How Is It 'News' for Time to Hype 'Extreme Militias' In the Last Weeks of a Campaign?

October 7th, 2010 11:16 PM
Time magazine's news judgment is truly puzzling. With just weeks to go before a crucial midterm election, their cover story package is ten pages stuffed with “The Secret World of Extreme Militias.” Voters are poised to sweep a pile of Democrats out of office from coast to coast, and they're camped in Zanesville, Ohio with a right-wing militia that claims 300 members as the nation's number one news story? (Katie Couric tweeted on Wednesday that she was eagerly reading it.)

Time editor Richard Stengel announced they gave new hire Barton Gellman six months in the field chasing the whisper of a possibility that some new Timothy McVeigh might emerge and vindicate this bizarre investment of effort. Just weeks after they asked on the cover if America was Islamophobic, it's clear that once again, Obama's sinking popularity reveals an ugly America that can't accept the gift they elected.

While Gellman opened with the usual hackneyed portrait of a Midwestern militia on wacky military exercises against an undefined enemy, it's clear that their deep anxiety over Obama is the main thread. A militia resurgence “now is widely seen among government and academic experts as a reaction to the tectonic shifts in American politics that allowed a black man with a foreign-sounding name and a Muslim-born father to reach the White House.”

If this all sounds like rehashed talking points from the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center, you would be correct. “Obama's ascendancy unhinged the radical right, offering a unified target to competing camps of racial, nativist, and religious animus,” Gellman insisted. There were “at least four alleged assassination plots between June and December” of 2007.

We call it somewhat of a perfect storm,” a high-ranking FBI official who declined to speak on the record because of the political sensitivities of the subject.

That's a fascinating snippet. This whole cover story has political sensitivities -- to scare readers into fearing an emerging (or possibly just endlessly bungling) “threat” from militias. The greatest sensitivities in this story are Time's deep and abiding love and concern for Obama. Gellman and Time are upset that anyone would criticize the government finding a huge threat of “right-wing extremism,” somehow larger than the Islamic radical threat:

Federal law-enforcement agencies want no part of a conversation about angry antigovernment extremists and refused in virtually every case to speak on the record. A few injudicious passages from career analysts at the DHS in an April 2009 report titled "Rightwing Extremism" — which could be misread to suggest danger from ordinary antigovernment opinions or military veterans in general — brought a ferocious backlash. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano distanced herself from the report and forbade further public discussion of the subject. Shortly afterward, the National Security Council staff canceled plans for a working-group meeting on the surge of violent threats against members of Congress.

Yet the months that followed brought fresh support for the study's central finding, that rising "rightwing radicalization and recruitment" raised the risk that lone wolves would emerge from within the groups to commit "violent acts targeting government facilities, law-enforcement officers, banks and infrastructure sectors."

Gellman insists he has sparking new scoops: that Holocaust Museum shooter James Van Brunn really wanted to shoot Obama adviser David Axelrod; and that a New York man was attempting to build a “dirty bomb” and had “declared an ambition to kill the president-elect.” But the whole project feels like a rerun from the Clinton years and sounds like it was started when federal agencies arrested Michigan's Hutaree militia in March, and it hasn't had much of a rationale ever since.