Kim Davis, the Kentucky country clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, is embroiled in yet another media firestorm following revelations that reports about her private meeting with Pope Francis during his recent visit to the U.S. may have been grossly misrepresented by her and the legal group representing her, Liberty Counsel. But the controversy should come as no surprise to those familiar with Liberty Counsel, which has a reputation for lying in order to elevate its profile and further demonize LGBT people.
Florida-based Liberty Counsel was founded in 1989 by its now-chairman, Mat Staver. For years, the organization has distinguished itself as one of the anti-gay right's most extreme and blundering legal groups, taking on doomed efforts to defend harmful "ex-gay" therapy and slow the inevitable advance of marriage equality.
Before it began representing Davis, Liberty Counsel was perhaps most notorious for representing Lisa Miller. After ending a same-sex relationship with her partner, Miller took their daughter and moved to another state, defying a court order and refusing to allow her former partner to see the child. Liberty Counsel rallied to Miller's defense, creating a public relations nightmare for itself when Miller subsequently kidnapped the child and fled the country.
In addition to Davis, the group is also defending Scott Lively, an American evangelist facing charges of "crimes against humanity" for his involvement in promoting Uganda's extreme anti-LGBT law, which threatens gay Ugandans with life in prison.
Apart from its ham-handed legal work, Liberty Counsel is a run-of-the-mill anti-gay group that regularly makes asinine and hateful proclamations about the LGBT community. Liberty's Staver has linked homosexuality to pedophilia and disease, and predicted that marriage equality could cause society to "cease to exist." In 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) added Liberty Counsel to its list of anti-gay "hate groups."
The Kim Davis marriage-license story offered Liberty Counsel an opportunity to capitalize off of the national media spotlight trained on the law-breaking clerk - a chance for it to raise its visibility and carve out a niche for itself alongside more successful anti-LGBT legal organizations. Staver became a regular fixture in the media's coverage of Davis, cited in nearly every major mainstream media report about the controversy.
But that increased media attention also brought with it increased media scrutiny and vetting, especially as it become clear that Davis would face jail time for refusing to do her job. Commentators began openly wondering whether Liberty was cynically taking advantage of Davis to raise its profile. Others noted Liberty's penchant for pursuing dead-end, extreme anti-gay litigation. Even on Fox, media figures were suspicious of Staver's arguments and intentions. A panel of Fox commentators mocked Staver's "ridiculously stupid" suggestion that Kentucky isn't bound to follow the Supreme Court's orders. In an interview with Staver, Fox's Neil Cavuto seemed sincerely perplexed by Staver's legal reasoning, admitting he was "thoroughly confused" by the end of the segment.
That doubtfulness about Staver and Liberty Counsel's credibility turned out to be well-warranted. Since Davis' release from jail, Liberty Counsel has been embroiled in several PR controversies, almost exclusively attributable to Staver's own incompetence. During the September 17 edition of Liberty Counsel's Faith and Freedom broadcast, Staver claimed that the hosts of ABC's The View had called for Kim Davis to be killed, a blatant falsehood he was later forced to apologize for.
A few weeks later, while speaking at the conservative Values Voter Summit, Staver displayed a picture of what he claimed was a 100,000-person prayer rally in Lima, Peru for Davis. The photo was met with immediate suspicion from media commentators, who could find no evidence on social media that such a massive rally had taken place. After days of doubling down, attacking its critics, and revising its defense of the photo's authenticity, Liberty Counsel was forced to admit that the image actually came from a completely unrelated event in 2014, calling the mix-up "an honest mistake."
And then came Pope Francis' visit to the United States. On September 29, Liberty Counsel announced that the pope had met privately with Davis in Washington, DC to thank her for her "courage" and encourage her to "stay strong." In interviews with major media outlets, Liberty Counsel depicted the meeting as a de facto endorsement of Davis' case, telling CBS News that the meeting "sends a huge message worldwide that [the pope] stands for the inherent right of religious freedom." Staver also told CNN's Jake Tapper that the pope "did encourage [Davis] for standing."
But on October 2, the Vatican released an official statement clarifying that the meeting was not an endorsement of Davis' case:
Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope's characteristic kindness and availability.
The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.
One official said there was "a sense of regret" at the Vatican over the meeting, while an advisor close to Pope Francis tweeted that the pope was "exploited" by a "meeting that never should have taken place." Liberty Counsel has responded by disputing the Vatican's description of the event, effectively throwing more fuel on the media fire.
Liberty Counsel's recent PR crises aren't anomalies -- they're characteristic of an organization run by a man whose only real claim to fame is spewing vitriol and championing fringe, losing legal battles against LGBT equality. LGBT activists who have followed Liberty Counsel's work for the past several years probably aren't surprised that the group is again embarrassing itself in the national media's spotlight. But major news outlets, which have largely been reluctant to dig in to Liberty Counsel's history of extremism, are less likely to treat the group with the skepticism and hesitance that it deserves.
