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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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).Skip to next paragraph
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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.