There were two errors in one sentence in a story by reporter David A. Fahrenthold in Wednesday's Washington Post. One was a simple error of commission by Fahrenthold or his editor. The other was more serious. It was an error of omission that demonstrated the superficiality and bias that have repeatedly infected the Post's reporting on the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Fahrenthold, who is a talented writer and is usually a careful reporter, wrote his story in anticipation of the Supreme Court hearing Wednesday on Arizona's controversial attempt to thwart illegal immigration with its S.B. 1070 legislation. He described the work of two of the bill's authors, Michael Hethmon of the Immigration Reform Law Institute and Kris Kobach, an anti-illegal immigration activist who is also the Kansas secretary of state.
Here is the problematic sentence: "Hethmon, whose parent organization, the IRLI, was designated a 'hate group' by the Southern Poverty Law Center [SPLC], was delighted to have an ally with political influence."
But the Post lost track of the fact that the SPLC didn't drop its reporter- and headline-grabbing "hate group" bomb on the IRLI, but rather on the IRLI's parent organization. Responding to an e-mail that I sent him about the error, David Fahrenthold said the mistake was due to an editing error.
Fair enough. I was a reporter long enough to understand how those things happen. And hats off to Fahrenthold for adding, "I will flag your concern for the editors, so they can decide whether to run a correction."
But the far more serious mistake was Fahrenthold's failure to identify the Southern Poverty Law Center as an active, formally recognized participant in a smear campaign orchestrated by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) to discredit the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), IRLI's parent organization. The SPLC's "hate group" designation, which provided the made-to-order centerpiece of the campaign, was the work of a kangaroo court convened to deliver a pre-determined verdict. It was bogus, phony, fraudulent junk. Yet for Fahrenthold and other reporters — especially at the Post — it has been too delicious to pass up.
We told the story of the smear campaign in the CIS Backgrounder "Immigration and the SPLC: How the Southern Poverty Law Center Invented a Smear, Served La Raza, Manipulated the Press, and Duped its Donors".
The Backgrounder quoted this statement by SPLC's Mark Potok to Hispanic Link in December 2007 as the smear campaign was begun: "What we are hoping very much to accomplish is to marginalize FAIR. We don't think they should be a part of the mainstream media." In other words, while the campaign was touted as an effort to stop the hate, its actual purpose was to stifle the debate. It was a smear campaign, waged in the name of tolerance.
To its credit, NCLR was honest enough to acknowledge the SPLC as one of its allies in the campaign. It listed the SPLC as an ally, along with other liberal groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the Center for American Progress, the Leadership Congress on Civil Rights, Media Matters for America, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
But the Post's story on the "hate group" verdict issued by the SPLC kangaroo court not only failed to note the SPLC's role in the campaign, it presented the organization as a public-interest watchdog. Reporter Spencer Hsu identified the SPLC as "an independent group based in Montgomery, Ala., that monitors racist organizations." (An equivalent error in regard to the late right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart would have described him as an independent watchdog of left-wing extremists.)
Hsu's flagrant misrepresentation set the pattern for the Post's biased reporting. Just last month, the paper's Caitlin Gibson, noting the SPLC's list of hate groups, identified the SPLC as "an internationally recognized nonprofit civil-rights organization".
Yes, the SPLC is a nonprofit, at least nominally, But a few journalists have actually looked behind the curtain at the SPLC. They have provided serious reporting about the organization and its long history of hysteria in the service of its direct-mail fundraising campaigns directed by founder Morris Dees. As investigative reporter Ken Silverstein reported for Harper's in 2001:
Today, the SPLC spends most of its time — and money — on a relentless fund-raising campaign, peddling memberships in the church of tolerance with all the zeal of a circuit rider passing the collection plate. "He's the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil rights movement", renowned anti-death-penalty lawyer Millard Farmer says of Dees, his former associate, "though I don't mean to malign Jim and Tammy Faye." The Center earned $44 million last year alone — $27 million from fundraising and $17 million from stocks and other investments — but spent only $13 million on civil rights programs, making it one of the most profitable charities in the country.
Writing in The Nation magazine in 2001, JoAnn Wypijewski noted: "No one has been more assiduous in inflating the profile of [hate] groups than the millionaire huckster Morris Dees." She ripped the SPLC as "puffed up crusaders".
Here's more from our Backgrounder:
In 2009, liberal journalist Alexander Cockburn called Dees the "arch-salesman of hate-mongering". Under a headline that labeled Dees the "King of the Hate Businesss", he said Dees thrived by "selling the notion there's a right resurgence out there in the hinterland with massed legions of haters, ready to march down Main Street draped in Klan robes, a copy of 'Mein Kampf' tucked under one arm and a Bible under the other … . Ever since 1971, U.S. Postal Service mailbags have bulged with his fundraising letters, scaring dollars out of the pockets of trembling liberals aghast at his lurid depictions of hate-sodden America."
Jesuit humanities professor Raymond A. Schroth, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, described Dees' manipulation this way: "He focuses on a real problem and packages it to suit his purposes. If the problem is nuanced, complicated … he provides a prism, based partly on fear, through which we can view the issue: The Internet is out of control; hate groups are poisoning the World Wide Web. His Southern Poverty Law Center, with your help, will save you."
The SPLC's fraud-filled history is well documented. Yet reporters at the Washington Post have repeatedly been unable to see it. The result is shoddy, biased reporting. Perhaps the bias is the result of the class guilt that Wypijewski described. Perhaps it is due more to naïveté. Perhaps it simply reflects the tendency of credulous liberals to deify Morris Dees.
Whatever their source, the Post's repeated misrepresentations of the SPLC — now accompanied by hyperlinks to the organization's website — demonstrate a failure of basic journalistic standards of integrity, impartiality, and skepticism. For a paper with the Post's history of greatness, that is a terrible shame. For the SPLC it's money in the bank.