Opinion

A good example of Obama's warning about the media focusing on 'sexier' stories

The media do damage by playing up every hint of conflict to produce “sexier” stories. Recent coverage of a Southern Poverty Law Center report on 'hate groups' proves the point.

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Obama has had a few choice words for reporters recently. He warned graduates at the University of Michigan of the damage the media do by playing up “every hint of conflict” to produce “sexier” stories.

Vilification on both sides, Obama said, “prevents learning – since after all, why should we listen to a ‘fascist’ or a ‘socialist’ or a ‘right-wing nut’ or a ‘left-wing nut’?”

It’s a lesson that the slew of reporters who have recently cited the spring 2010 report of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism,” should have taken to heart.

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The SPLC, known for monitoring hate groups, warned of a resurgent tide of a right-wing movement that in the 1990s “produced an enormous amount of violence.” “Patriot groups – militias and other organizations that see the federal government as part of a plot to impose ‘one-world government’ on liberty-loving Americans,” they reported, “came roaring back after years out of the limelight.”

SLPC spokesman Mark Potok was even more explicit in an interview. He told one reporter that today’s America “feels a lot like the run-up to Oklahoma City,” and penned an opinion article to that effect on the 15th anniversary of the bombing.

Citing the SPLC data, Australia’s The Age described a US “on the edge of upheaval,” like “an impregnated sky ahead of a thunderstorm.” The Toronto Star asked whether America is losing its “grip on reality.” The Guardian, The Straits Times, and Sydney Morning Herald ran similar pieces, while Newsweek, USA Today, and MSNBC each placed the law center prominently in stories on the rise of right-wing hate.

There’s only one problem: the SPLC report is deeply flawed.

The news sources all referenced the SPLC’s claim of a 244 percent rise in patriot groups and militias. This represents an increase of 363 groups in 2009, but a side by side comparison with SPLC’s 2008 data shows inflated numbers. For instance, 102 of these new groups are chapters of “We are Change,” a “grassroots peace and social justice movement,” according to the organization’s own website. Their founding member, Luke Rudkoswki, was included in the SPLC’s April “Meet the Patriots” list of enablers of right-wing extremism. “It was weird,” Mr. Rudkoswki said, “the SPLC specifically interviewed me for this report, we spoke about nonviolence, Gandhi, Dr. King” as well as raising funds for 9/11 first responders, toy and clothing drives, and helping the homeless. “They didn’t even mention any of it.”

Another 48 of these new groups are chapters of “We the People,” who pledge “if necessary, to participate in coordinated, nonviolent, legal and Constitutional civic actions.” Another 30 are the Republic of Texas secessionists – a group that’s been around for over a decade. (Michigan’s Hutaree militia, arrested in March for a plot to kill policeman, was not even included in SPLC’s 2008 list).

Anyone who did their homework could see that this is not a new phenomenon for SPLC. The organization has a track record littered with red flags (or red herrings). They seem to consistently exaggerate conservative threats as a tool for publicity and fundraising – essentially, to scare up liberal dollars. Since 1994, when the Montgomery Advertiser ran a Pulitzer-nominated series “Charity of Riches,” exposing SPLC’s highly questionably practices, journalists have painstakingly reported exactly how the organization operates.

In March, Ken Silverstein of Harper’s put it in plain terms. The law center, he said, regularly exaggerated the powers of "far-right wing groups to make it appear that the country is teetering on the brink” of revolution. He called the SPLC a “fraudulent organization.” Alexander Cockburn has written that SPLC was using “the election of a black president” to exaggerate hate and solicit donations.

To be fair, by most accounts the SPLC once did, and in some areas still does, valuable work. And they do include disclaimers in their reports as to who exactly is promoting violence – entirely insufficient as they are. But their exaggerations, and reporters’ more-or-less intentional acquiescence, are deeply counterproductive. They smear Americans who are merely exercising their right to free speech, and sap funds from other organizations and issues that are much more critical to promoting tolerance.

Exaggerations like the SPLC’s help stifle rational debate. That, as President Obama pointed out in Ann Arbor, Mich., is exactly what “can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.”

We would all do well to take reports of rampant extremism in the United States with a grain of salt – after all, Barack Obama’s election was a signal of increased tolerance, not hate. The SPLC, for their part, should figure out how to better mobilize its massive resources. The group has the potential to be a helpful watchdog, but is squandering that chance with skewed reports.

Meanwhile, Obama has a point about reporters. No matter how difficult times are for them, journalists must remember to always think critically: An easy story, or a high traffic story, is not necessarily a true story, regardless of whether there are “data” to push it.

Jamie Holmes is a research associate at New America Foundation.

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