Dan Stein: The Southern Poverty Law Center Scandal Shames the Media

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For the record, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is taking great satisfaction from the train wreck in Montgomery, Alabama.

Since the March 14 firing of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) founder, Morris Dees, over unspecified allegations of misconduct, numerous current and former staffers have gone public with charges of institutional racism, sexual harassment in the workplace, and unethical fundraising tactics. Dees’ firing was quickly followed by the resignation of the group’s long-time president, Richard Cohen, who allowed such practices to persist under his command.

Like the temperance crusader being caught with a flask of moonshine in her garter belt, it is hard not to engage in a bit of schadenfreude over the revelation that the self-appointed watchdog over who is moral enough to express a political opinion in the public square is itself rotten to the core and has also fleeced well-meaning contributors out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

But enough about the SPLC. They were never really the problem. It was their enablers who should be hiding their heads in shame – most notably, the countless “objective” news organizations that unquestioningly parroted the SPLC’s “hate group” labeling of FAIR and other organizations merely because they effectively advocated political positions that editors and reporters didn’t like.

These news organizations were not duped by the SPLC (as though having the wool pulled over their eyes for several decades would not be a damning indictment of their competence). They were co-conspirators in the SPLC’s assault on free speech and complicit in the toxification of political discourse in contemporary America. The media knew that the SPLC had no credibility and that numerous mainstream groups were on the SPLC’s “hate group” list for no other reason than to silence opposing viewpoints and raise money for what disgruntled employees in Montgomery labeled the “Poverty Palace.”

The media knew the SPLC was a sham because the media reported it themselves. Even before the dam burst on March 14, a simple Google search would have turned up dozens of articles, written by respected journalists, reporting some or all of the accusations that have been confirmed since Dees’ firing. These articles have appeared not only in right-leaning publications (almost all of the SPLC’s targets are right of center), but even in left-leaning (and even far left) publications and those that purport to have no ideological bias at all.

The common thread in all of these exposés was that the SPLC maliciously applied the “hate group” label in an effort to discredit organizations espousing political positions they didn’t like; that the SPLC has been riddled with internal racism; and that the SPLC was capitalizing on its smear campaigns to accumulate more than a half a billion dollars in assets, while spending very little of it to advocate on behalf of the impoverished folks they claim to represent.

Yet, in spite of this multitude of evidence that the SPLC has not been an honest arbiter of moral fitness for political participation, many news organizations continued to append the “designated as a hate group by the SPLC” epithet when reporting on organizations tried and convicted in some Star Chamber deep in the bowels of the Poverty Palace in Montgomery.

Citing third party allegations impugning the characters of individuals or organizations may satisfy the legal requirements for news outlets to avoid being sued for slander, but it is not journalism. It is at best stenography and at worst a transparent effort to express bias while claiming objectivity. It is also a large contributing factor to the deterioration of political civility bemoaned by the very news outlets that have allowed the SPLC to serve as their proxy to attack advocates for political views they oppose.

We all know hate speech when we hear it. We actually don’t need self-appointed watchdogs – even ones not as morally tainted as the SPLC – to tell us whose views are worthy of consideration and whose are not. Societies are at their healthiest when people are provided accurate information and allowed to draw their own conclusions.

Maybe the SPLC can reform itself and get back to its original noble mission of fighting for justice for those who otherwise cannot afford the high cost of justice. But the very public fall of the SPLC reveals that they had some very powerful enablers in the media who are also in need of some serious introspection.

Dan Stein is president at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

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