Too Good to Check?

By Jerry Kammer on May 1, 2017

"The press can't simply report flatfooted a smearing accusation against someone's loyalty," said Murray Marder, who did some of the sharpest reporting on [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy in the Washington Post. "The press should ask the accuser, 'What do you mean? What justification do you have?' That's real work, and it's called journalism."
The Age of Anxiety, by Haynes Johnson

Neither book takes on these complexities nor reflects the vitality that makes immigration such an exciting topic. Worst of all, the authors, especially [Jorge] Ramos, believe that those favoring enforcement of the border and immigration law are racists. This is tripe, an ad hominem attack by authors who can't face the nuances of the issue they've taken on.
— Sam Quinones in a 2002 Los Angeles Times review of books by Jorge Ramos and Joseph Nevins

Last week we conducted a thought experiment about how journalists would respond if a prominent conservative organization launched an inflammatory attack on the character and morality of a rival liberal group. We said reporters would demand evidence to support the charge. If it proved bogus they would expose the sham, opinion columnists would be primed for outrage, and investigative teams would check for patterns involving similar distortions in the past.

Of course, we should expect the same response if the scenario's political poles were reversed. But that would be unwise. If you don't think so, please consider the story of how Jonathan Blitzer of the New Yorker, Nicholas Kulish of the New York Times, and Joel Rose of National Public Radio reported on the Southern Poverty Law Center's recent induction of the Center for Immigration Studies to its "hate group" hall of shame.

All three reported the attack as if it were the well-considered and intellectually respectable evaluation of a neutral judge. None subjected it even to the most rudimentary credibility check. None was willing to examine the evidence that the SPLC assembled to justify its claim.

Not the New Yorker, with its usually rigorous fact-checking process. Not the New York Times, whose mission is to present "all the news that's fit to print". Not National Public Radio, which professes its reporters' duty to "rigorously challenge ... the claims we encounter" and to "take special care with news that might cause grief or damage reputations."

The explicit purpose of the hate group tag is to inflict grief and damage reputations. The SPLC's Mark Potok acknowledged as much in a speech about the radical hate groups strategy: "Our goal is to destroy these groups," said Potok, who has long been given the too-good-to check treatment by such normally thoughtful members of the east coast media as Terry Gross, host of the popular "Fresh Air" radio program on many NPR stations.

Now come Blitzer, Kulish, and Rose, three sophisticated journalists who have produced a great deal of admirable work. All are Ivy Leaguers — Blitzer and Kulish from Columbia and Rose from Brown. All are based in New York. All aided and abetted the SPLC's latest publicity stunt by simply passing on the smear rather than checking it out.

As a former reporter, and as a contrarian liberal who believes that immigration must be restricted if it is to be successful for our country, I think their work on this story is a case study of the hidebound liberal bias that has long prevailed in New York media's work on immigration and other social issues. I wish they would come out of their bubble and try to understand the problem Sam Quinones identified in the quote at the top of this post.

Daniel Okrent, the first public editor at the New York Times addressed the underlying problem in a 2004 column. Referring to the paper's coverage of social issues, he wrote, "If you think the Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed."

This slanted view is an expression of a particular sensibility. It is sometimes called the Upper West Side sensibility because its intellectual and cultural home is that part of Manhattan, which — not coincidentally — is the home of Columbia University.

Nevertheless as a former reporter in Washington, I can affirm that this sensibility is well established there, as well, as we noted in 2013. It is a matter of intuitive liberal convictions that are deeply held and enforced with righteous indignation against those who dissent, particularly if the dissenters are social conservatives.

On stories of immigration, it often dulls reportorial instincts and deadens the capacity for skepticism toward groups of co-religionists like the National Council of La Raza or the Southern Poverty Law Center. As we documented in 2010, the NCLR and the SPLC have teamed up in the defense of illegal immigration. They launched a campaign to "stop the hate" that they claimed was responsible for the defeat of a sweeping immigration reform bill. That campaign was financed with millions of dollars from Manhattan-based charitable foundations, particularly the Carnegie Corporation.

Heidi Beirich Gets the Kid-Gloves Treatment: A Case Study

So now that we have a case study, let's study the case of the three reporters.

Jonathan Blitzer was the first to report the "hate group" attack. He noted it in passing, in a February story about the newly aggressive Border Patrol under President Trump.

The New York Times was last in, with Nicholas Kulish reporting last week: "The Southern Poverty Law Center has been quick to point out how the Center for Immigration Studies has circulated articles 'penned by white nationalists, Holocaust deniers, and material from explicitly racist websites' and added the immigration center to its list of active hate groups."

In between those two reports came one from NPR's Joel Rose, who sounded a brief note of skepticism when he posed an obvious question to Heidi Beirich. Beirich has become a darling of liberal groups in her role as SPLC's hate monitor, hate maven, and chief practitioner of the Orwellian art of "rectifying" a story to make it seem to say whatever fits the message of the day.

But alas, Rose's check of the accusation went no farther than the accuser: He reported, with all the journalistic rigor of a stenographer in a kangaroo court: "Heidi Beirich says that's because CIS puts out a weekly newsletter that links to articles the law center considers racist and anti-Semitic."

At National Public Radio, apparently, what Beirich says needs no examination.

Beirich Targets a Listserv.

