Bill Berkowitz: The Minutemen And The Media
The Minutemen And The Media
Mainstream news overlooks vigilante group's ties to white supremacists
By Bill Berkowitz
Members of the Minuteman Project -- the armed group that patrolled a 23-mile strip of the Arizona-Mexico border throughout the month of April -- have gone home, but they are promising to return with "ten of thousands" more border volunteers in October.
If they do return they may be carrying California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's endorsement with them. Last week the Governator told a Los Angeles radio station that the Minutemen had done a "terrific job" and that they were welcome to come to California.
During the run-up to the month-long patrol, Lou Dobbs, the host of CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" gave the Minutemen "millions in free publicity, plugging it for weeks and turning over large segments of his air time to directly promoting the project," Marc Cooper, a contributing editor of The Nation and a columnist for L.A. Weekly told AlterNet. And a May 2nd Christian Science Monitor round-up piece on the Minuteman Project gave the group a generally favorable review, while ignoring the controversial links of Minuteman Project participants to radical right wing organizations.
With dozens of television reporters on hand and satellite trucks in tow, the media swarmed the area hunting video that might knock the Michael Jackson trial, the missing wife-to-be case and/or any boy-down-the-well stories out of the lede position on local and national newscasts. Hundreds of armed white men hanging out in the desert waiting for Mexican immigrants to cross the border had "if it bleeds, it leads" potential.
According to a Southern Poverty Law Center report, on April 2, the Minuteman Project "held a protest across the street from the U.S. Border Patrol headquarters in Naco, Ariz. Prominent among the demonstrators were two men who confided that they were members of the Phoenix chapter of the National Alliance... the largest neo-Nazi group in America. One of the two, who sat in lawn chairs throughout, held a sign with arrows depicting invading armies of people from Mexico -- a sign identical to National Alliance billboards and pamphlets, except without the Alliance logo."
During the run-up to the demonstration, Shaun Walker, a National Alliance official told a reporter that they weren't "going to show up as a group and say, 'Hi, we're the National Alliance. But we have members ... that will participate."
"In fact," the SPLC reported, "National Alliance pamphlets were distributed in Tombstone and [Naco], this predominantly Hispanic community just two days before the Minuteman Project got going. 'Non-Whites are turning America into a Third World slum,' they read. 'They come for welfare or to take our jobs. Let's send them home now.'"
But despite the presence of known white supremacists, the mainstream media generally gave the Project a pass.
WorkingForChange asked Mark Potok, the director of the Intelligence Project, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization monitoring hate groups, about the media coverage of the Minuteman Project, the group's right wing connections and Gov. Schwarzenegger's endorsement.
WorkingForChange: Could you give your general assessment of the mainstream media's coverage of the Minuteman Project.
Mark Potok: As a general matter, the media did an exceedingly poor job of covering the Minuteman Project. The organizers said they were bringing in excess of 1,300 volunteers to Arizona, but brought significantly fewer than 300. They claimed the volunteers were being vetted for possible white supremacists by the FBI -- only to have the FBI completely deny that this was the case. They said the only people who would carry guns would be those with conceal-carry permits. In fact, almost no one was checked for permits. Almost none of this was noted in most mainstream press accounts -- accounts that in many cases were completely uncritical, even adulatory, in their treatment of the Minutemen.
Most important of all, the organizers of the Minuteman Project claimed that they would be keeping out white supremacists and other racists through their vetting process. In fact, there were at least six men participating who were members of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group whose members have been involved in crimes including assassination, shootouts with police, the machine-gun murder of a Jewish talk show host, bank robberies, plots to bomb Disney World and more. At least two of these men actually discussed setting up sniper positions along the border sometime in the near future. In addition, there was at least one member of the Aryan Nations, another major neo-Nazi group, participating in the Minuteman Project. No mainstream press account mentioned any of this.
Most press accounts ignored the bigoted past statements of organizer Chris Simcox, and almost all uncritically accepted self-congratulatory and inaccurate assessments from Simcox and co-organizer Jim Gilchrist. They also suggested, in many cases, that the Project had "shut down" some 20 miles of the border to illegal immigration; in fact, they only operated along a stretch of some two miles. One press account also described Project volunteer Jim McCutchen in flattering terms in a lengthy profile; completely ignored were McCutchen's anti-Semitism and his contacts with the white supremacist hate group Council of Conservative Citizens, which has described blacks as a "retrograde species of humanity."
Overall, I think the blandly positive tone of the press coverage has contributed to similar efforts that are springing up elsewhere -- not to mention California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's description of the Project as a great thing that should be emulated.
WFC: In the May 2nd Christian Science Monitor piece, there was no mention of the political backgrounds of any of the Minuteman leaders interviewed. What do you know about the Project's co-founders, Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox?
MP: We don't know much about Gilchrist, so I can't testify as to his attitudes toward Hispanics or others with dark skin. What we know is that he wasn't honest about the FBI vetting volunteers -- that turned out to be false. Simcox has made clearly bigoted statements -- to my reporter. In 2003, Simcox told us:
"I've lived in Manhattan and I have lived in Chicago and I have lived in Los Angeles. These people don't come here to work. They come here to rob and deal drugs," Simcox said of Mexican immigrants.
So, we asked him, is that what drove him to leave Los Angeles?
"Oh, Jesus, it is unbelievable. I mean, we need the National Guard to clean out all our cities and round them up. They are hard-core criminals. They have no problem slitting your throat and taking your money or selling drugs to your kids or raping your daughters and they are evil people," Simcox replied.
I rest my case.
WFC: In 1994, with the support of then-Gov. Pete Wilson, the anti-immigrant initiative Proposition 187 passed handily. However, it also alienated Latinos from the Republican Party for nearly a decade. Why do you think Gov. Schwarzenegger endorsed the Minuteman?
MP: I think the governor saw what he thought would be an easy way to pander to the far right among the California electorate. It was obviously an extremely short-sighted mistake -- more and more Californians are Hispanic, and a great many of that number are Republicans. Schwarzenegger's comments will certainly help to alienate California Hispanics from the GOP -- something you would think California politicians had learned in the wake of the Proposition 187 debacle.
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Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.