Its branding of ‘hate groups’ and individuals is biased, sometimes false—and feeds polarization.
By Jeryl Bier
The Washington-based Family Research Council “advances faith, family and freedom in government and culture from a Christian worldview,” according to its profile on the website of GuideStar, the nation’s premier philanthropic rating agency. GuideStar gives the FRC a “silver” rating for demonstrating a “commitment to transparency.” But the top of the profile page also declares: “This organization was flagged as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
GuideStar announced this month that it would classify 46 nonprofits as hate groups based on the SPLC’s imprimatur. GuideStar CEO Jacob Harold told the Associated Press the move was justified by an increase in “hateful rhetoric” across the country.
Aided by a veneer of objectivity, the SPLC has for years served as the media’s expert witness for evaluating “extremism” and “hatred.” But while the SPLC rightly condemns groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Westboro Baptist Church and New Black Panther Party, it has managed to blur the lines, besmirching mainstream groups like the FRC, as well as people such as social scientist Charles Murray and Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islamic extremism.
A clear illustration of the SPLC’s pervasive and insidious influence is the March riot at Middlebury College, where Mr. Murray had been invited to speak. “The SPLC is the primary source for the protesters at my events,” Mr. Murray told me. “It is quotes from the SPLC, assertions by the SPLC that drive the whole thing.”
Mr. Murray’s politics are libertarian, but the SPLC labels him a “white nationalist.” In reporting on the Middlebury fracas, numerous news organizations repeated the SPLC’s characterization without noting it was false. The AP even put it in a headline: “College Students Protest Speaker Branded White Nationalist.”
How did the SPLC become the default journalistic resource on purported hate speech, racism and extremism? Morris Dees, still the SPLC’s chief trial attorney, founded the organization in 1971 along with Joseph Levin Jr. , now an emeritus board member. In its early years, the SPLC made a name for itself by winning some high-profile cases against the KKK and other white-supremacist groups. But over time its mission changed. In recent years it has focused on “tolerance education,” hate-group tracking (including an online “hate map”) and fundraising.
Although the SPLC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and therefore statutorily prohibited from engaging in partisan politics, even a cursory review of its website belies its nonpartisan status. During the 2016 election, the SPLC posted “Margins to the Mainstream: Extremists Have Influenced the GOP 2016 Policy Platform” and “Here Are the Extremist Groups Planning to Attend the RNC in Cleveland.” The Democratic platform and convention received no such scrutiny.
An SPLC post titled “Electoral Extremism” ostensibly profiles “a dozen 2014 candidates, including Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, independents and others.” Only a single Democrat is profiled, along with five Republicans and five third-party candidates. All of those listed are considered “right wing” or conservative, including the third-party ones. Even the Democrat on the list formerly belonged to the Constitution Party.
Last August SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok tied Donald Trump to David Duke, whom Mr. Trump had denounced. “Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see the denunciations [of Mr. Duke] are not sincere,” Mr. Potok told the Huffington Post. “The sad reality is that David Duke and Donald Trump are appealing to precisely the same constituency.” Not quite. Mr. Trump took 58% of the vote in Louisiana. Mr. Duke, running for U.S. Senate on the same ballot, managed only 3%.
The SPLC reflexively plays down threats from the left. This February Mr. Potok wrote that in the 1990s “the American radical right” was “deprived of the bogeyman of communism.” Even when condemning far-left groups, the SPLC shows an odd deference. Describing black separatists, the SPLC avers that “much black racism in America is, at least in part, a response to centuries of white racism,” and “the racism of a group like the Nation [of Islam] may be relatively easy to understand.”
Kori Ali Muhammad allegedly murdered three white people in California in April. The SPLC reports that on Facebook Mr. Muhammad wrote of “grafted white devil skunks” and repeatedly referred to the mythical “Lost Found Asiaiatic [sic] Black Nation in America.” Yet in contrast with its unequivocal (and false) tagging of Mr. Murray, the group describes Mr. Muhammad as a “possible black separatist.”
The SPLC’s work arguably contributes to the climate of hate it abhors—and Middlebury isn’t the worst example. In 2012 Floyd Lee Corkins shot and wounded a security guard at the Family Research Council’s headquarters. Mr. Corkins, who pleaded guilty to domestic terrorism, told investigators he had targeted the group after learning of it from the SPLC’s website. The SPLC responded to the shooting with a statement: “We condemn all acts of violence.”
Last week the SPLC found itself in the awkward position of disavowing the man who opened fire on Republican members of Congress during baseball practice. “We’re aware that the SPLC was among hundreds of groups that the man identified as the shooter ‘liked’ on Facebook,” SPLC president Richard Cohen said in a statement. “I want to be as clear as I can possibly be: The SPLC condemns all forms of violence.”
Some journalists harbor doubts about the SPLC. “Any time a group like that is seen as partisan it undermines itself and its noble mission,” a network anchor told me on condition of anonymity. “Anti-LGBTQ bigotry is heinous, but classifying the Family Research Council in the same terms as Nazis did not help SPLC in its nonpartisan mission.”
Still, as long as journalists serve up what the SPLC dishes out, the group has little to gain by directly engaging its critics. (It did not respond to three inquiries for this article.) Now the GuideStar partnership may further burnish its credentials as an unbiased arbiter of hate.