So you might wonder: What about that newsletter? Well, it's actually a listserv, an electronic compilation of dozens of opinion pieces about immigration presenting a wide range of views.

The listservs where Beirich claimed to find her smoking-gun proof of CIS hate were transmitted on January 22 and June 1, 2016. They listed dozens of opinion pieces from across the political spectrum. Most were written by immigration skeptics at CIS and elsewhere. Some expressed the views of immigration enthusiasts on the opposite side of the debate from CIS.

The column that Beirich found intolerable in the January 22 listserv was written by a controversial retired psychology professor named Kevin MacDonald, whom The Times of Israel described as "notorious for his theories of Jewish manipulation and control."

MacDonald is not the kind of fellow that I would want on my side of any public debate. But the piece on the CIS listserv was not an anti-Semitic rant. It was a critique of the decision by several Jewish organizations to encourage European nations to take in Syrian refugees.

MacDonald wrote: "The major Jewish organizations have certainly been in the forefront welcoming Syrian refugees. ... This seems bizarre, given the well-known anti-Jewish, anti-Israel sentiments common among Muslims."

Here is How Beirich, indignant that CIS "promoted" MacDonald by including the article in the listserv, voiced her objection: "McDonald asks why 'Jewish organizations' are promoting 'the refugee invasion of Europe.'"

Beirich apparently found the term "refugee invasion" repellent. Well, it certainly was harsh. But her attempt to use it as proof that CIS is a hate group cannot pass the laugh test of any serious, fair-minded person. It is silly season material.

By Beirich's standard that same day's CIS listserv, by including an article by economist Giovanni Peri, also "promoted" work that contradicted CIS research on the effects of immigration on the labor-market prospects of American workers. And if, as Beirich claims, CIS never says anything nice about immigrants, why did that day's listserv include a piece titled "How Immigration Has Changed the World — For the Better"?

Finally, let's take a look at the June 1, 2016, CIS listserv and see how it fits the bill for molten lava spewed from the CIS volcano of hate.

Beirich aimed her outrage at item 22 of that day's 42 opinion pieces. It was written by an obscure fellow named John Friend and published on the website of the right-wing American Free Press.

In order to show the distortion of Beirich's critique, we include here the section that drew her ire. We use bold to indicate language cited by Beirich :

With the influx of foreigners, many of whom lack basic skills and have almost no education, Western nations have seen increasing crime rates and a total failure of the integration process. So-called refugees are committing rape and other horrific crimes against European women and men in increasing numbers.

After taking offense at Friend's alarm, Beirich engaged in some sleight of hand as she cited Friend's claim that the holocaust was "a manufactured narrative full of a wide variety of ridiculous claims." This is nasty, reprehensible stuff. But it was not in the article listed in the CIS listserv. It was in an entirely different publication.

Moreover, according to Beirich's risible standard, that same day's listserv "promoted" a New York Times editorial that condemned Donald Trump's claim that Mexican-American judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased against him. Of course, Beirich was not about to give CIS credit for promoting the New York Times.

What NPR Left Out.

The success of the SPLC gambit to get the press to recite its hate group nonsense is a sad commentary on the willingness of elite reporters to be seduced by culture warriors of the left. They seem incapable of understanding that we at CIS make a conscientious effort to present our immigration skepticism responsibly and honestly, in the spirit of civil, well informed, and rigorous debate.

It is in that spirit that I conclude with an excerpt from Joel Rose's interview with Mark Krikorian. Rose, who contented himself with Beirich's malicious charge that CIS promoted anti-Semites, chose not to present Krikorian's defense as he responded to Rose's question about the charge:

I couldn't care less what Heidi thinks. She's in no position to judge anybody. But of course, anti-Semitism is evil and hating people for not being born here or whatever other characteristic. It is morally wrong. It's a sin. It's a manifestation of the sin of pride, the first of the seven deadly sins.

Millions of readers and listeners, lacking the time to do extensive research on complex social issues, take their cues from the New Yorker, the New York Times, and National Public Radio. The story of how these reporters handled the SPLC hate group smear is a story of failure that I believe is deeply rooted in elite journalism circles. That failure fuels the resentment and distrust of many Americans who don't appreciate being branded as rubes or fools or haters.

No one would deny that there are truly nasty, malicious, hateful people who want to restrict immigration. But as an old reporter now working at CIS, I think it is discouraging to see that journalists who often show great intelligence and skill in reporting on stories around the world miss the mark so badly on the immigration story here at home. It is a big story, endlessly fascinating in its political, cultural, economic, moral, demographic, and historic dimensions.

Those of us on the restrictionist side of the debate believe we bring an important element of public-interest skepticism to a story that would otherwise be dominated by commercial and ethnic interest groups that are far larger and better financed. Fundamentally, we believe that for immigration to be successful, it must have limits, and if those limits are to mean anything they must be enforced.

We would like to see more rigorous work from reporters who now accept at face value the attempts of groups like the SPLC to reduce us to a rabble of snarling nativists.

Lance Morrow of Time magazine identified the guilt-by-association fallacy way back in 1980, when he wrote: "Ku Klux Klansmen have paraded around Florida lately, dispensing their old nativist bile and giving a bad name to an argument that has more thoughtful and respectable proponents."

The positions of CIS should certainly be subject to critique by those on the other side of the immigration debate. But they should be more thoughtful and respectable than those of Heidi Beirich and Mark Potok of the SPLC.