The SPLC and the Judy Miller Problem at the NYT

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on March 29, 2010

The "Judy Miller problem" heaved its lazy, destructive head in Saturday's New York Times.

This time it won't set the predicate for an invasion of a Middle Eastern country. This time it lends legitimacy to a reckless campaign to smear groups that oppose illegal immigration.

Judy Miller will live forever in journalism infamy. The Times reporter's shoddy reporting from Iraq quoted bogus sources who manipulated her to propagate the fearful illusion that Saddam Hussein was on a mad dash to gather weapons of mass destruction.

Miller's reporting brought shame to the Times. In a 2004 editorial the newspaper expressed regret at publishing information that had been "insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged."

Along those same lines, columnist Charles M. Blow on Saturday provided credibility to the latest junk reporting by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Blow quoted the SPLC to buttress his claim that an alarming surge in extremist opposition to illegal immigration is part of the broader phenomenon of "far-right extremists (who) have gone into conniptions."

"In fact," Blow reports, according to a report entitled "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism" recently released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, "nativist extremist" groups that confront and harass suspected immigrants have increased nearly 80 percent since President Obama took office.

As he amplified the SPLC's alarmist and shabbily documented reporting on "nativist extremists," Blow made no effort to qualify the SPLC's claims. He allowed them to stand, completely unchallenged, in the most influential newspaper in the United States.

Last week, the Center for Immigration Studies published an extensive report on the SPLC's immigration work. We showed how the SPLC's kangaroo court cooked up an excuse for smearing the Federation for American Immigration Reform as a "hate group." We showed how the SPLC, working with the National Council of La Raza, manipulated the press to spread the smear.

So who are these 309 organizations on the SPLC's new list of "nativist extremist" groups who allegedly pose a grave danger to our political discourse and the future of our republic?

Virginian-Pilot reporter Tim McGlone wanted to find out. Rather than parroting the SPLC's alarm, he did some actual journalism. He did not let the SPLC go unchallenged. (Warning to Mr. McGlone: the SPLC knows where you work).

McGlone looked into a group called Save the Old Dominion, whose website describes it as "a grassroots organization dedicated to helping preserve our communities and to protect them from the negative effects related to the presence of illegal aliens."

McGlone talked with the SPLC's director of research, Heidi Beirich, who told him how groups that oppose illegal immigration were selected for the list. She said the decisive criterion was that the groups became confrontational with suspected illegal immigrants, to the point "where they gather and protest right in their face and scream at them."

McGlone also talked with Save the Old Dominion organizer Belinda Dexter. "Dexter and others in affiliated organizations in Virginia said they have never used those tactics," he reported.

Dexter's response to the smear mixed sadness with indignation. "That's not nice," she said. "It is absolutely not true. There's no extremism."

Said Dexter colleague Greg Letiecq, speaking of the SPLC, "The thing that really struck me about it is their information collection is sloppy at best."

As we reported in our examination of the SPLC, sloppy, malicious reporting is a specialty at the SPLC. While claiming to stand for tolerance, brotherhood, and civil discourse, it spends much of its time playing a perverse game which could be called "Inflate The Hate: How to Name and Shame With Little or No Evidence of Blame."

Another group that made the "nativist extremist" list is Friends of the Border Patrol, in Covina, Calif. It was founded by third-generation Mexican American Andy Ramirez. Here is what Ramirez told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005, as he prepared to place hundreds of volunteers along the Mexican border:

"Our border watch is similar to a neighborhood watch. We're not attempting to apprehend anybody."

So did Ramirez take his group in a different direction? Did it become confrontational? Did it harass or insult anyone? I couldn't find any evidence of that in a database search.

More important, the SPLC supplies none in its report. Its hysterical cry of an alarming rise in extremism is 99 percent allegation and 1 percent information.

A large majority of the groups on the SPLC "nativist extremist" organizations are affiliated with the Minuteman movement that sprang up in 2005, placing "citizen patrols" along the border.

The SPLC's Mark Potok described the Minuteman patrols this way: "These have ranged from quite benign – people sitting in lawn chairs with binoculars and reporting when the see people crossing the border to the Border Patrol – to others who have actually gone out and held people at gunpoint."

My reading and my own reporting on the Minutemen make clear that there was a lot more lawn-chair-sitting among the Minutemen than holding people at gunpoint.

Does the SPLC have information to the contrary – actual solid, reportable, information to the contrary? If it does, it seems to be holding it under armed guard in a vault down in its Montgomery, Ala., headquarters. Maybe it's next to the vault where it stores the tens of millions of dollars it takes in from liberal donors who are terrified by the SPLC's cries of rampaging right-wing extremism.

As journalist Alexander Cockburn, a liberal stalwart, wrote last year, the SPLC has 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."

Reporter Tim McGlone got another interesting tidbit from Heidi Beirich, who wanted to explain why the SPLC came up with the "nativist extremist" category. It turns out that the category is for groups who are not deemed to be motivated by the racism that characterizes the groups who make the SPLC's list of "hate groups."

Reported McGlone: "Beirich said her organization, based in Montgomery, Ala., put out the [nativist extremist] list in part to draw 'a distinction from what we consider legitimate political concerns.'"

There you have it: The SPLC decides whose concerns are legitimate and whose are extremist.

This kind of moralizing, coercive arrogance calls to mind a passionate declaration by the late Barlett Giamatti, in 1981 when he was president of Yale.

Giamatti became furious at the bullying tactics of the Moral Majority and the New Right. He denounced them as "peddlers of coercion" who "presume to know which books are fit to read, which television programs are fit to watch, which textbooks will serve for all the young. … Whatever view does not conform to these views is by definition relativistic, negative, secular, immoral, against the family, anti-free enterprise, un-American."

What Giamatti said then of the Moral Majority can now be said of the SPLC: "What nonsense. What dangerous, malicious nonsense."

What a shame that the New York Times gives such nonsense a place in its editorial pages. What a shame that its reporting draws on a specious report put out by an organization described in our report — by a legitimate expert who has done his homework — as "bullying, moralizing fanatics."

But this time, instead of confirming a pretext for an invasion, the reporting confirms the biases of the New York Times editorial page.

So don't expect to see an editorial expressing regret.