Posts Tagged ‘Ryan Lenz’

Challenge Your Area’s SPLC “Hate Group” Designation

September 11, 2017

Two recent news events have brilliantly demonstrated just how unreliable and deceptive the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lucrative “Hate Map” really is. The SPLC releases this annual fundraising tool every February or March, to enormous media fanfare and the donor-dollars flow faster than the company can spend them.

Two small towns that were falsely smeared with “hate group” designations, Amana, Iowa, and Gurnee, Illinois, recently fought back and got the SPLC to rescind its spurious claims, though with very different results.

In the Amana case, the “town” is actually a collection of seven small villages known as the Amana Colonies. These villages were settled by German farmers in the 19th century and today the Colonies are on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. People take their families there to see the old farms, blacksmith shop and grist mill. Think: Colonial Williamsburg or Plimoth Plantation.

So how does a tourist destination like Amana get listed on the “Hate Map”? Simplicity itself. Someone at the SPLC found a single troll posting on the Daily Stormer website saying that several neo-Nazis got together on a single afternoon in an Amana coffee shop as a “book club” and they haven’t been back since.

There’s no indication of how many people actually showed up at the coffee shop, but the SPLC’s definition of “group” can mean one or fewer individuals.

Amana officials fought back, demanding that the SPLC’s new PR Guru, Ryan Lenz, remove the phony “hate group” designation from their town. Lenz, who replaces veteran SPLC “Former Employee” Mark Potok, initially refused. A local TV news team, KCRG out of Cedar Rapids, did the unthinkable and followed up on Amana’s complaint. You can see the report here (after a 30-second ad spot). On August 28, Lenz and the SPLC eventually relented and agreed to remove the hate group designation… sort of.

What Lenz did was to simply relocate the alleged Daily Stormer site from Amana to “Statewide.” “Statewide” is where the SPLC puts “groups” they cannot locate on any map, including their own. There are currently 191 “Statewide” groups on the most recent “Hate Map,” or nearly one-in-four. The SPLC provides no information whatsoever about the alleged groups and the media say “sounds good to us.”

Iowa still has four “hate groups,” (three of which are now “Statewide”), and the national “hate group” count remains at 917 for 2016.

In 2011, long before he was unthinkably kicked to the curb, we had the opportunity to ask Mark Potok directly about these phantom “groups.” At that time, Potok could not account for 262 of his 1,002 alleged groups, and though a small number of them were marked “Statewide” on the map, the vast majority were simply empty slots with no location whatsoever, other than a particular state.

After acknowledging that the question “was not illegitimate,” Mr. Potok sputtered along, making several astounding admissions, such as the “Hate Map” was based largely on anecdotal reports, was “… a very rough measure,” and “an imperfect process,” which is hardly the impression the SPLC gives in its annual “Hate Map” press releases.

In the end, Potok stated, “What those basically are, those are state-wide units… that’s what those groups are…” And with that, the interview was pretty much ended, but it confirmed Potok’s high standards for inclusion on the lucrative “Hate Map.”

On March 25, 2009, Potok had told the San Luis Obispo (CA) Tribune that “…inclusion on the [hate group] list might come from a minor presence, such as a post office box.”

On July 6, 2009, Potok told the Appleton (WI) Post-Crescent that, “…the [hate group] report relies on media, citizen and law enforcement reports, and does not include original reporting by SPLC staff.”

With such high standards and scrupulous research methods as that, it is a wonder that any “hate group” could wind up on the “Hate Map” in error, but this year it happened, twice. Or not.

The second location to fight back against the “hate group” smear was the village of Gurnee, Illinois. On September 8, 2017, the local paper, the Lake County News-Sun reported that:

“Gurnee police and village officials said they have been told by the law center that the village was included after the center found that someone who listed his address as Gurnee had registered on a KKK website.

Gurnee police said an investigation into the name concluded there is no record of anyone by that name having been a Gurnee resident.”

Once again we see how the SPLC spins any microscopic link it can scrape up into a full-fledged “group.” And despite being contacted by the mayor and local police on the scene, the SPLC made the demonstrably false claim that:

“Nonetheless, officials said they were told by a representative of the Law Center that they only review and revise the map once a year, and it will be reviewed again in January.”

