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The Media’s Double Standard

Some hate crimes are less hateful than others.

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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There are some illuminating contrasts between the media’s handling of the political dimensions of the Family Research Council shooting and the shooting of Representative Giffords. In the latter case, the media rushed to assume political motivations and were quick to blame, of all people, Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate had put out a map with crosshairs over Giffords’s congressional district as part of a list of Democratic-held seats “targeted” for defeat. But Giffords’s shooter, Jared Loughner, appears to have serious mental problems. And there is no evidence whatsoever Loughner saw this map or that allegedly violent political rhetoric—even “campaign” is a term borrowed from war—was in any way a cause of the Giffords shooting. That didn’t stop serious news organizations from lending institutional credibility to the irresponsible allegations. The Washington Post ran a story headlined “Palin caught in crosshairs map controversy after Tucson shootings.” And though Giffords was shot in January 2011, as recently as this year in an article on gun violence the New York Times saw fit to remind readers that “many criticized Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential nominee, for using cross hairs on her Web site to identify Democrats like Ms. Giffords.” 

By contrast, the media handled awkwardly the revelation that Corkins admitted to plotting mass murder as a means of furthering a popular liberal cause. “A detail sure to reignite the culture wars that erupted around the shooting is the fact that Corkins told FBI agents that he identified the Family Research Council as anti-gay on the Web site of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” wrote the Washington Post during Corkins’s trial in February. It’s a little unseemly for a newspaper, when finally forced to confront actual politically motivated violence, to worry about the shooting’s impact on the metaphorical “culture war.” Particularly when irresponsible actors in that culture war continue to get a free pass from the media. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was once a laudable civil rights organization that sued racists and violent extremists. Now it regularly demonizes anyone who runs afoul of its knee-jerk liberal politics, and despite this it is still regularly cited by the media as a “nonpartisan” watchdog. Some of the SPLC’s newly targeted “hate groups,” such as pickup artists, are merely kooky or distasteful. Others singled out by the SPLC, including Catholics who go to Latin mass or Christian organizations similar to the Family Research Council, are well within the mainstream. Tellingly, the SPLC doesn’t just name the Family Research Council on its website—it posts the council’s address on a “hate map.” That map is still on SPLC’s website, and the organization refused calls to take it down after the Family Research Council shooting.

As recently as last week, SPLC cofounder Morris Dees defended the Family Research Council’s inclusion on the “hate map.” “Well, first of all, having a group on our hate map doesn’t cause anybody to attack them any more than they attacked us for one thing or another,” Dees told CNSNews.com on August 6. It takes quite a bit of hubris for Dees to defensively equate rhetorical attacks on his own organization with actual gun violence against an organization whose politics he dislikes. It also seems more than a little convenient that Dees now denies a connection between rhetoric and violence. In 2011, an SPLC blog post, “Expert: Political Rhetoric Likely a Factor in Arizona Shooting,” concluded that Sarah Palin’s rhetoric “could have provided a facilitating context” for the Giffords shooting, though, again, there is no evidence Loughner was exposed to it. 

By the loose standard of “facilitating context,” the unjust inclusion of the Family Research Council headquarters on a “hate map” otherwise filled with violent white nationalist organizations is a much more serious transgression—particularly when Corkins admits he used the map to learn about his target. And while Leo Johnson’s defining characteristics are his courage and character, as long as we’re talking about context, it’s worth pondering why the founder of a celebrated civil rights organization is obdurately unreflective about the role his SPLC played in the shooting of a black man. 

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