Newsweek Cannot Help But Follow Media Tradition of Panic Over Right Wing Extremists


Newsweek misses the '90s. Or maybe just 2009. But to be fair to the tanking chunk of old media, this week's cover article by R.M. Schneiderman isn't as bad as it could be. It's mostly just the story of John Matthews, a man who spent two decades undercover for the FBI, moling about various "extremist" groups. It's certainly an interesting human interest story. But Newsweek wouldn't be Newsweek if they didn't paint with broad strokes:

"What we're seeing today is a resurgence," says Daryl Johnson, the former senior domestic terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security. In 2009, the department issued a report warning that "right-wing extremism is likely to grow in strength." And because today's extremists, unlike their predecessors, have at their disposal online information—bomb-making instructions and terrorist tactics—as well as social-networking tools, the report said, "the consequences of their violence [could be] more severe."

The report, which was quickly withdrawn after an outcry from conservatives, seemed prescient months later when an 88-year-old gunman opened fire on visitors at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Last year, nine members of the Hutaree, a Christian militia, were arrested in a plot to kill police officers in Michigan. In January, Jared Lee Loughner, an Army reject, was charged with going on a shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., killing a federal judge, among others, and severely wounding Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Earlier this month, the FBI arrested four men of pensionable age in Georgia for allegedly plotting to attack federal buildings and release biological toxins on government employees.

That report, of course, was the one which included description of right wing extremist groups as including people who "reject.. federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or reject…government authority entirely." (Look Ma, I'm a right wing extremist! So is Lysander Spooner!) And the easy way that Schneiderman equates a murderous old kook, a dubious plot to kill police from the over-hyped threat of the Hutaree militia — who were so dangerous they were freed on bail before their trial — and most absurdly, the apolitically unhinged Jared Lee Loughner, is telling. It's about the level of nuance that the DHS displayed in the aforementioned memo.

It's also the level of nuance displayed in MediaMatters.org's recent four-part Kalispell-Montana-is-full-of-crazies series, perhaps brought on by some fresh Southern Poverty Law Center panic. The bare bones of it is mostly just a rehashing of AP and Gawker's nervousness from early this summer. All of them casually lump together admitted racists, alleged racists, anti-government types of all stripes, people who have actually committed violence, and people who have merely talked about it.

There are some familiar names who shouldn't provoke this level of nail-biting terror; Stewart Rhodes who founded the Oath Keepers; Randy Weaver, whose paranoia of government should really get a pass at this point; Chuck Baldwin, formerly of the Constitution Party, and currently of lots of hiding away in Montana and lots of vaguely militaristic and paranoid calls to strength type-talk. None of them have committed violence. Even the nasty actual racist April Gaede just has some very nasty friends. (But her daughters, whom she shoved into white power show business have renounced those beliefs and now they want to legalize pot!)

So in a not-so-bad human interest story, why does Schneiderman write the following about the Waco debacle, which is mandatory to mention several times in any piece like this? First some nuance from the subject, John Matthews:

In some ways, he recalls some sympathy for Posey's hatred of government; Ruby Ridge and Waco had angered Matthews; they had heightened his fears of growing federal power. But Matthews didn't buy any of the extremists' New World Order nonsense. And he certainly didn't think the answer was killing police officers or FBI agents.

Great! But just kidding; sloppy reporting on Waco is also mandatory. Writes Schnederman, "Federal agents and white separatists were in a standoff at a compound in Waco, Texas." Their status as white separatists must have come as a great surprise to the multi-racial group before they were burnt to death. The laziness of that passage reminds me of Salon's slide-show from March 2010 titled "A history of anti government rage and violence." It included as examples the New York draft riots, Vietnam War protests, Jonestown, and Waco — where they described the 76 dead Davidians as having died in a shoot-out. 

Jesse Walker on "the paranoid center," on how the Southern Poverty Law Center over-hypes militias, and on militias and violent rhetoric. Radley Balko's interview with Stewart Rhodes. Reason's April 2011 issue devoted to "The Loughner Panic."