Hate groups, lies and misinformation

About a month and a half ago, a little-known company called the Charity Give Back Group, or CGBG, started making headlines — and not the kind likely to win the company's public-relations staff any bonuses. Religion News Service, the Denver Post and The Daily Beast were among those who reported on gay-rights activists and faith-based nonprofits waging online culture war — with CGBG at the center.

I highlighted the controversy (as one example) in a related Christianity Today story on Christian organizations finding it difficult to partner with businesses.

This week, the CGBG story reached The New York Times, which reported:

The culture war over gay rights has entered the impersonal world of e-commerce.

A handful of advocates, armed with nothing more than their keyboards, have put many of the country’s largest retailers, including Apple, Microsoft, Netflix and Wal-Mart, on the spot over their indirect and, until recently, unnoticed roles in funneling money to Christian groups that are vocal in opposing homosexuality.

The advocates are demanding that the retailers end their association with an Internet marketer that gets a commission from the retailers for each online customer it gives them. It is a routine arrangement on hundreds of e-commerce sites, but with a twist here: a share of the commission that retailers pay is donated to a Christian charity of the buyer’s choice, from a list that includes prominent conservative evangelical groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.

The marketer and the Christian groups are fighting back, saying that the hundred or so companies that have dropped the marketer were misled and that the charities are being slandered for their religious beliefs.

The 1,200-word Times story is a fairly straightforward report that attempts to explain the controversy and the positions of each side in a balanced way. We get strong language from Stuart Wilber, a 73-year-old gay man and petition organizer who refers to conservative Christian organizations as "hate groups." But fairly high up, we also get Mike Huckabee calling the petition efforts "economic terrorism" — fairly strong language in its own right.

The reporter boils down the controversy this way:

On one side are angry gay-rights advocates and bloggers, wielding the club of the gay community’s purchasing power.

On the other side are conservative Christian groups that say they are being attacked for their legitimate biblical views of sex and marriage, as well as a Web marketing firm that feels trampled for providing consumers with free choice.

Caught in the middle are companies, including such giants as Macy’s, Expedia and Delta Air Lines, which have the dual aims of avoiding politics but not offending any consumers. In this case, they have been pressured to make a choice that may involve little money either way but that could offend large blocs of consumers.

The phrase "legitimate biblical views of sex and marriage" slowed me down. I wonder if a different word than "legitimate" (such as "traditional" or "orthodox") might have worked better. But in general, I'm fine with the above section.

However, the following section disappointed me:

Beyond condemning the advocates’ efforts as an infringement on consumer freedom, Mr. Huckabee said it was offensive to apply the “hate group” label to organizations that are legal, peaceful and promote biblical values.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the Family Research Council a hate group for “regularly pumping out known falsehoods that demonize the gay community,” said Mark Potok, a project director at the law center — and not, he said, because the council calls homosexuality a sin or opposes gay marriage. The falsehoods, he said, include the discredited claim that gay men are especially prone to pedophilia.

The Family Research Council has accused the law center of “slanderous attacks.”

Advocates insist that their push is not anti-Christian. “It has nothing to do with biblical positions,” said Mr. Steele, the blogger. “It has to do with the fact that these groups spread lies and misinformation about millions of Americans.”

Details that I think would have helped that section:

— What is the Southern Poverty Law Center? What is its political leaning? What credentials does it have for labeling a group a "hate group?"

What exactly did the Family Research Council say concerning gay men and pedophilia? Is there a direct quote or report that the Times could cite of this claim? Does the council stand by its claim? Why or why not? The council is allowed to accuse the center of "slanderous attacks" but not to respond to the specific accusation in the paragraph before.

— What specific lies and misinformation have been spread about millions of Americans? Any direct quotes or references that the Times could cite? And how do those accused of spreading the lies and misinformation respond to the specific claims?

The Times story is not terrible.

It just seems to me — and maybe it's just me — that it suffers from a lot of the same vagueness and broad generalizations that characterize too many Times stories on gay rights and the culture war.

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