BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. As a swath of the nation embraces nativism, sometimes with violence, the Southern Poverty Law Center has, as usual, been serving the media with statistics drawn from its intelligence-gathering projects on the purveyors of hate.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 60 publicly-funded Confederacy symbols have been removed or renamed since…
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are nearly 900 hate groups operating in the US.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, says that super PAC was started by the white supremacist American Freedom Party.
BOB GARFIELD: Since the ‘70s, when it famously sued the sorry remnants of the KKK, furthering its decline, the nonprofit advocacy group has been synonymous with intolerance of intolerance. As such, it has been derided by the far right as a partisan smear operation. So it was no surprise this week to see the conservative Washington Free Beacon raise questions about SPLC's finances, including millions of dollars of assets parked offshore. This confirmed the narrative of the SPLC as a hustle, a money machine in the guise of a public interest group. That piece and other inquiries by such diverse publications as Harper’s, Politico and SPLC's hometown Montgomery Advertiser makes clear that, mission or no mission, the organization has never strayed far from its co-founder’s direct marketing roots. Morris Dees got rich persuading people to put checks in the mail. And, with Nazis in the street, donors are sending checks as never before.
Ben Schreckinger is a staff writer for Politico magazine. He says the charges sting not just the SPLC but the news outlets that have long relied on it.
BEN SCHRECKINGER: If you are doing a story on hate groups, on white nationalists, on right-wing militias or right-wing antigovernment extremist groups, they are the go-to resource. Almost every newsroom in the country has used them. They were popping up in The New York Times and other places, most recently in the wake of Charlottesville.
BOB GARFIELD: So there's two questions here. One is whether it has devolved into a racket and the other is whether the data that it supplies is trustworthy, itself. Let's begin there. There have been accusations that SPLC has been indiscriminate in the organizations it identifies as promulgating hate.
BEN SCHRECKINGER: That's right, and this criticism has been around on the right for quite a long time. Social conservatives have complained, for example, that the designation of the Family Research Council, which they consider to be a mainstream evangelical family values type organization -- SPLC considers to be a hate group -- has been unfairly labeled. Their critique is that anti-immigration groups have been unfairly labeled. And that's gone back several years.
More recently, the SPLC has made a number of designations that have drawn a lot of criticism, not just from your typical movement conservatives but from really all parts of the political spectrum, especially their designations of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz. Nawaz is Muslim. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born Muslim. They are anti-Islamist campaigners, considered by many people to be heroes of civil rights, heroes of human rights. And the SPLC has labeled them “anti-Muslim extremists” and drawn a lot of criticism for doing so over the last year or so.
BOB GARFIELD: And these designations sometimes have stark consequences.
BEN SCHRECKINGER: In the case of the Family Research Council, after that group was designated an anti-gay hate group, several years ago, a troubled young man read about this designation and went to the lobby of the FRC's headquarters in Washington and started shooting it up. I believe he ended up wounding a security guard. And, on the less extreme end of that, for groups that are labeled hate groups by an organization like the SPLC that’s considered authoritative, foundations may cancel grants, that sort of thing.
BOB GARFIELD: Should the press be more cautious about dealing with this organization?
BEN SCHRECKINGER: There's clearly a lot of valuable work that the organization does, both in terms of its advocacy and litigation, but also in terms of this “Intelligence Project,” which does track the activities of hate groups. This resurgence of a new form of racism, the alt-right movement, does warrant tracking. But when you talk to people who track hate groups professionally, track extremism professionally, they do lament the fact that there is not a more neutral watchdog organization than the SPLC, that the SPLC has sort of cornered the market on monitoring extremism and monitoring hate groups in the United States, because they feel that they can't always take what they get from the SPLC at face value.
BOB GARFIELD: You could argue about whether an organization or an individual who takes a hard line on one side of the culture wars is a hatemonger or merely conservative, but if you're loosening your definitions to raise awareness just to fill the coffers, then you have a problem. How is the Southern Poverty Law Center spending the money? Is it for litigation? Is it awareness raising? Is it staffing the offices that track hate groups? Where is the money going?
BEN SCHRECKINGER: This has received a lot of scrutiny, going back at least to the ‘90s. Compared to a group like the ACLU, the SPLC spends a much lower proportion of what it takes in on litigation. There are other similar civil society nonprofits that spend more on programs and less on overhead than the SPLC. A lot of the money that the group takes in goes to its endowment. Its endowment is well, will north of 100 million. At this point, it may be north of $200 million. It has a much larger endowment than similarly-sized NGOs. It's been accused of categorizing costs that really look like fundraising. Where it will send out a mailer asking for money, normally you have to categorize that as a fundraising cost and it's not considered good for a nonprofit to have high fundraising costs, but the SPLC will also put some facts on their fundraising mailer and they'll categorize it as educational, so it’ll show up differently in their finances.
