know: "When Did Extreme Become Mainstream?"
So it was no coincidence that Fresh Air's website touted yesterday's program as an examination of "When Right-Wing Extremism Moves Mainstream." That headline was accompanied by a photograph of a man standing with a rifle slung across his back in front of a section of fence that runs along the Mexican border. A sign on the fence carried the demand "Secure the Border." That photo, credited to the Southern Poverty Law Center, was a prominent part of the ads placed by the "Stop the Hate" campaign.
Now let's be clear. In yesterday's program, Potok made no mention of FAIR, CIS, or NumbersUSA. And he did review a catalogue of truly ugly manifestations of the right-wing extremism that has surged in recent months, with efforts to delegitimize President Obama and characterize him and his administration as a socialist conspiracy.
None of that reporting was original. All of it is well known. So Gross asked Potok to talk about the activities of nativist organizations. Said Potok:
We list a variety of groups as nativist extremist groups. What we mean by that is that these are groups that are not merely essentially engaging in activism designed to restrict immigration in some way – writing letters to their congressmen or holding rallies or whatever it may be. These are groups that actually go out and either confront or harass in some way people who they think are illegal aliens – so called – or people who they think are trying to hire undocumented workers. What I'm talking about are Minuteman-type groups, people who go down to the border in some cases armed and try and interdict, themselves, people crossing the border, or go to day-worker sites and confront and harass and, you know, yell ugly things at the people they see there. The growth in that sector has been remarkable as well….We saw an 80 percent growth in the number of those groups, from about 173 to 309 over the last year.
Potok's performances are always clogged with numbers and percentages that he cites to show an extremism explosion that he calls astonishing and scary and alarming. Gross was his enthusiastic sidekick, telling listeners, "Potok reports that angry anti-immigrant vigilante groups soared by nearly 80 percent last year. In 2009 militias and the larger Patriot movement grew with 363 new militias and related groups, an increase of 244 percent."
Now, in journalism, it is axiomatic that too many numbers can smother a good story. But with Potok numbers are the story. His reports are laundry lists of hundreds of bands of bad guys. Some of them are truly nasty. Many of them are so small and moribund as to be insignificant to anyone but Potok. As we note in our report:
An article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology said the SPLC's work "illustrates how the hate crime epidemic has been constructed on the basis of dubious statistics." Laird Wilcox (who has monitored the SPLC) said many of the groups listed by the SPLC have existed solely as post office box addresses. "Others are one- or two-person operations or nothing more than a rumor they've heard about," he said. "Most of the groups that actually existed were small and marginal."
Part of the perversity of the SPLC is that after they mold their dubious numbers of anti-immigrant groups into a faceless-but-frightening blob they conflate the extremism of the truly scary with the mainstream work of organizations that seek to reduce immigration. Potok and colleague Heidi Beirich present their theories of impending doom with the wacky, wide-eyed intensity of Glen Beck. If a documentary film maker took a hard look at the SPLC's work on immigration, a fitting title would be "Bend It Like Beck."
It is some consolation that some other Terry Gross fans used the comment section of the Fresh Air website to express their dismay at yesterday's program. This comment from a Dean Pulley is particularly strong:
The same thought kept occurring to me over and over during this interview: "This can't be Terry Gross." The host I've depended on for years to ask the hard questions, unmask poseurs and pin down agendas. Rolling over for this extremist and his agenda to paint all conservative activists as terrorists at worst and dumb, scarred sheep at best. When Mark Potok began to subtly question first amendment rights, I thought "Get 'em Terry!". Nothing. Absolute complicity. How a normally objective program like Fresh Air would give a platform to such an obvious propagandist is curious, but Terry meekly acknowledging the outrageous statements and unsustainable connections shocked me to the core. Why, Terry? How will you restore your authority after this?
I have a suggestion for the Terry Gross authority restoration project. Terry, I'm sure you meant to do a little prep before the Potok interview. I know it was an aberration that you read nothing that wasn't provided by the SPLC. So, to paraphrase Tennyson, it's not too late to seek a truer world. Have your people call my people. I still love you, but I'm worried that you've been held hostage by the SPLC. After yesterday's program I could hear their "Send Us Money to Save the World" machine ringing all the way from Alabama.
I'd love to hear my phone ring with a call from the Once and Future Terry Gross.
Or, as Paul Simon would say, "Why don't you write me, I'm out in the jungle, I'm hungry to hear you. Send me a card. I am waiting so hard to be near you…. Tell me why. Why?! Why?!!!"