Jonathan Blitzer of the New Yorker, Nicholas Kulish of the New York Times, and Joel Rose of National Public Radio are accomplished, sophisticated journalists who graduated from Ivy League universities. Nevertheless, the purpose of this post is not to praise them, but to express bewilderment and dismay that in the past 10 weeks all three have reported a damaging allegation without probing its justification. They treated the allegation as legitimate news from a bona fide expert, not as a partisan attack from an organization that has long monetized such tactics by coupling them with appeals for financial support.
I am referring to what I will show was the cheap, reckless, and absurdly unfounded attempt by the Southern Poverty Law to demonize and delegitimize the Center for Immigration Studies by labeling it as a "hate group".
A hate group charge is a serious matter, placing its target on the scale of social deviance and moral reprehensibility somewhere close to child molesters and the Aryan Brotherhood. It is also catnip for reporters who see it as a battle cry in a noble fight for social justice.
So for the sake of framing my complaint, consider for a moment how we would expect reporters to react if a conservative organization labeled a rival liberal organization as a group of pedophiles.
If the reporters were doing their jobs, they would demand evidence and examine it carefully. If the evidence were bogus, they would expose it. Opinion columnists would respond with outrage and ridicule. Investigative reporters would probe the backgrounds of the accusers to see if they could find evidence of other egregious deceptions. They would look for patterns and context.
But in the case at hand, the three reporters, all based in New York, became vectors for an SPLC virus. They functioned more like press agents than journalists, relaying the poisonous information to their audiences without performing the basic fact-checking that is required of journalists in such a circumstance. This responsibility is particularly required of reporters whose organizations publicly trumpet a fearless, impartial commitment to digging out the truth.
We all know of the New York Times claim to publish "all the news that's fit to print." The NPR ethics handbook is less known, but more explicit. It declares its reporters' duty to "rigorously challenge both the claims we encounter and the assumptions we bring" and to "take special care with news that might cause grief or damage reputations."
The primary purpose of the SPLC's hate-group listing of the Center for Immigration Studies is to delegitimize our efforts to question the immigration policies advanced by groups like the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). The SPLC worked closely with NCLR in a 2008 campaign to "stop the hate".
A second purpose is monetary, with a perversely ironic twist. By confirming the worst stereotype of immigration restrictionists as xenophobic bigots and haters, the blacklist draws attention to the SPLC's professed mission of confronting hate and "teaching tolerance". It is no coincidence that the SPLC draws heavy financial support from New Yorkers who are well intentioned but not well informed by New York journalists who, as occupants of the same ideological bubble, have given the SPLC a pass.
A Personal Statement
Before I get into the particulars of my complaint against the three reporters, I need to acknowledge the perspective from which I write.
First, I am responding as a former journalist who spent many years reporting on immigration. I developed an appreciation for the issue's substantive and moral complexity. I also formed a vivid dislike for the tactics of the SPLC hate patrol under the direction of SPLC founder Morris Dees, who is either legendary or infamous, depending on your point of view.
Second, I write as a research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies. I came to work at CIS because I believe the organization plays a useful role in presenting the case for skepticism about the expansive immigration policies advocated by the peculiar and powerful left-right coalition that unites ethnic interest groups like NCLR with corporate interest groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I am a liberal restrictionist, with views similar to those of the late Barbara Jordan and the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, civil rights leaders who directed federal immigration commissions that called for enforcement of immigration laws in the broad national interest.
The first investigative report I did for CIS was an examination of SPLC's work on immigration, including its partnership with NCLR. That report quoted liberal journalist Alexander Cockburn's 2009 description of Morris Dees as the "arch-salesman of hate-mongering". Under a headline that labeled Dees the "King of the Hate Business", he said Dees thrived by "selling the notion there's a right resurgence out there in the hinterland with massed legions of haters, ready to march down Main Street draped in Klan robes, a copy of 'Mein Kampf' tucked under one arm and a Bible under the other. ... Ever since 1971, U.S. Postal Service mailbags have bulged with his fundraising letters, scaring dollars out of the pockets of trembling liberals aghast at his lurid depictions of hate-sodden America."
I also want to acknowledge that — as Nicholas Kulish reported in his New York Times story — CIS is indeed a "hard-line" group in its advocacy for rigorous enforcement of the limits set by immigration law. The positions taken by our executive director, Mark Krikorian, are tougher than those I favor on such issues as amnesty and sanctuary cities.
But the CIS hard line is not based on or animated by hatred. After working here for eight years, I know well that its positions are based on reasonable concerns about the effects of large-scale immigration, especially illegal immigration. Such concerns were once widely shared by liberals, including the editorial board of the New York Times, which in recent years has moved in its own hard line toward the open-borders left.
In 1981, for example, a Times editorial observed: "Uncounted millions cross our porous borders in search of a better life. Like prior immigrants, many enrich our land with industry. But their numbers are so great that they also strain community resources and threaten the jobs and well-being of those who preceded them." As recently as 2000 the Times opposed the amnesty it now regards as a moral imperative. The editorial board drew this hard line: "The primary problem with amnesties is that they beget more illegal immigration. ... Amnesties signal foreign workers that American citizenship can be had by sneaking across the border, or staying beyond the term of one's visa, and hiding out until Congress passes the next amnesty."