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t want to gloss over this question of endowment. Another way to describe that would be cash in the bank. And if you have [LAUGHS] $200 million sitting there, on the interest alone you can cover the Southern Poverty Law Center's operations for years. And yet, those mailers keep going out, expressing a sense of urgency in the battle against intolerance. How do they justify the constant money raising when the money is just stacking up in the vault?
BEN SCHRECKINGER: Well, when I sat down with the group's leaders earlier this year, one justification that they offered for the size of the endowment was the fact that they will take on complex litigation that can drag out for years, and they say, if we’re going to take on a case that may last 10 years, we need to know there we’re going to be able to weather whatever storms may come. Therefore, we need this massive endowment. Perhaps there's something to that, although the ACLU that takes on more litigation, takes on years-long litigation, does not have the same size endowment compared to the scope of its activities.
And they also have a new justification, which is that the presidency of Donald Trump, the rise of the alt-right that rode Trump’s coattails into relevance makes them vital to the interests of our society.
BOB GARFIELD: From your perspective, which is more troubling, the fact that in these highly-polarized times it's easy to dismiss them as just another partisan liberal interest group or that they have maybe tens of millions of dollars squirreled away in offshore accounts in the Caribbean? Of those two, what’s the more indicting?
BEN SCHRECKINGER: I think that the questions about their finances and fundraising probably should primarily be of concern to prospective donors but, from my perspective as a journalist and as someone who's watching the political scene, it's the questions about their political motivation that are most relevant, that make it problematic to rely on them as a source and to wonder about the broader effect they may be having on the political discourse and the polarization we’re seeing in the country.
BOB GARFIELD: Ben, thank you very much.
BEN SCHRECKINGER: Sure thing. Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Ben Schreckinger is a staff writer for Politico magazine.
Richard Cohen is the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who dismisses the criticism as partisan smoke with no underlying fire. Richard, welcome to the show.
RICHARD COHEN: Thanks for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: With the stipulation that the Washington Free Beacon is a right-wing publication that would probably delight in any negative publicity [LAUGHS] attached to SPLC, it raises some very interesting questions, beginning with, why do you have so much cash parked offshore?
RICHARD COHEN: Well, look, we have an excellent investment advisor called Cambridge Associates. It advises many of the leading foundations, universities and nonprofit organizations in the country. And, as part of an overall balanced portfolio, they have us invested in certain funds that typically are incorporated offshore. Now, that’s an extraordinarily common thing for endowments like ours, nothin’ up our sleeve. You know, hedge funds, which we have a number of, are actually very conservative investments because they are intended to dampen the volatility of the market.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm not sure it is common for 501(c)(3) advocacy organizations. It might be common for university endowments. But you’re raisin’ money all the time, ostensibly for the purposes of carrying out your mission. There doesn't seem to be an easy explanation for why you have such a large endowment set aside and you’re still seeking funds for ongoing operations.
RICHARD COHEN: Sure, that’s a separate question. We've started an endowment very early in our history, really, to give us the strength to continue our work far into the future. We talk about our endowment on our website, talk about it regularly with our supporters. We think it’s a source of strength, not a source of weakness.
BOB GARFIELD: All right but, once again then, there is the apparent conflict between your fundraising appeals, which proclaim a sense of urgency to fight the good fight, and the fact that you have five or six years of operating revenue stashed in the Caribbean, or elsewhere.
RICHARD COHEN: “Stashed in the Caribbean” makes it sound like a really nefarious thing, and I know that, you know, there are people who are more adept in the financial world than I am, but if you call a place like Cambridge that advises, literally, thousands of endowments, they’ll tell you the same thing I do, with more authority.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let’s just say “invested prudently outside of the State of Alabama.”
RICHARD COHEN: Okay.
BOB GARFIELD: How do you reconcile the enormous endowment with the urgent messages for cash from donors to fight intolerance and hatred from extreme players?
RICHARD COHEN: Well look, we’re in this fight for the long run and, you know, have quite a significant operation. This year, we’ll spend close to $60 million. That requires the support of people from all over the country, and we truly, truly appreciate that support. Our endowment is something that’s kind of a well-known fact and they know that we’re gonna fight these cases until the end. They know that we have the ability to fight cases for 20 years, if it takes that.
