In 1968, a government study called the Kerner Report warned that the media was failing to report on the underlying problems of race relations in the United States. Five decades later, we find ourselves in the midst of another media crisis with grave consequences for our fragile democracy: Major media organizations like the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio (NPR) are regularly quoting representatives of known white nationalist groups without context about the groups’ ideologies and often don’t present adequate responses.
In the last several months alone, the New York Times published an op-ed by Jerry Kammer, a senior research fellow at the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), NPR quoted CIS and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and TheWashington Post cited CIS multiple times. All of these are stark examples of what journalists Juan González and Joseph Torres called the news media’s “deeply flawed national narrative: the creation myth of heroic European settlers battling an array of backward and violent non-white peoples to forge the world’s greatest democratic republic.”
This harmful white supremacist narrative and its chief proponents should be well-known to reporters and editors by now, but it seems the pull of access journalism and the drive for Trump scoops continues to cloud journalistic ethics. In brief, John Tanton, a white nationalist and eugenicist who died in 2019, was one of the founders of CIS and a network of anti-immigrant groups targeting different segments of civil society. For more than 30 years, the group has published countless reports designed to pump misinformation into immigration discourse, starting within conservative outlets, but working across the media landscape. CIS has also distributed more than 2,000 articles from white nationalists and influential anti-Semites. CIS is not merely “a group that favors stricter immigration policies,” as it is routinely identified in the media. It is part of a network of anti-immigrant groups—including FAIR and Numbers USA—founded and funded by white nationalists who work to stop non-white migration to the U.S. In fact, CIS’s penchant for misrepresentation and obfuscation of facts in the pursuit of severely limiting immigration has led it to be dubbed the “False-Fact Think Tank.”
CIS leaders have chosen outright expressions of bigotry and the distortion of facts as a way of achieving their xenophobic goals. Kammer may have referred to himself a “liberal” in the Times, and other Tanton Network figures regularly quoted in the media may attempt to distance themselves from deadly immigration policies, but they all advocate for the same fundamentally anti-immigrant agenda—even if their public language is more palatable to NPR listeners and Times readers. Media outlets’ unwillingness to note these groups’ white nationalist connections or the source of the organizations’ funds is irresponsible and harmful, and only adds to the growing distrust of news media. Tanton and the organizations he helped mold and create were once considered fringe groups. So, how did these groups become immigration “experts” in the media, get asked to speak at Congressional hearings, and get tapped for high-ranking jobs in federal agencies?
In part, trusted news outlets have done much of the work to normalize the rhetoric, routinely quoting them in the name of “objectivity,” often positioning anti-immigrant leaders as rational, reputable sources who simply want to limit migration. This trend continues today. Poynter promotes CIS as a resource for journalists, and the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) toolbox for covering immigration featured CIS and FAIR under “immigration organizations and advocacy groups.” (SPJ removed the links in February when an immigration reporter questioned them about it.)
A recent journalism study by Define American and the MIT Center for Civic Media found that while we have seen a vast increase in coverage on immigration-related issues, there has also been an increase in racist quotes from Tanton network groups in trusted news outlets. As the report noted, these words have real consequences for people’s lives. Under the Trump administration, CIS has attained significant influence over national immigration policy, and the group certainly bears some responsibility for the policy horrors occurring at our borders and in our communities. After all, Trump’s immigration framework can be directly tied to a “wish list” created by CIS and FAIR dating back to at least 2005. Any publication lending these groups a platform must accurately note their well-documented connection to misinformation campaigns and to numerous Trump administration policy initiatives.
Americans expect that credible media outlets will continue to serve the interests of our democracy and not undermine journalism itself. The Tanton network groups, including CIS, serve to break both of these principles. Even while denying a racist agenda, CIS policy positions, in effect, favor white, European immigrants. These positions are hardly a surprise given the white nationalist leanings of their founders, the ideas reflected in their founding documents, and their willingness to rely on hyperbole and sensationalism. By wielding so-called “research” with flawed statistics, race-based fear mongering, and disinformation, these groups helped pave the way to the “fake news” era.
But all is not lost. Our national media still operates on solid principles, even as those principles evolve. First, the sources that reporters tap and the way they are identified matters. More than 90% of the time major American papers cite CIS, they do not identify the group by its ideology or funders, according to the Define American study. This is odd because the Times itself has exposed these groups’ major funders, including the Colcom Foundation, whose founder, Cordelia Scaife May, heiress to the Mellon banking fortune, “gradually gave way over the years to darker exchanges with fringe figures who believed that black people were less intelligent than white people, Latino immigrants were criminals, and white Americans were being displaced.” The op-ed page at the paper of record should steer clear of such obviously and abhorrently bigoted sources as CIS, or at least mention the connections so readers can decide.
Secondly, standards for op-ed pages need to be clarified in the age of disinformation. While the opinion pages should be places for vigorous debate, they should hold writers to the same high standards that they hold the rest of their content. The numerous ties between CIS and the Trump administration, including dozens of emails with White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, over a dozen former CIS staffers or collaborators who work for the administration, and frequent contact on policy prescriptions, make Tanton network figures surrogates for the Trump administration and campaign. The Times and other outlets should make this relationship clear to the public.
If, as González and Torres argue, the U.S. news media has happily lent itself to white supremacy by reinforcing racial ignorance, group hatred, and discriminatory government policies for generations, perhaps this moment presents an opportunity to tell a different story about our nation. Denying airtime to representatives of white nationalist organizations is a pretty basic first step.
UPDATE (3:50pm ET): After Prism published this story, Poynter responded to our earlier request for comment to state that they have removed the Center for Immigration Studies from its list. Poynter appended the following note to the end of the guide: “This guide was updated on March 9, 2020, to remove a link to a data resource that does not meet Poynter’s standards.”
Tina Vasquez is the Senior Reporter at Prism. Ethan Fauré is a research analyst at Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank that monitors the anti-immigrant movement and other institutions and ideologies that undermine human rights. Nathaniel Hoffman is the communications manager at Define American, a culture change organization that works with media to shift the conversation about immigrants, identity, and citizenship.