It was less than two weeks earlier that the SPLC actually DID revise it’s “Hate Map” tool for Amana, sort of, so why won’t the company do the same for Gurnee? The simple fact of the matter is that they can’t.

The annual “Hate Map” is a fundraising tool, and, as shown above, has very little connection with reality (Mr. Potok’s “very rough measure”). Each winter the six-digit-salary executives at the SPLC come up with a “hate group” count upon which they will build all media and fundraising claims for the following year. Once a number is fixed, someone like Mark Potok or Ryan Lenz will get busy finding enough “groups” to match the prescribed quantity.

As we have noted in the past, the SPLC’s “Hate Map” tool is static. You can move a few deckchairs around, as they did with Amana, but you cannot change the magic number. As we pointed out in August, 2016, even though the SPLC announced that the rag-tag group “White Lives Matter” posed an immediate existential threat, they would not add them to the “Hate Map” for another six months.

(The company eventually conjured up three “White Lives Matters” “groups” for the 2017 map, all of which are… “Statewide.”)

In an age where any elementary school child can update a website in seconds, this makes no sense whatsoever, unless the “Hate Map” is a sham.

While Mr. Lenz can hide nearly 200 “groups” under the “Statewide” label, in the Gurnee case, he assigned a chapter of the Ku Klos Knights of the KKK to that location in addition to a second, “Statewide” iteration of the group to Illinois overall.

Even by SPLC standards, having two “Statewide” entries for the same “group” in the same state stretches credulity. Therefore, the village of Gurnee is stuck with it’s “hate group” until next year.

This brings us back to the point of of this post. The mayor of Gurnee is rightfully dissatisfied with the SPLC’s “tough luck” reply: “We’re going to continue to pursue it,” Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik said. “There is no reason to shame a whole community like that for no reason.”

Mayor Kovarik is completely in the right. There is no reason why any community or state should have to suffer the SPLC’s spurious “hate group” fundraising label. It unfairly smears the entire community based on nothing tangible whatsoever. The elected officials of Gurnee, Amana and every other locality falsely smeared have the reputation of their towns to protect and need to stand up against these unsubstantiated claims.

“Statewide,” governors, state and federal Senate and House members have the same, if not greater obligation to call out the SPLC and demand evidence. Serious claims require serious proof.

In 2015 the SPLC assigned 40 “hate groups” to New Jersey, (a state that doesn’t get enough negative publicity as it is…), giving that state the fourth highest total in the land and causing Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League to publicly denounce the SPLC’s bogus counts.

“According to Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the SPLC has a habit of counting single individuals as groups or chapters, which can give a skewed impression of hate groups in any given state.”

“The Southern Poverty Law Center’s list is wildly inflated,” said Pitcavage. “They list skinhead groups in places where there are no organized groups, but instead it’s just a couple of individuals.”

After being publicly outed by the ADL, the SPLC slashed New Jersey’s count from 40 to 21 on the next “Hate Map,” which was not issued until a full fundraising year later.

If the ADL can call the SPLC out for its “wildly inflated” “Hate Map,” so can local, state and federal representatives. Millions of people swallow the SPLC’s annual “hate group” numbers each year and few in the media will challenge the claims.

Huge corporations like Apple and Google are already making business decisions based on these bogus numbers. What legitimate company would build a new plant in a state with record numbers of “hate groups”? Why would skilled workers move their families to such “hate-ridden” states to work there?

While the SPLC rakes in tens of millions of dollars each year from its fraudulent “Hate Map,” the consequences for local and state economies could run into the billions.

Hold the SPLC responsible for its claims. Demand to see the proof.

 

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SPLC — Whither Mark Potok?

August 31, 2017

It is a dark day at Watching the Watchdogs. A short while ago we were reading an article about a black musician who was fighting racism by befriending white nationalists when we read the following words: “Mark Potok, an expert on extremism formerly with the Southern Poverty Law Center.”

FORMERLY with the SPLC? WHEN did that happen? HOW could that happen? And why wasn’t it a major news item? For millions of people, Mark Potok has been the public face and voice of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the brains behind the insanely lucrative annual “Hate Map” fundraising tool for nearly two decades.