BOB GARFIELD: When I get a direct mail or some other piece of communications from you that both seeks money and does so by calling my attention to some extremist outrage, does any part of that solicitation get attributed to the awareness budget versus the promotions expenditure?
RICHARD COHEN: A portion of it may, depending upon the nature of the letter, the information in it and whether it has a call to action for our donors. These are things that are governed by generally accepted accounting principles, similar to the way other organizations that rely on similar forms of fundraising allocate their funds.
BOB GARFIELD: To put this in the most personal possible terms, I have looked at Southern Poverty Law Center over the years as a -- you know, a do-gooder organization that has helped me understand what the threat is from right-wing extremism and from hate groups of every stripe and to help me evaluate journalistically, you know, what's goin’ on out there. My assumption always has been that you were free of any bias, apart from the bias to inform the public. But -- I can see a pretty direct line between the messaging about the threat and the till there in Montgomery, Alabama. It makes me wonder whether my trust has been misplaced. What can you say to me to restore my faith that your motives are as pure as I have always been led to believe?
RICHARD COHEN: Look, the hate group list that we put out, for example, has been compiled in the same way for two decades. I think it’s stood the test of time. Ninety-eight percent of all the groups we list, no one disputes. A tiny portion of them have been controversial, at times, and I’m prepared to defend those, as well. I know that academics often rely on our list. People who run regression analyses, other fancy statistical programs, will rely on our list because of its comprehensiveness and because of its consistency in the way it's collected. I don't make any apologies for being a partisan. We’re [LAUGHS] a partisan against the fight against hate. But I think the lists that we put together are very, very solid.
BOB GARFIELD: But you also don't want to be the boy who cried “Nazi” and I wonder if this current controversy has made you and Morris Dees reevaluate your methodology and your threshold for putting a prominent name on the list. You were burned when you included Ben Carson, for example, and there's other names on the list who may be politically conservative but certainly don't seem to represent anything close to violent extremism.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you thinking about something like the Family Research Council, Bob?
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, let’s, let’s talk about the Family Research Council, at the very core of the so-called “religious right.” They’re on your list. Why?
RICHARD COHEN: Yes, they are, because of their continuous incendiary name-calling and baseless lies about the LGBT community. They describe the LGBT community as “sick, perverted, evil, a danger to the country.” They propagate known lies about the LGBT community, for example, the idea that LGBT people are more likely to be pedophiles. It’s something that's been continuously discredited.
The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins once said that the It Gets Better campaign, a campaign to give young people hope, was disgusting, some sort of nefarious plot to lure young children into the homosexual lifestyle, to use his words. I don't think those are mainstream ideas. I don’t think those are healthy views in our society. The LGBT community is the most likely to be victimized by hate crimes in our country. Calling them “sick, diseased, perverted and a danger to children and a danger to society,” in my mind, may contribute to that atmosphere. So I think the FRC well deserves the hate group label, regardless of the mainstream support they might have in very, very, very conservative circles.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, if that's the threshold then, you know, where is the Assemblies of God church, where is about a third of Congress? If you open the tent that wide, you’re going to have an awfully long hate list.
RICHARD COHEN: I don’t think that that’s a fair characterization of the views of most Christian groups. I don’t think most Christian groups, even those that oppose gay marriage, make it a regular habit to spread demonizing lies about the LGBT community. I think that would be wrong. I mean, you know, we don't list, for example, Focus on the Family as a hate group. It’s an extraordinarily conservative group. That’s a group that's opposed to gay marriage but they're not in the business of spreading demonizing lies about the LBGT community in the way Mr. Perkins and his outfit are.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you not perceive that if Southern Poverty Law Center is viewed not as fighting the good fight but as being opportunists exploiting our political miseries, that it kills the goose that lays the golden egg? I mean, even just as a PR matter, is this not something that you're thinking about right now?
RICHARD COHEN: Well, I mean, it’s the reason I'm on your show, so we can set the record straight. Now, you might have seen today there was a letter signed by kind of a rogues’ gallery of the radical right -- Tony Perkins, General Boykin, others -- attacking us because they want to silence our voice. They don't want us to call out their hate.
BOB GARFIELD: Richard, thank you.
RICHARD COHEN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Richard Cohen is the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He spoke to us from Montgomery, Alabama.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
Coming up, why we have FEMA and why you shouldn’t count on it. This is On the Media.