Brad Dacus was thousands of miles away in California last weekend when the Charlottesville protest erupted, so he was flabbergasted when CNN labeled his Pacific Justice Institute a “hate group.”
“Here are all the active hate groups where you live,” said the CNN wire story headline on Chicago’s WGN-TV website.
The article listed the 917 organizations on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s much-disputed “hate map,” which names racist groups like the Aryan Nation alongside mainstream conservative organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council.
Mr. Dacus’ conservative Sacramento-based institute, which specializes in religious-liberty cases, was featured on the CNN list right below the Pacific Coast Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Why is the Southern Poverty Law Center doing this? It’s simple. They want to vilify and isolate anyone that doesn’t agree with their very extremist leftist policy and ideology,” said Mr. Dacus. “This isn’t about defending civil rights; this is about attacking civil rights.”
Other conservative groups blasted CNN and called on the cable network to retract the article.
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“I am shocked that CNN would publish such a false report on the heels of the Charlottesville tragedy,” said Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman. “To lump peaceful Christian organizations, which condemn violence and racism, in with the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists is offensive. This is the epitome of fake news and is why people no longer trust the media.”
Conservatives have repeatedly called out media outlets this year for uncritically repeating the SPLC’s “hate group” label, calling it inaccurate and arguing that it has put their organizations at risk for violence.
It’s not hypothetical.
In 2012, Floyd Lee Corkins shot and wounded a Family Research Council security guard and later told authorities that he wanted to kill as many employees as possible after finding the group on the SPLC’s “hate map.”
Tom McClusky, former vice president of government affairs at the Family Research Council, took to Twitter to say, “Thanks for the reminder @CNN of this inaccurate map. Last time I saw it one of my friends got hit with a bullet. Real responsible reporting.”
Mr. McClusky, now executive director at March for Life Education and Defense Fund, noted in another tweet that “@CNN decides to reprint map that guided shooter to try to kill me & my colleagues because of our view on marriage.”
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In June, Liberty Counsel sued the charity tracker GuideStar for defamation for adding the SPLC tag to its list of nonprofits. GuideStar later removed the labels from its listings but said the information would be available upon request.
“Using the Southern Poverty Center as a source for information shows that CNN is not interested in reporting news but rather creating scandal and security threats,” said Mr. Staver. “It is well known that the SPLC label against peaceful, nonviolent people and organizations has motivated some unhinged people to commit violence. This is no time to exploit the tragedy of Charlottesville.”
CNN did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday but did add an editor’s note to the story saying that the headline was changed to make it clear that the information came from the SPLC.
The new headline said, “The Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups.” In addition, CNN said it had replaced the list of 917 “hate groups” with links to the SPLC website.
“Some critics of the SPLC say the group’s activism biases how it categorizes certain groups,” said the CNN story. “But since the FBI doesn’t keep track of domestic hate groups, the SPLC’s tally is the widely accepted one.”
That “hate group” listing may be widely accepted on the left, but it’s widely rejected on the right.
Earlier this year, the Philanthropy Roundtable’s Karl Zinsmeister called the SPLC a “cash-collecting machine,” pointing to its $50 million in contributions in 2015 and $334 million in holdings. In May, the Federalist’s Stella Morabito called it a “big-money smear machine.”
The Alabama-based center added to its coffers Wednesday with a $1 million donation from Apple CEO Tim Cook, who also said he would match 2-1 donations to the SPLC as well as a list of other designated groups until Sept. 30, citing the Charlottesville clash.
“Apple has been at the forefront of the fight against hate in the tech industry, and we are truly humbled by its support of our work,” the SPLC said in a Thursday statement.
Organizations can land on the SPLC’s “hate map” for a variety of reasons not limited to racism. Categories include being “anti-immigrant” or “anti-Muslim,” as well as being “racist skinhead,” “neo-Nazi” or “neo-Confederate.”
Most of the conservative groups fall into the SPLC’s “anti-LGBT” category for their opposition to, for example, same-sex marriage or transgender bathroom laws.
“Opposition to equal rights for LGBT people has been a central theme of Christian Right organizing and fundraising for the past three decades — a period that parallels the fundamentalist movement’s rise to political power,” the SPLC said on its website.
The ADF this week called out Phoenix news outlets that relied on SPLC’s “hate map” for post-Charlottesville stories, including a report on the NBC-TV affiliate 12News headlined, “What are Arizona’s hate groups?”
ADF spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said most news outlets may not realize that the SPLC is not politically neutral but rather avowedly anti-right.
On its “Hatewatch” page, for example, the SPLC states that it “monitors and exposes the activities of the American radical right.”
“I don’t think that most news organizations that SPLC states on its website that it only goes after groups on the right,” said Ms. Kupec. “They only target people on the right.”
Last month, the ADF blasted ABC and NBC for using the “hate group” designation on a story about a no-press speech by Attorney General Jeff Sessions at an ADF conference in Dana Point, California.