It would nearly impossible to estimate how many millions of donor-dollars Mr. Potok has brought into SPLC coffers over the years.

And now he’s gone? Without so much as a “So long, Mark. Thanks for everything!” from Morris Dees or Richard Cohen?

We immediately turned to our favorite sleuthing tool, the Internet Archives’ cantankerous Wayback Machine to see if we could pinpoint Mr. Potok’s untimely departure.

As of February 20, 2017, Mr. Potok was still listed as a “Senior Fellow” on the SPLC website.

Mark Potok _ Senior-Fellow-Feb-20-17

As of now, Mr. Potok’s biography page, if you can find it, refers to him as “Former Employee.” No “Former Senior Fellow,” or “Senior Fellow Emeritus,” as SPLC co-founder Joe Levin and the late SPLC celebrity spokesman Julian Bond got upon their retirements.

Potok Former Employee

Potok was still listed on the “Leadership” circle page on the site in February.

Feb-22-2017-Leadership _ Southern Poverty Law Center

Today, his picture has been removed from the page with all of the subtlety of an old-time Pravda airbrushing.

8-31_14-Leadership _ Southern Poverty Law Center

In fact, Mr. Potok’s bylines on the hundreds of hit pieces he wrote for the company now refer to him as “Former Employee.”

Potok-byline

Potok’s Facebook page has one cryptic note from March: “Left Job at Southern Poverty Law Center.” No mention of “retiring” or “exploring new opportunities.” Not even a “wants to spend more time with his family.”

Potok Left SPLC

Twenty years of faithful, profitable service and the man is kicked out without so much as a thank you or a Fare-thee-well. What happened?

Apparently Mr. Potok has his own website now, where he is offering his “expertise” on the open market. “I’m an expert on the radical right who spent 20 years at the SPLC.”

Potok Keynote Speaker

While there is no denying that Mr. Potok was a master craftsman of fear-mongering and the smear while at the SPLC, it seems unlikely that he will find another gig that pays anything near the six-digit salary Dees and Cohen have paid him for years.

Potok990

Potok’s website includes several testimonials regarding his career, but the only one from the SPLC comes from retiree Joe Levin. There is no sign of Dees or Cohen to be found anywhere.

Potok Testamonials

What a sad end to a brilliant career. Here was a man who could find unfettered access to every form of media and every leading news outlet with the snap of his fingers. Cut down in his prime at the very dawn of the company’s Golden Era.

With Donald Trump in the White House and Nazi-wannabees holding torchlight processions in Charlottesville, Mr. Potok’s best material ever would have all but written itself. The money is pouring into the SPLC so fast these days that there will no doubt be fat raises for all of the white millionaire proprietors.

Just last week alone, Mo Dees found a way to cash in on the death of Charlottesville protester Heather Heyer. Every tragedy has a silver lining at the SPLC.

It only goes to show the extent of the SPLC’s transformation from “civil rights organization” to “advocacy group.” There are tens of millions of donor-dollars at stake and it’s quite possible that veteran Mark Potok is no longer the “face” of the company that will best appeal to fickle Millennial donors. Maybe he was back-stabbed by ambitious co-workers or somehow crossed his overlords.

For now, we’ll just have to wait until somebody spills the beans. If anyone knows the story, and that includes Mr. Potok himself, please let us know.

There is an old German term, Schadenfreude, which translates more-or-less to “joy or happiness felt at someone else’s misfortune.” Let the record show that we at Watching the Watchdogs take no pleasure at Mark Potok’s departure. While we have spent much of the past decade chronicling his various fear and fundraising campaigns, as a life-long student of communication, rhetoric, persuasion and propaganda, you just have to admire the man’s mastery of the arts.

Though we’ll never agree on much, unless Mr. Potok has a tell-all book up his sleeve, we sincerely tip our hat to a true legend of the art of persuasion.

The man deserved better.

Even if your former colleagues have abandoned you, Mark Potok, we offer you a heartfelt “Fare-thee-well” and we look forward to writing about your work in the future.

“I think a lot of people feel, ‘Oh, groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, they find, you know, the two hundred Nazis running around the country, they build them up into great big groups, they make a big deal about it and then ask for your money,’ right? In other words, it’s kind of a scam. You hype up this little tiny threat into something scary, uh, and then go and try to make money off of it.”

