Mar
01
1999

A Sex-Free Scandal

When racism is the issue, media are slow to dig

The current scandal involving Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s long-term association with a white supremacist hate group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, arose almost by accident. Its emergence as a major story is the result of the dogged reporting of one Washington Post reporter and a handful of mostly African-American columnists, with help from independent researchers (including FAIR).

When Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz clashed with U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) during the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings on Dec. 1, he accused Barr of using rhetoric laced with "bigotry" and "racism.” Barr had repeatedly referred to “the real America” that understood why the president needed to be impeached.

Dershowitz, who is Jewish, claimed Barr was questioning his “Americanism” and that of his Jewish and African-American co-panelists. Barr responded: "That's absurd. You ought to be ashamed. That is the silliest thing I have ever heard."

But a few days later Dershowitz wrote to Judiciary Committee chair Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), citing a speech Barr gave to the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) months earlier. Dershowitz wrote, "Congressman Barr, who was fully aware of this organization's racist and anti-Semitic agenda, not only gave the keynote address to the CCC's national board, but even allowed himself to be photographed literally embracing one of their national directors."

Successor to the “uptown Klan”

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Klanwatch & Militia Task Force calls the CCC “the reincarnation of the infamous White Citizens Councils of the 1950s and 1960s.” The White Citizens Councils, often referred to during the civil rights era as the “white collar” or “uptown” Klan, were formally titled Citizens Councils of America (CCA).

The CCA were created in 1954 in reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling against de jure segregation. Opposed to integration and to voting rights for non-whites, the CCA were known for using intimidation and harassment to discourage integration at schools and participation at the polls.

Perhaps the CCA’s most infamous member was Byron De La Beckwith, who murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963, with the CCA raising thousands of dollars for De La Beckwith’s defense. In its newsletters and monographs of the time, the CCA typically ranted about black intellectual inferiority and criminality, and inveighed against interracial marriage, Jewish plots, Catholics, the left and the federal government.

The CCA’s successor, the CCC, embraces most of the same issues dear to the older group, though it additionally targets Latinos, lesbians, gay men and feminists-people whose social movements largely came to prominence since the heyday of the former CCA. According to its own officials, the CCC was founded in 1985 using the CCA’s old mailing lists; the CCC’s publication, the Citizens Informer, takes its name from the CCA’s magazine, The Informer. Following a recent trend among some racist-right groups, the CCC soft-pedals, while not completely renouncing, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. (See sidebar: "The CCC in Its Own Words.") Calling for a single standard

When Barr began distancing himself from the CCC in a Washington Post story (12/11/98), FAIR contacted news outlets with documents and research showing other prominent elected officials more closely connected to the CCC than Barr. We gave reporters the names and numbers of experts who monitor the far right.

As a FAIR media advisory noted (12/11/98), “It's remarkable how little follow-up has been done on the charges of racism made against Barr. A little research would have discovered that not only Rep. Barr, but Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, [has] been linked with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a ‘Southern traditionalist’ organization which is the successor to the notorious White Citizens Councils.”

We asked journalists to explore the public associations of elected officials using a single standard: “National media have repeatedly questioned black politicians deemed too close to, or insufficiently critical of, groups like the Nation of Islam. Shouldn't journalists be questioning Sen. Lott, Rep. Barr and other politicians who associate with old-fashioned white racist groups?”

Over the next few days our efforts resulted in a handful of stories in national news outlets. Journalists we’d contacted at the Associated Press (12/11/98), Washington Post (12/12/98) and Los Angeles Times (12/13/98) responded with stories focusing on Majority Leader Trent Lott’s links to the CCC.

Clintonesque denials

But there was a problem. Lott, who answered media inquiries through his press secretary, John Czwartacki, first told reporters he only “vaguely remembered” giving a single speech to the group while “serving in the House of Representatives.” Czwartacki added, “That was over a decade ago. His recollection isn’t that straightforward.” Responding to reports the senator was a CCC member, Czwartacki told journalists (Los Angeles Times, 12/13/98) that Lott “doesn’t consider himself a member. Nor does he have firsthand familiarity or knowledge of their views.”

