Analysis Media

Hate Groups Attack Southern Poverty Law Center, and Some Journalists Pile On

Sharona Coutts

Far-right groups attacking the SPLC claim that the group has lost its credibility because it has targeted groups such as the Family Research Council and others on the far right.

Late last Friday night, Greg Gutfeld, a presenter on Fox News, had to do something that made his face crinkle with revulsion.

He had to apologize to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the nation’s leading nonprofit tracking hate groups and extremists. Most recently, the organization has also been the target of a concerted campaign to discredit it by the very far-right groups it tracks. That campaign is being amplified by the right-wing media, including Fox News.

“So, the lawyers here are telling me that I have to say this. I don’t really want to. But I will,” Gutfeld said, in the one-minute spot that aired that evening —a classic time slot to broadcast news one wants to bury.

“Last week I did a monologue on the Southern Poverty Law Center and they took issue, yes ‘issue,’ with me, with some of the statements made on the show, including a joke, a joke, that they do virtually no law,” Gutfeld said in a heavily sarcastic tone. “But in fact, they say they spent over $1.8 million in 2015 on out-of-pocket case costs for litigation on behalf of their clients. So we must make clear that SPLC does in fact, quote, ‘do law,’ unquote.”

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Gutfeld’s grimace-filled correction ended with another stab at the SPLC, saying that its practice of labeling certain heroes of the far right as “extremists,” “sucks.”

As corrections go, it was grudging at best, and misleading at worst: No fair-minded viewer would have thought Gutfeld was “joking” about the claims and innuendo that filled his earlier segment.

In it, he had repeated many of the claims that have become part of the standard line for far-right groups attacking the SPLC: namely, that while the organization had admirable origins—fighting the Ku Klux Klan—it has, they claim, recently lost its credibility because it has targeted groups such as the Family Research Council (FRC) and others on the far right.

Far from being a joke, this campaign is coordinated and absolutely serious about discrediting SPLC, the group’s president, Richard Cohen, told Rewire. He says it’s no coincidence that the attack comes at a time when SPLC’s role as watchdog is increasingly important because of the surge in numbers and activities of far-right hate groups, such as those that recently rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“The cabal that is united against us is a combination of anti-LGBT hate groups, like the Family Research Council, and anti-Muslim hate groups like ACT for America, and the Center for Security Policy,” Cohen said in a phone interview. “These groups are coming after us because we’ve been effective in exposing how they are polluting the mainstream with hate, and now they feel like they have new leverage because they have friends in high places, both in the government and the media.”

Cohen said that the far right is using this campaign to sow the seeds of doubt about the SPLC’s objectivity, in order to undermine the trust it has earned with the media and the public, and therefore, to undermine its messages.

“This whole effort is part of the radical right agenda to label all information that they disagree with, whether it be from CNN, the New York Times, or the Southern Poverty Law Center, as ‘fake news,’” he said.

The group at the head of the campaign appears to be the FRC and its leader, Tony Perkins.

Perkins, along with William G. Boykin, the executive vice president of the FRC, were the first co-signers of a letter sent to “Members of the Media” from nearly 50 far-right groups in early September.

The letter called the SPLC “a discredited, left-wing, political activist organization that seeks to silence its political opponents with a ‘hate group’ label of its own invention.”

The SPLC has faced criticism in recent years over its decision to label certain individuals as “extremists,” including Dr. Ben Carson, who is now U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The group retracted that label and apologized.

But the letter also said that the co-signers were “deeply troubled by several recent examples of the media’s use of data from the SPLC.”

By this, the authors were apparently referring to the widespread reliance by reporters and the public in the aftermath of the deadly far-right rallies in Charlottesville on the SPLC’s database and maps that track and explain more than 900 hate groups now operating within the United States.

It is unclear how many media organizations received this letter, but over the past few months, several major outlets have published stories that echo spurious charges made by hate groups themselves.

Earlier this month, National Public Radio’s high-profile program, On the Media, interviewed a Politico reporter who wrote a June feature story that was largely critical of the SPLC. The Politico piece pushed a narrative that the SPLC is not “objective,” raising questions about the use of its work by journalists, academics, or government agencies. That segment was followed by an interview with Cohen in which he disputed many of those claims. Given that On the Media is targeted largely at journalists, raising doubts about an organization’s credibility in that forum has the potential to be especially damaging to its reputation.

And of course, Fox News has run multiple other stories that cast aspersions over the group’s methods and motivations.

One of the main objections raised in these segments is that the SPLC has unfairly labeled people and groups who are simply conservative as “extremists” and “hate groups.”

That includes the FRC, which has been on the SPLC’s list of hate groups since 2010.

The FRC tries to position itself as representing “traditional American” families and values. Last September, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump addressed the group’s annual conference, known as the Values Voter Summit, where he praised attendees, telling them, “There are no more decent, devoted, or selfless people than our Christians [sic] brothers and sisters here in the United States.”

Over the course of its 11 years, the Values Voter Summit has gained a reputation for its lineup of far-right speakers, including leaders of some of the nation’s most prominent anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim and pro-gun groups.

The FRC itself has a long history of demonizing LGBTQ people. Most recently, the group applauded the Trump administration’s announcement that trans people would be banned from military service. Speaking on Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM Patriot 125, Perkins referred to trans people as having mental illnesses that would render them unfit to protect the country. The group has also repeated lies that gay people are prone to pedophilia, and that they are generally degenerate.

Cohen defends its inclusion on the list of hate groups because of its normalization of hate speech and vilification of LGBTQ people, especially given the group’s efforts to present those messages as being about “family values.”

“We all know that the Klansman in a robe is a hater,” said Cohen. “But when hate is disguised in a business suit, it’s harder to see.”

Cohen says that designation is part of what has prompted the current campaign to discredit the SPLC.

“I have no question but that Tony Perkins is in the middle of this effort,” he said. “We have been a thorn in his side for many years, because we’ve exposed the propaganda and demonizing lies he’s spewed, and he would like to silence us.”

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