To be fair, this problem isn't unique to Liberty Counsel -- a number of extreme anti-LGBT hate groups have duped the media into taking them seriously. As LGBT equality becomes less and less controversial, media outlets have a shrinking number of radical anti-gay charlatans to rely on as representing the voice of the opposition. And in the case of Kim Davis, Liberty Counsel has cast itself as a central character in the drama.
Staver's repeated missteps and embarrassments are a worthwhile reminder of why these kinds of organizations are labeled "hate groups" in the first place. They're not just ideologically extreme - dishonesty, exaggeration, and propaganda are core components of their brands. Given how frequently hate groups like Liberty Counsel lie about LGBT people on a daily basis, media outlets should anticipate that same level of dishonesty when they're the subject of major news stories, and treat them accordingly.
Numerous conservative media outlets are parroting the misleading conclusions of a September 2015 report by an anti-immigrant nativist group, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which claims that "immigrant households use welfare at significantly higher rates than native households." Like previous flawed CIS studies, these findings have been called into question by immigration experts for failing to account for the economic hardship of some immigrant families, lumping American-born beneficiaries into "immigrant household" categorizations, and conflating numerous anti-poverty programs with so-called "welfare."
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter recently credited hate website VDARE.com editor Peter Brimelow with inspiring the attacks on progressive immigration policy within her new book, 'Adios, America.' In fact, many of the ideas presented in the book appear to be closely modeled after ideas presented by white nationalist and anti-immigrant extremist movements in America.
Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR) is an anti-immigrant, nativist organization that has used local media campaigns with other nativist organizations to fight against legislation in Oregon aimed at supporting immigrants. After successfully attacking licenses for undocumented immigrants, OFIR has launched a new campaign to lobby against a bill that would allow undocumented immigrant graduates from Oregon high schools to receive state funded, need-based college scholarships.
Few anti-LGBT groups get as much media attention as the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the right-wing legal organization best known for defending anti-gay business owners who refuse to comply with nondiscrimination laws. But while ADF's "religious liberty" work generates plenty of headlines, few media outlets have highlighted the most extreme facet of ADF's legal agenda: criminalizing homosexuality.
ADF is a multimillion dollar Christian legal organization that's garnered national attention over the past several months thanks to its work defending anti-gay business owners who refuse to serve same-sex couples. It's been described as "the 800-pound gorilla of the Christian right," and media outlets are increasingly reporting on the group's legal efforts. ADF has become a fixture on Fox News, but its involvement in crafting Arizona's license-to-discriminate law in early 2014 attracted coverage from other networks as well. In October, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat apologized after he spoke at an ADF fundraiser.
But aside from a handful of examples, media outlets have failed to highlight just how extreme ADF's anti-gay agenda really is. While the group prefers to talk about its "religious liberty" work when in the media spotlight, ADF is actively working to promote and defend anti-sodomy laws that criminalize gay sex.
ADF's formal support for anti-sodomy laws dates to at least 2003, before the Supreme Court made its landmark decision in Lawrence v. Texas. ADF, which was at the time still known as the Alliance Defense Fund, filed an amicus brief in the case, defending state laws criminalizing gay sex. In its brief, ADF spent nearly 30 pages arguing that gay sex is unhealthy, harmful, and a public-health risk:
[S]ame-sex sodomy is far more effective in spreading STDs than opposite-sex sodomy. Multiple studies have estimated that 40 percent or more of men who practice anal sex acquire STDs. In fact, same-sex sodomy has resulted in the transformation of diseases previously transmitted only through fecally contaminated food and water into sexually causes diseases -- primarily among those who practice same-sex sodomy.
The issue under rational-basis review is not whether Texas should be concerned about opposite-sex sodomy, but whether it is reasonable to believe that same-sex sodomy is a distinct public health problem. It clearly is. [emphasis added]
In 2003, ADF president Alan Sears co-wrote a book titled The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing The Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today, which warned that eliminating anti-sodomy lawswould lead to the overturning of "laws against pedophilia, sex between close relatives, polygamy, bestiality and all other distortions and violations of God's plan."
The Supreme Court disagreed, striking down state bans on gay sex in its Lawrence v. Texas decision. But over a decade later, ADF continues to argue that Lawrence was wrongly decided. In 2011, ADF senior counsel Kevin Theriot criticized then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for making the case that "the freedom to engage in homosexual behavior" is a "basic human right." Theriot also wrote that "claiming a legal right to engage in homosexual behavior comes at the cost of religious freedom."
