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That meant that they actually had to start calling the people they were writing about. “I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with people like [former KKK leader, Dominica overthrow plotter and Stormfront founder] Don Black and [Frazier] Glenn Miller,” Beirich said. “We felt like we should let them respond to our journalism.”
One result of this approach is that the hate groups that Beirich and Potok cover pay close attention to their work.
“We’ve become, in a bizarre sort of way, the New York Times of the radical right,” Potok said. “I think people on the radical right read our materials assiduously. I think they are the most careful readers of our materials anywhere.”
Radical right-wing websites and forums are full of intramural squabbling and slanders of rivals within the movement, Potok said. The SPLC’s stories are trusted, if not admired. “We write essentially from an anti-racist perspective, but we also write accurately about them,” Potok said. “We’re writing about their friends and colleagues and leaders, but writing accurately.”
In 2002, after the unexpected death of William Pierce, leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, the SPLC published comments by Pierce characterizing the members of other neo-Nazi groups as “freaks and weaklings.” That story proved damaging to the group’s reputation on the radical right, and may have played some part in its failure to recover from Pierce’s death. (Cohen deposed Pierce once before he died. “He would have pushed me in the oven in an instant,” Cohen said. “In an instant. He so much as said so.”)
The familiarity between the radical right and the SPLC’s investigators also shows up in the way the investigators are discussed on radical right-wing websites. “The fact of the matter is that we’re on a first-name basis,” Beirich said. “They just refer to us by our first names.”
Not that this familiarity carries with it any warm feelings. SPLC employees take extensive security precautions. The group’s offices are in Montgomery, Ala., and are guarded heavily. Their former offices were burned down one night in 1983. A number of people are in jail for plotting to kill Dees. Threats continue to come in regularly. One white supremacist novel depicted a character obviously based on Potok being graphically assassinated, though another character based on Beirich lived to the end of the novel.
The SPLC’s methods have come in for criticism, and not only from the organizations they attack. A March 2013 article in the magazine Foreign Policy criticized the organization for massively inflating its estimate of hate groups in America by “65 or 70 percent.” According to the article’s author, J.M. Berger, the center does so in part by counting individually the numerous local chapters of national and regional groups.
Beirich, in the FP story, defended her group’s methodology. “I think it would be much more misleading to say here’s 10 or 15 groups than to point out, the way we do, the way those groups are functioning,” Beirich told FP. “We want to show the geographic reach of those groups.”
Conservative publications, meanwhile, have long accused the group of allowing its left-wing slant to blind it to left-wing extremism. In response, the group has said its work focuses on organizations and individuals that promote hatred of groups or individuals based on their race, ethnicity or religion — a defense some conservatives don’t buy.
Potok and Beirich’s work makes up only a part of the SPLC’s total operations. The group has a budget of $38 million and 250 employees, and maintains large legal and educational arms. Its lawyers, led by Dees and Cohen, have pursued dozens of major cases, defending LGBT clients and prisoners and victims of hate crimes, among many others.
The SPLC’s anti-racist activities are often compared with those of the Anti-Defamation League, which would not comment for this story. Though both groups have investigative divisions, the ADL does not go after hate groups in court in the same way that the SPLC does.
“The SPLC is a diverse organization,” Cohen said. “The thing that holds us together is a commitment to the principles underlying the 14th Amendment — equal justice, fairness. Our work that goes after the white supremacists, those are the people in our country who are the most ardent opponents of our democratic values.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis