Over the weekend, Jim Tharpe, the former managing editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hometown newspaper, published an important piece in the Washington Post highlighting his own long experience with SPLC corruption. The entire piece is worth a read, but I want to highlight a key section:
More than two decades ago, I was managing editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, which was located one block from the SPLC in downtown Montgomery , Ala. I proposed an investigation into the organization after ongoing complaints from former SPLC staffers, who came and went with regularity but always seemed to tell the same story. Only the names and faces changed. The SPLC, they said, was not what it appeared to be. Many urged the newspaper to take a look.
We were, at the time, anything but adversaries with the center. Like other media outlets, we generally parroted SPLC press releases. We also became friends with SPLC staffers, occasionally attending the center’s parties. Some of my reporters dated staffers at the center.
That relationship, however, suddenly soured when reporters Dan Morse and Greg Jaffe (both of whom now work for The Post) began making serious inquiries about the SPLC’s finances and the treatment of black employees.
In 1994, the Advertiser published the results of its investigation and exposed — a quarter-century before the SPLC’s current crisis — systematic financial misdeeds and racial tensions at the civil-rights law firm. Yet the reports had little effect on the organization’s national reputation. It kept raising money, and national media kept using the SPLC’s questionable research to discredit reputable individuals and organizations as hateful, bigoted, or “extremist.”
I took three important things from Tharpe’s piece. First, independent local media is indispensable. There is no substitute for local knowledge and personal experience. For the Advertiser, the SPLC wasn’t a distant organization with a reputation centered around its idealistic mission, it was a very human organization with a building down the street. Its reporters were close enough to see the smoke. They knew to look for a fire.
Second, truly independent reporting requires moral courage. Note the middle paragraph. Not only does it betray a degree of ideological sympathy with the SPLC, it demonstrates how personal relationships can make effective reporting more difficult. It’s harder to investigate an organization and evaluate it fairly when intimate relationships are at stake. Yet the Advertiser did it anyway. That took guts.
Third, ideological sympathy can blind mainstream organizations to known facts. It’s not like the Advertiser’s report simply disappeared into the ether. The series was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but it had little discernible impact either on national reporting about the SPLC or national acceptance of its conclusions and arguments. The SPLC’s problems were one of the worst-kept secrets in public interest law, and its insatiable greed should have red-flagged all of its public arguments as suspect. It was in the business of sensationalism. Yet all too many reporters, pundits, and activists swallowed its conclusions whole.
I hope the SPLC’s reckoning will result in a sober reassessment of its legacy and a reconsideration of its targets. I hope that the SPLC’s moral collapse means the end of its public credibility. But, sadly, I’m not holding my breath. Too many activists and members of the media share the SPLC’s hatreds and biases. So its labels may well endure, lumping in good people with the truly vile. The damage — to individual reputations and to our public discourse — is done. Too bad more people didn’t read the words of Alabama reporters two decades ago. The SPLC may have been forced to reform well before it caused so much harm.