Hate groups in America have learned one big lesson this past decade: If you don a suit and tie and open an office in Washington, D.C., you can get away with spreading as much bigotry as you like. Even the press will treat you like normal people.
The Associated Press—once the standard of journalistic probity—has been demonstrating how readily mainstream media will succumb to such white-nationalist normalization efforts. As Media Matters’ Casey Wexler reported this week, the AP has been parroting information from nativist hate groups, all of them suit-and-tie white-nationalist operations designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in its news copy without even bothering to give its readers the context of the nature of these groups.
As Wexler observes, the AP’s influence on public discourse is tremendous: “It claims 15,000 outlets use its journalism and more than half of the world’s population engages with AP content every day. It is a vital resource especially for local newsrooms, which can rely on wire services for more than half of their coverage of national issues.”
And yet AP stories over the past several years have increasingly permitted nativist hate groups to weigh in on immigration issues without informing readers that the organizations are profoundly anti-immigration, and not merely opposed to illegal immigration—a false claim these groups make and which media outlets willingly regurgitate. Moreover, they all are rooted in white-nationalist organizing, and regularly spew not just false information about immigrants, but smears based on white-nationalist propaganda.
The groups—primarily the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)—are designated hate groups by the SPLC, which notes that they maintain “a veneer of legitimacy that has allowed its principals to testify in Congress and lobby the federal government,” but in reality both groups “have ties to white supremacist groups and eugenicists and have made many racist statements.” CIS, notably, likes to claim that it is a “low-immigration, pro-immigrant” group, but it has on multiple occasions advocated for ending all immigration.
Both groups are the brainchild of white nationalist John Tanton, who assembled them in the late 1980s and put them work inside the Beltway, lobbying Congress and propagandizing media outlets. Tanton regularly elucidated a racist ethos: “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”
Yet you would never be aware of this from reading AP news stories over the recent past. Indeed, the news agency has painstakingly omitted any references to the organizations’ advocacy and history, instead describing them as “opponents” of immigration reform or “advocates for restrictions.”
Wexler cites a particularly egregious July 2020 piece, which actually parrots false information spouted by CIS with no corrective context:
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said U.S. authorities handled the case properly and accused the family of trying to use the newborn to secure legal status. He said they should have settled in Mexico.
“Asylum has been so widely used as a gambit for illegal immigration that honestly I don’t believe it anymore,” said Krikorian, echoing views of the president and other hard-liners. “I assume that anyone crossing through Mexico and applying for asylum (in the U.S.) is lying until proven otherwise.”
In reality, as Wexler notes, the claim that asylum is a common stratagem for would-be immigrants is nakedly false: Only a small percentage of immigrants seek asylum at the border, and typically only 20% of those are granted it (though that number fell precipitously during the Trump years).
This kind of thoughtless normalization of right-wing extremist groups simply because their representatives present themselves in business attire and appear “normal” has become endemic within mainstream media over the past decade and longer. This in turn facilitates its spread: as one study noted, “euphemization and trivialization facilitate the far right’s pursuit of a reconstructed and destigmatized image.”
A noteworthy corollary to this trend has been a marked decline in referencing the SPLC’s hate-group designations by those same media organizations. Readers are unaware of the context because these reporters no longer cite the SPLC’s fact-based assessments—something that once was a common feature of news reporting over the previous three decades during which the Alabama-based organization has been providing them.
While the SPLC has made some high-profile stumbles in recent years—mainly involving its now-replaced leadership, as well as its retraction of a couple of its designations of individuals as “extremists”—the decline is primarily attributable to a smear campaign against the organization by some of the same business-suited outfits its has designated as hate groups.
This campaign began in earnest in 2017, led by a number of the same groups the SPLC had, in the mid-2000s, begun designating as “hate groups” for their promulgation of anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant smears: the Family Research Council (FRC), Alliance Defending Freedom, American Family Association, the Center for Security Policy, and FAIR. They published an open letter that year accusing the SPLC of fomenting terrorism after a man opened fire on the FRC’s offices in Washington, warning that if the news media kept citing the SPLC, “we are left to wonder if another Floyd Lee Corkins will soon be incited to violence by this incendiary information.”
The attack was widely echoed in conservative media, particularly on Fox News. Tucker Carlson, in particular, dedicated multiple segments to attacking the SPLC, calling it a “totally fake organization” because of questions about its finances. Carlson also was upset that it documented the locations of all Confederate monuments; in another segment, he described the SPLC as “a left-wing attack group masquerading as a civil rights organization.” Carlson also invited FRC’s Tony Perkins on his show to discuss the letter.
That sustained drumbeat continued throughout the Trump years, culminating in the Republican National Committee at its August 2020 convention approving a resolution “refuting the legitimacy” of the SPLC to identify hate groups, calling it a “far-left group with an obvious bias” and a “radical organization.” A coalition of civil-rights groups came to the organization’s defense, noting: “This resolution seeks to undermine the truth and enable white nationalists and hate groups like QAnon to continue targeting hate against the communities we represent and serve alongside.”
As the SPLC observed in its reply:
This attack on our work is an attempt to excuse the Trump administration’s pattern and practice of working with individuals and organizations that malign entire groups of people—immigrants, Muslims and the LGBTQ community—while promoting policies that undermine their very existence. It comes from the same vein as Trump’s claim that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Simply put, it’s an audacious attempt by Trump and the GOP to paper over the bigotry and racism that has been allowed to infect their policies.
The mainstream media’s role in normalizing Trump’s bigoted politics was large. And one of the important ways news organizations did so was by treating hate groups as just normal people in suits and ties.
Published with permission from Daily Kos