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Provocateur Journalism

eye on the news

Provocateur Journalism

CNN uncritically publishes a list of “hate groups” compiled by the discredited Southern Poverty Law Center. August 17, 2017
Public safety
Politics and law
The Social Order

When a news organization reports an impending weather event based on forecasts from the National Weather Service, or warns of potential seismic activity anticipated by the U.S. Geological Survey, or alerts the public concerning an infectious-disease outbreak being tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no one questions the news organization’s motives, because the underlying information is factual and derived from a reliable, nonpartisan, and authoritative source.

CNN presents itself as a news organization, yet today it posted a dubious story titled “Here are all the active hate groups where you live,” based entirely on data from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC is not the equivalent of the National Weather Service, the USGS, or CDC, to put it mildly. It is risible for CNN to recite SPLC data uncritically, with no additional validation, as a credible list of “domestic hate groups,” let alone to describe SPLC’s data as “widely accepted.” As I recently chronicled in City Journal, the SPLC is far from a reliable, nonpartisan, and authoritative source.

The SPLC has been criticized from all points of the political spectrum for its incessant fundraising (resulting in the accumulation of a “surplus” exceeding $300 million, some of which is invested offshore in Cayman Island accounts), lavish executive salaries (some topping $400,000 annually), and a litigation program calculated to generate sensational headlines rather than tangible results alleviating “Southern poverty.” Morris Dees, one of SPLC’s co-founders, has used the SPLC to promote his political agenda—and enrich himself.

As for chronicling “hate groups,” the SPLC is principally focused on maintaining lists of individuals and groups with opposing politics, and subjectively labeling them “hate groups” or “extremists,” often without justification.  SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok, who is in charge of maintaining the lists, has declared that “our aim in life is to destroy these groups, to completely destroy them.” Even Politico has called SPLC’s agenda into question, asking “Has a Civil Rights Stalwart Lost Its Way?” The writer of that story, Ben Schreckinger, noted the frequent charge that “the SPLC is overplaying its hand, becoming more of a partisan progressive hit operation than a civil rights watchdog.” Politico’s skeptical look at SPLC joined a torrent of criticism appearing in other publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, The Weekly Standard, Reason, The Federalist, and even The Progressive.

What exactly is a “hate group”? The FBI doesn’t keep track of such groups, but the SPLC purports to do so, using subjective criteria that do not include the use or threatened use of violence. Instead, SPLC labels groups based on their political views, designating as “hate groups” such diverse entities as magazines, websites, record labels, and even religious sects. In the popular perception, “hate group” is a label that appropriately describes the KKK, neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, and similar groups—and the SPLC does in fact label them as such—but the SPLC misleadingly lumps these odious groups together with mainstream organizations with which it disagrees, solely because of their views regarding, among other issues, LGBT rights, immigration policy, and opposition to Sharia Law.

Thus, SPLC has designated as hate groups the immigration-reform organizations Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Center for Immigration Studies, Californians for Population Stabilization, the Social Contract Press, and Refugee Resettlement Watch; religious-liberty advocates Alliance Defending Freedom, Pacific Justice Institute, and Liberty Counsel; and the Center for Security Policy, founded by foreign policy expert Frank Gaffney. The SPLC lists the Freedom Center, the think tank associated with bestselling conservative author David Horowitz, as a hate group—as it does the pro-family organizations such as the Family Research Council (whose employees were attacked by a gunman in 2012, after the SPLC listed the group on its “Hate Map”) and the World Congress of Families, the latter two because of their opposition to same-sex marriage. Even the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has condemned as “reckless” the designation of FRC as a hate group. Yet CNN uncritically repeats these defamatory labels.

The SPLC has an undeniable ideological agenda. In addition to its tendentious (and often redundant) list of 917 hate groups, SPLC also maintains a list of more than 1,600 purported extremists or extremist groups, including eminent social scientist Charles Murray. At one time, the SPLC labeled HUD secretary and former presidential candidate Ben Carson an “extremist,” due to his opposition to same-sex marriage, but was forced to rescind the designation and apologize.

By its own criteria, the SPLC has solid qualifications as a hate group—it engages in McCarthyite tactics, it spews venom, and it generally behaves, as I described in the earlier article, like a demagogic bully. As for CNN, its blatantly unprofessional act of “reporting,” in which it has acted as a virtual publicist for a discredited partisan group, marks another step in the media organization’s journey from news outlet to provocateur.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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