Thursday, September 02, 2010

NAACP watches for 'tea party' racism, stirs controversy

Washington Post = By Krissah Thompson

NAACP leaders have a message for the members of the tea party movement: We're watching you.

The civil rights group has partnered with three liberal media Web sites to form a "tea party tracker" intent on monitoring "racism and other forms of extremism" within the tea party movement.

The online project, which was developed and branded by the NAACP's new media staff, has already drawn strong criticism from tea party supporters, who have said repeatedly that racism plays no role in their movement.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, said the project was started because NAACP leaders kept hearing from its members that they were seeing racist signs, T-shirts and commentary coming from the tea party movement.

"The site is set up to be utilized as a tool to track activities as they come up," Shelton said. "It is in some ways consistent with the kind of tracking that has been done of other extremist entities. I do not want to suggest that the tea party is a hate group, but there are some disturbing elements within."

The conservative Web site Daily Caller first reported the story about the site, which features a blog, breaking news section and the tagline "a watched pot never boils."

Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for Freedomworks - which supports many tea party groups - called the ongoing conversation about racism and the tea party frustrating.

Steinhauser said liberal groups don't hold themselves to as strict a standard. For example, he said, at antiwar rallies during the Bush administration there were signs showing communist decals and supporting communist leaders Fidel Castro and Kim Jong Il.

"There's such a different standard we're held to," Steinhauser said. "Both sides have to self-police. We should all hold ourselves accountable."

The tea party tracker site is aggregating stories from Think Progress, Media Matters for America and New Left Media - which all promote liberal ideas, while criticizing conservatives and Republicans.

The tracker's launch comes a month and a half after NAACP members voted overwhelmingly to condemn "racist elements" within the tea party. Members of the conservative movement responded by saying that the civil rights group was "attempting to silence" the tea party with "inflammatory name-calling."

Conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart said the NAACP's resolution was the instigation for his release of a selectively edited video that made it appear that federal agriculture official Shirley Sherrod had discriminated against a white farmer. Sherrod was fired and condemned by the NAACP before the full video was released, which showed that Sherrod had actually helped the farmer and was telling a story of racial redemption. President Obama and NAACP officials apologized to Sherrod, who said she was targeted because the NAACP had called out the tea party.

(Coverage of Shirley Sherrod controversy)

That episode was embarrassing for the NAACP but has not stopped what it has said is an effort to hold the tea party movement accountable for the actions of its members.

Faiz Shakir, editor in chief of Think Progress, said he was glad to support the NAACP's site because he has already been sending staff members out to conduct interviews at tea party events. NAACP staffers will cull from that reporting for its site - along with any information that comes from the NAACP's 2,200 chapters. "I think the NAACP felt like it needed to justify its stance," Shakir said, referring to the group's resolution about racism within the tea party. "One of the things it is trying to do is note instances where there is great intolerance projected by the tea party."

A few weeks ago, NAACP leaders approached Media Matters about using its tea party-related posts, said Ari Rabin-Havt, vice president of research and communications for Media Matters. "We appreciate the role that they're playing in aggregating this content," Rabin-Havt said. "Anyone who wants to spread our content, we're more than happy to let to let them use it."

So far the tracker site has posted links related to conservative commentator Glenn Beck's "restoring honor" rally last weekend, including a picture of a man wearing a T-shirt that reads: "Blacks own Slaves in Mauritania, Sudan, Niger and Haiti." NAACP has also posted a slideshow of photos it says are of offensive signs displayed at tea party rallies.

Steinhauser said his biggest concern about the tracker site is that "a lot of the signs that are going to end up on this site are going to be from left-wing groups infiltrating these rallies. It's so clear that they are holding up signs to make us to look bad. It serves their purpose to do that."

Shelton said the NAACP will not post photos or video that has been altered. He noted that after the NAACP's resolution, the National Tea Party Federation expelled vocal supporter Mark Williams, who had posted a letter about slavery that was derogatory of African Americans and the NAACP.

"We have been very heartened to see that there have been some tea party entities that have said they do not desire to have those racially inflammatory signs and T-shirts," Shelton said. "As we have always believed, there are some components of the tea party that are very much in tune with our democratic values, and they are actively and politically engaged - which the NAACP supports."

Is Glenn Beck's rise good for Mormonism?