Mark Potok speaking to Bill Holiday in 2008, Track 2.

 

The SPLC’s “Lone Wolf” Lunacy and the DHS

February 16, 2015

In its latest fear-mongering fundraising foray, the Southern Poverty Law Center has finally come out and stated the obvious: It’s not so-called “hate groups” that pose the greatest threat of violence today, it is the “lone wolf” lunatic.

As it turns out, an even greater threat to the American public is the extent to which the SPLC has insinuated itself into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as an alleged source of reliable data. More on this to follow.

First, let’s have a look at “Age of the Wolf,” a “report” written by SPLC staffer Ryan Lenz and edited by Public Relations Chief Mark Potok.

Click Image to Enlarge

Click Image to Enlarge

The “report” is filled with the usual “may-might-could” fundraising alarums familiar in Mr. Potok’s writing and repeats a point he made as far back as 2008:

“And I would say as a general matter, it is extremely unusual these days for an organization to plan and carry out a criminal act where mainly for the reason that they are so likely to get caught. So what we really see out there in terms of violence from the radical right is by and large what we would call lone wolves, people operating on their own or with just one or two partners. As opposed to, you know, being some kind of organizational plan.” (www.npr.org, October 30, 2008) [Emphasis added]

And:

“Still, [Potok] said the public should remain vigilant about the activities of hate groups, even though individuals are responsible for the majority of hate crimes in America. (www.courier-journal.com, July 21, 2009) [Emphasis added]

Individuals are responsible for the majority of hate crimes in America, but that has not prevented Mr. Potok from issuing his highly lucrative “hate group” “Hate Map” every year.

As we’ve demonstrated numerous times on this blog, and as Mr. Potok even admitted to us personally on video, the “Hate Map” is a fundraising tool and, in Mr. Potok’s own words, “anecdotal,” “an imperfect process” and “a very rough estimate.”

Potok continues to designate “hate groups” to populate his “Hate Map” because that is where the money is.

The media regurgitates his meaningless numbers without ever performing even the most rudimentary fact checks, Potok’s Progressive donor base gets agitated and out come the checkbooks. Works like a charm every time.

What is most troubling about “Age of the Wolf” is that it reinforces a dangerous trend we first reported on back in 2012. The report is full of soft, nebulous bogey-words such as “extremist,” “Right-wing” and “far right,” which are largely subjective terms intentionally skirting  legal definition as much as possible. They frighten the donors without risking litigation.

The problem comes with the frequent use of the term “domestic terrorist,” which actually does have a legal definition, even though Mr. Potok largely ignores it in his report.

While the FBI does not, cannot designate “hate groups,” the DHS has every right to investigate any potential source of “terrorism” and, as we’ve seen in the past, doesn’t necessarily bother with a lot of Constitutional niceties in the process.

Being branded a “hate group” by the SPLC carries a stigma. Being branded a “terrorist” has legal repercussions.

“Age of the Wolf” concedes the obvious repeatedly, with such provisos as:

 “Analyzing terrorism comes fraught with pitfalls. There is no hard and fast agreement on what constitutes a terrorist action. What if the attack has a political dimension, but is carried out by someone who is clearly mentally ill? [Emphasis added]

Is a rampage killing spree terrorism or simply an eruption of personal hatreds? Does the murder of three police officers responding to a domestic disturbance count, even if the killer does have a long history in the police-hating anti-government movement?”

 Obviously, to a veteran fundraiser and fear-monger like Mr. Potok, the answer to those questions is a resounding “Close enough!” to warrant inclusion in a list of incidents in the report.

The FBI has a rather more stringent, three-pronged definition:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  1. Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;

  2. Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and

  3. Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.”

An event has to meet all three requirements before the FBI considers it a possible terrorist act, but the incidents on Mr. Potok’s list tend to focus mainly on the first and third criteria, while leaving the second characteristic pretty much up for interpretation.

Such broad interpretations are key to Mr. Potok’s standard M.O., whereby he breathlessly claims to have collected thousands of “hate incidents,” not hate crimes, most of which often do not pan out under closer examination. These are nothing more than standard Potokian fundraising hyperbole, designed to separate the donors from their dollars.