But while ADF has largely run out of options for promoting the criminalization of homosexuality in America, the group has taken its anti-sodomy agenda overseas. ADF's "Foreign Threats" page urges supporters to contribute to ADF's international efforts to "help stop devastating rulings" against religious freedom like Lawrence, which ADF claims "fabricate[d] legal protection for homosexual sodomy":
The Washington Times repeated the myth that the FBI has ended its relationship with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), ignoring that the FBI had already debunked that claim and distorting SPLC's work against domestic hate groups.
In a March 28 editorial, the Times savagely attacked SPLC founder Morris Dees - asserting that he founded the nonprofit in part "to get rich" - baselessly charging that SPLC defines "hate crimes" as "Christian opposition to same-sex marriage." The Times then applauded the FBI for cutting off ties with the group - something it didn't actually do:
The SPLC never identifies the hate groups about to engulf the land, who they are or where they are assembling their regiments of engulfers. With the Ku Klux Klan shrinking to insignificance, the SPLC, which is thought to be sitting on a treasury of a quarter of a billion dollars, has lately turned its lurid appeals to prosperous but frightened gays.
"Hate crimes" by SPLC definition now include Christian opposition to same-sex marriage.
This week it emerged that the FBI, which has included SPLC data as "a resource," has finally severed its link with the organization and dumped SPLC from the bureau's Hate Crime Web page.
The FBI offered no explanation of why now, but the dumping follows appeals of 15 family groups to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and FBI Director James B. Comey to sever the connection. We think that was a good day's work.
In just a few sentences, the Times' editorial board peddles a number of blatant lies about the SPLC.
SPLC does identify hundreds of prominent hate groups across the U.S., which is why it's so despised by right-wing extremists to begin with.
SPLC doesn't considering opposing marriage equality to be a hate crime. The SPLC has identified extreme anti-gay organizations like the Family Research Council (FRC) and American Family Association (AFA) as hate groups because they peddle anti-LGBT smears and misinformation, not because they oppose marriage equality. Despite its strident anti-gay stances, for instance, even the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) isn't on the SPLC's list of hate groups.
Meanwhile, the Times' claim that the FBI chose to "sever [its] connection" with the SPLC is merely the latest sign that the paper's editorial board is impervious to facts, particularly when it comes to LGBT issues.
While right-wing media gleefully pounced on the FBI's decision to remove non-government organizations from a list of "resource" groups on a civil rights page, that decision applied to all non-government organizations, including groups like the Anti-Defamation League, equally. The bureau's website still lists the SPLC as a "public outreach" partner in the fight against hate crimes. Days before the Times published its editorial, the FBI contradicted the right-wing media narrative that by telling the Daily Caller that the bureau continues to receive support "from a variety of organizations," but had simply "elected not to identify those groups on the civil rights page."
Nowhere in its editorial did the Times even acknowledge that the FBI had corrected the record. The paper's pattern of rabid homophobia is disturbing enough, but its willingness to lie in the service of bigotry is even more appalling.
Conservative news outlets are hyping a minor website change to suggest that the FBI is distancing itself from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) - a group that monitors hate speech and violence - in response to criticism from anti-gay organizations. But the FBI has issued a statement debunking that narrative and continues to publicly touts its partnership with SPLC on its website.
On March 26, Washington Examiner reporter Paul Bedard asserted that the FBI was ending its relationship with SPLC, noting that a link to the group had been scrubbed from the FBI's Hate Crime "resources" page and calling it a "significant rejection of the influential legal group":
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has labeled several Washington, D.C.-based family organizations as "hate groups" for favoring traditional marriage, has been dumped as a "resource" on the FBI's Hate Crime Web page, a significant rejection of the influential legal group.
The Web page scrubbing, which also included eliminating the Anti-Defamation League, was not announced and came in the last month after 15 family groups pressed Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey to stop endorsing a group -- SPLC -- that inspired a recent case of domestic terrorism at the Family Research Council.
The FBI had no comment and offered no explanation for its decision to end their website's relationship with the two groups, leaving just four federal links as hate crime "resources." The SPLC had no comment.
Right-wing media figures are celebrating a new paper purporting to demonstrate anti-Christian and anti-conservative bias in the Southern Poverty Law Center's (SPLC) listing of extremist hate groups -- conveniently ignoring the clear biases of the paper's author and the paper's glaring methodological problems.
On March 10, Breitbart.com's in-house anti-gay extremist Austin Ruse touted a new "study" from University of North Texas sociologist George Yancey, the author of "Watching the Watchers: The Neglect of Academic Analysis of Progressive Groups," a paper appearing in the journal Academic Questions. In the "study," Yancey purports to have found that the SPLC's practice of identifying and labeling hate groups ignores extremism on the left, instead maligning right-wing groups like the Family Research Council (which Yancey calls the "Family Research Center"). Moreover, Yancey charges that the SPLC is far too liberal with its use of that designation, unfairly smearing sensible conservatives as hateful bigots.