Despite the obviously cautious wording of Lott's dismissal of the scandal, most reporters seemed to take his denial at face value. The story seemed to lose steam. But Thomas B. Edsall of the Washington Post kept digging. With help from Ed Sebesta, a Texas researcher on the neo-Confederate movement, and Mark Potok of the right-watching Southern Poverty Law Center, Edsall filed another story (12/16/98).

Edsall reported that Lott had not only addressed the group three times in the 1990s, but once, as a keynote speaker at a CCC convention in 1992, the senator had heaped praise on its members. “The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy,” Lott concluded his speech. “Let's take it in the right direction and our children will be the beneficiaries!" (FAIR pointed out this quote, which appeared in the Summer/1997 Citizens Informer, in a December 15 media advisory.)

Even after the Washington Post article made it clear Lott had a scandal on his hands, few news outlets seemed interested in advancing the story. The newsworthiness wasn’t lost on some columnists, though, most notably Stanley Crouch of New York’s Daily News and Washington Post editorial board member Colbert I. King. Writing some seven columns on the subject, Crouch called for Lott to “come clean” and for Republicans to address Lott's predicament. Crouch also targeted the news media for its apparent lack of interest (12/30/98): “Why is there less coverage of this story--which has real political import--than of sex, lies, soiled dresses and Hustler magazine?”

Silent leader

By the time FAIR released its third media advisory (12/22/98), reporters and researchers had established that Lott had held a private meeting in his Capitol Hill office in 1997 with three top CCC leaders, Gordon Lee Baum, Thomas Dover and William Lord; that Lott’s endorsement of the group was being circulated in CCC literature as late as 1998; that Lott's column had been running in the CCC's newsletter, Citizens Informer, throughout the ’90s; and that a 1989 issue of Citizens Informer featured a photo of Lott, his uncle, who it reported was a local executive of the CCC, and his cousin, identified as a member.

Since early December, FAIR has been asking activists, through our web site, e-mail list and CounterSpin radio show, to contact local and national media urging them to pay attention to this scandal. And while the story has begun to pick up steam again, we wonder why this story-involving a powerful elected official’s public associations, and lies told to conceal them-hasn’t received more than a fraction of the media attention afforded any one of the private sex scandals involving House members like Dan Burton, Henry Hyde and Bob Livingston.

As Extra! goes to press, ten weeks after the story first gained national attention, Lott's long-term ties to an old-fashioned bigoted organization are beginning to get the attention they deserve (New York Times, 1/14/99; L.A. Times, 1/26/99). But the scandal apparently wasn’t considered newsworthy enough at ABC, CBS or NBC to a merit a segment on the networks’ nightly newscasts--perhaps not surprisingly, given that Lott is considered the broadcasters’ staunchest defender in the Senate. Few have asked, as Atlanta Journal columnist Cynthia Tucker has (12/30/99), what it is about Lott that appeals to these unreconstructed racists. (See sidebar: “A New Kind of Neo-Con.”) And no reporter so far has directly interviewed the majority leader.

Lott’s press secretary recently told reporters, ''Senator Lott has made his distance from the point of view of this group clear, and isn't going to comment further.'' This prediction will prove true only if news organizations let the majority leader off the hook instead of demanding he explain his links to the CCC and the misleading statements made to cover up them up.

SIDEBAR:

A New Kind of Neo-Con:

The Neo-Confederate Movement

“The South, as it was and will be again”-an updated version of “the South shall rise again”-is the slogan used by activists calling themselves neo-Confederates. They are loosely organized through several organizations, such as the CCC, the League of the South, American Renaissance, and publications like Southern Partisan, Southern Patriot and Confederate Veteran.

You wouldn’t know it from media discussions, which sometimes describe Senate Majority Leader Lott as “pragmatic” and “reasonable”-but Lott has been a leading champion of the neo-Confederate cause for over two decades.

