I should know by now that readers bring their own context to stories, and it influences how they read them. I was reminded of this recently, after I wrote a cover story titled, “The Hate Patrol: Researchers at the Southern Poverty Law Center have set themselves up as the ultimate judges of hate in America. But are they judging fairly?” Among those who criticized the piece was Bruce Bartlett — an economics writer who held senior policy positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush but who has now become a critic of many strains of contemporary conservatism. To his 61,000 Twitter followers, Bartlett grumbled: “There are a gazillion right-wing hate groups out there, so the ‘liberal’ Washington Post decides to attack the one group that is not afraid of them, calls them out, labels them as hate groups.”
When I read the tweet, I thought: “Attack”? I hadn’t viewed the story that way. The piece was about how the SPLC’s list of hate groups — numbering 953 — has grown beyond such racist and anti-Semitic stalwarts as the Ku Klux Klan, and now encompasses groups like the Center for Immigration Studies (a think tank) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (a Christian-centered legal outfit).
I spoke to Bartlett to hear more about his critique. He told me my theme “was a perfectly valid area of inquiry” but argued that I’d missed the bigger picture: “I’ve been concerned about the rise of right-wing militancy, terrorism, whatever you want to call it, for some time, and it frustrates me that the mainstream media doesn’t seem to pay as much attention to it as I think they should. And here you’ve got the Southern Poverty Law Center, which I think is really an outstanding organization — is one of the very few ones out there battling these people on a day-to-day basis. And I think they show a lot of courage in not pulling their punches the way so many other organizations do. ... And I just thought, jeez, of all the groups to criticize.”
I said to Bartlett that, in my own mind, the SPLC’s work against the classic type of racist and violent hate groups he mentioned is widely understood and admired. The more interesting question, to me, is how the hate label works with ideologies that lie at the fault lines of current political and cultural wars — that is, the closer calls.
I had left it to the reader to decide how fairly the hate label fit in the four cases I looked at, but Bartlett argued that when groups habitually push close to the line of hate, they are automatically suspect. He sent me an essay by William F. Buckley Jr., the late conservative writer. It dealt in part with a colleague of Buckley’s who so often skirted the line between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic commentary that Buckley had to cut professional ties. Returning to my article, Bartlett said: “We have these groups that maybe have not crossed the line into being hate groups in the same way that, say, the Ku Klux Klan has, but who go right up to the line, who can find nothing good to say about [certain] minorities, and constantly hype any negative thing that they may do.”
To Bartlett, my piece was symptomatic of larger — and unwelcome — trends in journalism. “I think you have to look at what you did in context of the way progressives and the people concerned about these issues view not just The Post but the major media. I think there’s a feeling which may not be legitimate but is very widespread that there’s a fear in the media about going after some of these right-wing groups,” he said. “You’ve got a president who is clearly sympathetic to some of what they do. And so there’s a feeling that you need to be more aggressive.”
I appreciated Bartlett’s points. For me, our conversation underscored how readers expect journalists to show awareness of what lies beyond a story’s frame — and today, that broader context includes a rising tide of hate sweeping the country. At the same time, I would argue that this context shouldn’t prevent us from writing other, less predictable stories — in this case, about a valued watchdog whose definition of hate is nevertheless worthy of examination and debate.
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.