Before taking his arguments seriously, here's what media outlets and the public should know about Yancey's anti-SPLC polemic:
1. It Isn't A Study. Yancey's paper -- republished in full on Breitbart's website -- is little more than a screed against the SPLC filled with right-wing boilerplate. ("Progressive groups who value tolerance may display intolerance when reacting to conservative individuals," Yancey writes, echoing conservative bloviators like Erick Erickson.) But Yancey's "study" lacks a systematic and coherent methodology. There's no objective metric by which he determines whether the SPLC goes too hard on conservative groups and too easy on leftist ones.
Instead, he fixates on the fact that the SPLC hasn't labelled the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) as a hate group. This perceived failure on the SPLC's part is Yancey's central example of its alleged pro-leftist, anti-conservative bias.
2. The SPLC Does Hold Non-Conservative Groups Accountable. The SPLC has done extensive work highlighting phenomena like black separatism and black supremacism. In fact, it was the SPLC who exposed last summer an African-American "race war" proponent working for the Department of Homeland Security. Conservative outlets like Fox News and WorldNetDaily highlighted the story, even though those organizations have condemned the SPLC in the past.
Fox News hyped a dubious story by Townhall news editor Katie Pavlich to stoke fears that a surge of immigrants has made the border less safe.
Pavlich, a Fox News contributor, published a story using anecdotal remarks from an unnamed Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent and CBP internal data to claim that non-citizens are attempting to cross the southern border in large numbers:
As the immigration reform Gang of Eight inside the Beltway prepares to announce a deal later this week, claiming border security will come before a path to citizenship for millions of illegals, Border Patrol agents have seen illegal border crossings double and warn the cutting of agent work hours will only result in less border security, not more.
"We've seen the number of illegal aliens double, maybe even triple since amnesty talk started happening," an agent told Townhall, who asked to remain unnamed due to fears of retaliation within Customs and Border Protection [CBP], something he said is common. "A lot of these people, although not the majority, are criminals or aggravated felons. This is a direct danger to our communities."
Data obtained by Townhall and reported within CBP from February 5 through March 1, 2013 shows 504 illegal aliens were spotted exploiting the Tucson/Nogales area, 189 were caught on CBP intelligence cameras. Of those 504, only 174 were apprehended and 32 of the 189 on camera were carrying large drug load packs for Mexican cartels. Some were armed with AK-47 style weapons.
Pavlich -- who has previously used discredited reporting and made baseless claims, including a series of false or misleading statements in her book on the Fast and Furious operation -- was touted on Fox by her colleague, Townhall political editor Guy Benson, though even he admitted most of her report was based on "anecdotal" evidence:
Pavlich's other sources for this story are dubious at best. In a follow-up to her original report, Pavlich cited the Texas Border Volunteers (TBV), a Southern Poverty Law Center-labeled nativist extremist organization. TBV founder Mike Vickers began patrolling the border with the Texas chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a national anti-immigration group run by Chris Simcox which was affiliated with militia groups and white supremacist organizations. Vickers broke off with the Texas chapter of the Minutemen several years ago to form TBV, which "stages regular nocturnal watches" while armed and wearing camouflage and reports "illegal activity" to Border Patrol agents.
But CBP data shows that border crossings are historically low. Even though there was a 10 percent increase in apprehensions along the southern border for the first two months of this year compared to the first two months of 2012, it is a small increase compared to the 53 percent reduction in "illegal immigration attempts, as measured by Border Patrol apprehensions" over the past three years, which is less than one-third of what they were at their peak.
This is the second time in two weeks that Fox has pushed Pavlich's flawed data and misinformation about immigration issues.
During a report on diminished Republican opposition to granting in-state tuition for undocumented students, Fox News included the view of a spokesperson for the nativist group, Oregonians for Immigration Reform, to argue against the measure and accuse Republicans of "pandering" for Latino votes. Fox News has long engaged in promoting extreme voices to attack in-state tuition for undocumented students.
Discussing proposals in Oregon and Colorado that would grant certain undocumented students in those states in-state tuition, Fox News' America's Newsroom contrasted approving comments from Oregon state Republican Rep. Mark Johnson with comments from Jim Ludwick, a co-founder and former president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform.
Host Bill Hemmer introduced Ludwick's comments by saying, "Not everyone, I'd imagine, is happy about this shift." Ludwick was identified on-air simply as being with "Oregonians for Immigration Reform."
Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR) has been labeled an active "nativist extremist group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The hate group the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) lists OFIR on its network of "local immigration reform" groups.
In November of 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed the Family Research Council as an anti-gay hate group due to its "propagation of known falsehoods" about the LGBT community. Since being listed, however, FRC spokespersons have been invited 52 times to discuss issues ranging from the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," to the 2012 presidential campaign. Despite FRC's long history of producing anti-gay propaganda, every major news network has invited the group on national television while failing to acknowledge its hate group designation.