By Felicia Sonmez Washington Post
Like conservative commentator Glenn Beck, Stephen Owens is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His in-laws traveled from Utah to Washington last weekend to join Beck's rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

Owens, however, said he has always "kind of rolled my eyes" at Beck's views.

And when the Salt Lake City lawyer read that Beck publicly questioned President Obama's "version of Christianity" the day after the rally, he was so angry that he wrote a letter to the local newspaper.

"I think it's arrogant of anyone to say whether someone is a Christian or not," said Owens, a 42-year-old Democrat. "My view of that is, if someone says, 'I follow the teachings of Jesus Christ,' then they're Christian, and who am I to say, 'No, you're not,' let alone [to] the president of our country? I was offended at that."

Owens's comments reflect the mixed opinions that members of the Mormon Church have of Beck's higher profile. Some see his rise as a sign of Mormonism going mainstream, while others worry that he is a divisive figure who does not represent Mormon values.

Michael Otterson, managing director of public affairs for the church, said that opinion of Beck is just as divided among Mormons as it is elsewhere.

"Views on Glenn Beck would be right across the spectrum," he said. "It depends on where individual Latter-day Saints are. Some would embrace him completely and others would no doubt be at odds."

Otterson also noted that there are more than 6 million Mormons in the United States and that prominent Mormons in the political arena run the ideological gamut - from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R).

"It really underscores that members of the church are free to have their separate political views and express them whatever way they like," Otterson said, adding that Beck "would be the very first person to say that he does not speak for the church."

Philip Barlow, the Arrington chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, said that Beck is "something of a polarizing figure" in the Mormon community.

Barlow noted that Beck's statement that the Constitution is an "inspired document," his calls for limited government and his emphasis on not exiling God from the public sphere "have considerable sympathy in Mormonism."

But he added that Beck's claim that social justice is "a code word for Nazism and fascism" as well as his some of his more inflammatory remarks about his political adversaries have turned off some members of the church.

"One wouldn't describe Glenn Beck as always being civil in his descriptions of his opponents," Barlow said, noting that the Mormon Church recently issued a statement calling for "civil discourse" on immigration.

Mormons have faced considerable obstacles when it comes to politics and perceptions among the American public. A Time magazine poll released last week showed that 29 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of Mormons, compared with 43 percent who had unfavorable views of Muslims, 17 percent who felt unfavorably toward Catholics and 13 percent who viewed Jews unfavorably.

During Romney's 2008 presidential bid, some viewed his Mormon faith as a liability. A Pew survey at the time showed that 25 percent of Americans - including 36 percent of evangelical Republicans - expressed reservations about voting for a Mormon for president.

And while Mormons consider themselves Christians, key tenets of the Mormon Church are disputed by mainstream Christian denominations - a disparity that critics say adds to the irony of Beck questioning another person's Christian faith.

The Mormon Church recently began an advertising campaign in nine markets nationwide featuring 30-second TV spots in which members of the church talk about their lives in an attempt to dispel myths.

There are more than a dozen Mormon members of Congress from across the political spectrum, from Reid on the left to Sens. Orrin G. Hatch and Robert F. Bennett - both Republicans from Utah - on the right. But Beck, whose Washington rally last weekend drew upward of 87,000 people, may be the highest-profile Mormon on the national stage.

In public appearances and on his Fox News show, he has made religion a central part of his message, although he rarely refers to his Mormon faith. (One such mention came in the "Fox News Sunday" appearance last week during which he took aim at Obama's religious beliefs.)

Barlow also said it is possible that as Beck's profile rises, so, too, will the views that Mormonism is synonymous with Beck's brand of conservatism.

As Barlow put it, "There might be a few maverick Harry Reids out there," but ultimately moderates and those on the left "are going to be seeing Mormonism running somewhere between Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck."

Owens expressed concern that some may come to see Beck as representing the views of most Mormons.

"I know he doesn't speak for the Mormon Church. And yet everyone seems to know he's LDS," Owens said. "And when he's so outspoken religiously, that bothers me, because I'm worried people in the public will mesh the two - Mormonism and him as a political commentator."

Owens said that should Romney run for president in 2012, Beck could prove to be more of a liability.

"If I were Mitt Romney, I would think that Glenn Beck would be hurting my cause, because presidential candidates want to be liked, and he's so divisive," Owens said.

He added: "I wouldn't want to be associated with someone who's such a controversial figure." By Felicia Sonmez Washington Post