The serious part of “Age of the Wolf” comes at the end of the report in the “Related Studies” section.

To boost the credibility of his claims, Mr. Potok cites six recent studies that discuss domestic terrorism. Potok states:

“In recent years, a number of studies from sources inside and outside of federal government have warned of the threat of increased violence from the radical right, with many specifically addressing lone wolf attackers inspired by ideologies of hate and other extremism. What follows is a description of several of the studies.”

What Mr. Potok neglects to mention, however, is the incestuous relationship between the authors of these reports and his own Southern Poverty Law Center. Even more troubling is that several of them were funded by the DHS.

Before we delve into Mr. Potok’s reports, a quick word about a separate 2014 report Watching the Watchdogs stumbled upon two weeks ago.

In “The Relationship Between Hate Groups and Far-Right Ideological Violence,” published in the academic Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, JCCJ, (which you can download here), the four authors examine “whether the presence of hate groups increases the likelihood of serious ideologically motivated violence committed by far-rightists.”

That wording alone was enough to set off alarm bells, but reading further into the abstract, we read that:

“We test the relationship using data from the Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) for the dependent measure, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for the hate groups measure, and various other sources for additional variables.”

As Mark Potok has already explained to us in person, his “hate group” statistics are “anecdotal,” “an imperfect process” and “a very rough estimate.” How then, we wondered, could any serious study incorporate such shoddy data and come up with academically rigorous results?

After all, we had already reported on a similar “study” published by the Social Science Quarterly in 2012 that attempted to use Mr. Potok’s fundraising propaganda to prove the correlation between the presence of a Walmart in any given county with the subsequent appearance of a “hate group” on Mr. Potok’s “Hate Map” in that same county a decade later. This was junk science at its worst.

In the days before “Age of the Wolf” was posted, we had already emailed each of the four authors of the JCCJ report to ask them why they used SPLC numbers in their report. The wording to all four authors, Amy Adamczyk, Jeff Gruenewald, Steven M. Chermak, and Joshua D. Freilich, (remember these names), was identical and, we thought, quite civil and polite:

“Prof. _____, I have just read your 2014 article “The Relationship Between Hate Groups and Far-Right Ideological Violence,” in which you, Adamczyk, Chermak, et al, state in the abstract that you included data from “the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for the hate groups measure.”

Could you or one of your colleagues explain the methodology for vetting the SPLC’s data? I’m also interested in the working definition of “hate group” your team used for the study, as I was unable to find it within the text.

Thank you for your consideration,”

Ten days later and we’ve yet to hear anything from any of the authors. As we soon discovered, there seems to be a very good reason for the silence.

As for the funding for the article, “This research was supported by the Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through START.”

START is the National Consortium for the Studies of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, “established in 2005 as a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, tasked with utilizing state-of-the-art theories, methods, and data from the social and behavioral sciences to improve the understanding of the origins, dynamics, and social and psychological impacts of terrorism.”

START was funded by an initial $12 million grant from DHS to complete projects in the research areas of terrorist group formation and recruitment, terrorist group persistence and dynamics, and societal responses to terrorist threats and attacks.”

All four academics associated with the JCCJ report are members of the START team and therefore dependent on the DHS for much of their funding.

Of the six reports cited by “Age of the Wolf,” five of them were co-authored by Chermak and Freilich of the START team and four of the reports cite the SPLC as a principle source of “hate group” data.

As for the other primary source of data for the JCCB report, the Extremist Crime Database (ECDB)it was created by START members Chermak, Freilich and Gruenewald. And who financed this impartial resource? “Part of this research was supported by the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS)… and …[START].”

So, at the end of the day, we have Mark Potok’s “Age of the Wolf” fundraising screed, which cites multiple reports by several START researchers, who cite Mr. Potok’s “Hate Map” hogwash in their reports to the DHS, which is the primary source of funding for START.

Just as Mr. Potok’s “hate group” label is worth millions to the SPLC, it certainly appears that DHS funding is worth millions to START. What would happen to that funding if the START researchers determined that Mr. Potok’s numbers were lacking in credibility?

Impartial? You be the judge. Incestuous? Cue the banjos.


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