As a member of the House of Representatives in 1978, Lott was behind a successful effort to re-instate the U.S. citizenship of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In 1981, the year Lott became majority whip in the House, he prodded the Reagan administration to fight for tax exemptions for racist private schools like Bob Jones University. (The Supreme Court turned down the administration’s plea in an 8 to 1 decision.)

In 1982 and again in 1990, Lott voted against extending the Voting Rights Act. In 1983 he voted against a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1994 voted to de-fund the Martin Luther King holiday commission. In 1990 Lott voted against the continuation of the Civil Rights Act.

“War of Aggression”

Lott’s promotion to Senate majority leader in 1996 gave national media outlets another chance to do the kind of probing profiles that should attend anyone in such a powerful position. None met the challenge. Instead of taking a hard look at Lott’s climb to power, most news outfits filed soft-ball pieces. The New York Times (6/13/96), in a headline that typified much mainstream coverage, pronounced the senator “A Polished and Pragmatic Ideologue.”

Lott’s appointment as chair of the Republican Platform committee 12 years earlier had occasioned a similarly lax portrait by New York Times reporter (now deputy managing editor) Gerald Boyd (8/18/84), which described Lott as “a legislator who displays political shrewdness while avoiding making waves.” That was the same year Lott boasted in a speech to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “The spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform."

A few months later, in an interview with the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan (Fall/84), Lott, himself a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, repeated Davis’ posthumous endorsement of the GOP platform, throwing in a reference to the Civil War as “the War of Aggression.” No independent journalist was present to ask how the oft-dubbed “Party of Lincoln” could, at least in Lott’s view, also be the party of Jefferson Davis.

But it would have been a good question. For Lott’s single-minded stance on issues of race and states’ rights-the very positions that endear him to the neo-Confederate movement-are shared by many other legislators in a Congress dominated by southern “conservatives.”

--S.R.

SIDEBAR:

The CCC in Its Own Words

According to the Council of Conservative Citizens’ website (www.cofcc.org, 12/98), Abraham Lincoln was "surely the most evil American in history," while Martin Luther King was a "depraved miscreant.” On the other hand, for the CCC’s Citizens Informer (Summer/94), former Georgia governor Lester Maddox, an unreconstructed racist, was the "Patriot of the Century. ''

"Each of the three major races plays a distinct role in history. . . . The whites were the creators of civilization, the yellows its sustainers and copyists, the blacks its destroyers.” (web site, 12/98)

"Western civilization with all its might and glory would never have achieved its greatness without the directing hand of God and the creative genius of the white race. Any effort to destroy the race by a mixture of black blood is an effort to destroy Western civilization itself." (Citizens Informer, Fall/94)

"Our liberal establishment is using the media of television to promote racial intimacy and miscegenation.... All of the news teams on the major networks have black and white newscasters of opposite sexes." (Citizens Informer, Fall/98)

“Is it racist to say that it is legally and morally wrong for government to force a mixing of the races to produce a mongrel?" (Citizens Informer, Spring/97)

"The Jews' motto is 'never forget, and never forgive.' One can't agree with the way they've turned spite into welfare billions for themselves, but the 'never forget' part is very sound." (Citizens Informer, Winter/97)

"The presence [in Congress] of even one white person with our interests foremost in his mind is simply unacceptable to the issues-obsessed conservative race traitors. Texas Governor George Bush and his brother Jeb in Florida have manifested their self-hatred by embracing Hispanics ahead of whites. Somehow we must find a way to relieve whites of their self-hatred." ("Open Letter to White People,” website, 12/98)

"If we want to live, white Americans must begin today to lay the foundations of our future and our children's future.... Start today, fellow white Americans. Look at the faces around you: Find the faces like yours, and see them as your brothers and sisters. Find the fair-skinned babies and see them as your children." ("A Call to White Americans," website, 12/98)