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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

A News Release Rekindles “Immigration Debate” in Northern MI

January 6, 2017

Retired Petoskey Ophthalmologist John Tanton found his name back in the news for his political immigration activism started some 40 years ago when the unsuspecting northern Michigan Little Traverse Conservancy sent out a news release about his family property donation.

At first, one of Michigan’s largest land trusts believed that the Petoskey News-Review was not going the run news release at all.  Editor Jeremy McBain told the Conservancy, “I am sorry, but as a man with Mexican heritage, I do not share this love for the Tantons that some in this community do. And, in all fairness to our readers, I believe any story on them should include the truth about them as well.”

The self-identified half-Irish, half-Mexican Indian newspaper editor apparently wanted to make sure his readers remembered the Tantons for their national political involvement in the immigration debate. Since the early 80s, Tantons’ immigration organizations and monthly journal, Social Contract, has made local, state and national headlines for efforts to change national immigration laws and practices including making English the official language in the U.S.  At one time,  John Tanton had been labeled a “racist” by a somewhat discredited national, non-profit, human rights and hate crime organization, the Southern Poverty Law Institute (SPLC).

Tanton is no longer active because of poor health.

When asked about not publishing the press release, McBain said he was going to assign it to a reporter for an actual story instead of running the press release.  As published, The News-Review’s story was basically the news release, but referenced Tanton’s involvement and the Little Traverse Conservancy reaction:

“John Tanton is also listed as an anti-immigrant extremist in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s database,” the newspaper reported.  “The Southern Poverty Law Center is an anti-intolerance watchdog group that describes Tanton as ‘the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement’ who founded the publishing company The Social Contract Press, which is included on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ‘Hate Map’ listing of hate groups.”

Little Traverse Conservancy Executive Bailey told the News-Review a donor’s political views or advocacy work “has nothing to do” with land conservation.  “We’ve never had a political litmus test to contribute to conservation,” he said. “I have never asked any donor about their politics or about their advocacy work. We’ve had people from across the political spectrum, from across the economic spectrum, we’ve had people of different faiths and it has nothing to do with whether you support land conservation.”

Bailey added that the new donated Tanton Family Working Forest Reserve is “a wonderful piece of property. The hills are spectacular. The woods are beautiful. It’s a great place to take a hike and just enjoy the outdoors.”  John Tanton is one of the original founders of the now, nearly 4,000-member Little Traverse Conservancy created in 1972 to protect and maintain critical lands in their natural state. 

Currently, the land trust’s five-county service area includes more than 40,000 acres of land and 70 miles of shoreline dedicated to conservation and/or public use in lower Northwest Michigan and in the eastern Upper Peninsula.  Holdings include:

  • Over 270 private properties given permanent protection with conservation easements.
  • More than 200 nature preserves open to the public with walking trails and some even open to hunting.
  • Several partnerships with local units of government have resulted in additional protected lands now open to the public

Founded by Montgomery Alabama civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. in 1971, the Southern Law Poverty Center gained notoriety in the 1980’s for its fight against radical-right and white-supremacy groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis, as well as various organizations, publications and social media.  The Poverty Center maintains a list of “hate groups” and a “hate map” of 892 hate groups that it has identified as operating in the U.S.  Tanton’s Social Contract Press in Petoskey is shown on the map.  John Tanton is also listed on the Center’s “Extremistwebsite list:

“John Tanton is the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement. He created a network of organizations – the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and NumbersUSA – that have profoundly shaped the immigration debate in the United States.”

The Center’s validity fell into question when it was scrubbed from an FBI website after announcing its Civil Rights program maintains a list and provides links only to resources within the federal government.  Like Tanton, 2016 Presidential candidate and now nominated HUD Secretary Ben Carson found himself added to its extremist watch list in 2014, citing his association with groups it considers extreme, and his alleged “linking of gays with pedophiles.”  Late last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center, published a list of 15 individuals it labeled as particularly threatening “anti-Muslim extremists.”

“It is sad but telling that the SPLC’s so-called field guide to Muslim-haters is not a list of violent extremists—who certainly do exist—but is instead a blacklist of prominent writers whose opinions on a range of cultural and political issues are offensive to the SPLC,” Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith opined.

Tanton first found himself in the national spotlight for his immigration activities soon after human rights activist Linda Chavez resigned as executive director of “U.S.”, a non-profit dedicated to establishing English as the official language of the United States.  She, as well as several other well-known board members—like the late newscaster Walter Cronkite—resigned in 1988, following comments by co-founder John Tanton, which she regarded as “anti-Hispanic” and “anti-Catholic.”

Chavez was the highest-ranking woman in President Ronald Reagan’s White House, and was the first Latina ever nominated to the Cabinet, when President George W. Bush nominated her to be Secretary of Labor.  She withdrew from consideration for the position when the media published allegations that she had employed an illegal immigrant a decade earlier.  She is now an author, national columnist and Fox News analyst.

The News-Review handling of a gift to a community non-profit offers an interesting question: How much should the news media offers its readers in keeping its “public right to know” commitment, especially when it has been so public?  Most news media print and broadcast thousands of announcements on contributions made by individuals or organizations for the public benefit.  For the most part, little mention of a person’s political interests or activities are identified in the story. 

Here are some examples involving national figures, and even U.S. presidents:

No mention is made on the late Norman Vincent Peale’s website—or within his books—like the best-selling, The Power of Positive Thinking or other publications, of his one-time anti-Catholic political activities alongside evangelist Billy Graham.  They mobilized two dozen well-known Evangelical leaders to form the group, “American Protestants against Roman Catholics”, during John Kennedy’s successful 1960 bid for U.S. President.  Graham never owned up to his role, except for a slight mention in his biography, Just as I am.

Former 40-year veteran Newsweek Religion Editor Kenneth Woodward writes in his new book, Getting Religion, that Peale warned the public that “our American culture is at stake”.  Peale had briefed a group of 150 other Protestant leaders and pastors on how to stop Kennedy at a Washington, D.C. gathering.  Another participant declared that “the antagonism of the Roman church to Communism is in part because of [their] similar methods.”  Woodward revealed the Peale/Graham effort during the “Harbor Springs Festival of Books” held last fall in the popular northern Michigan resort community.  He wrote that the duo kept Kennedy’s Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, apprised of their activities.

Woodward writes that when several reporters slipped into the Mayflower Hotel event and reported about the anti-Catholic discussion, Peale went into hiding after being publicly embarrassed. He became severely depressed and offered to resign as pastor of New York’s Marble Collegiate Church, as editor of his magazine Guideposts, and forfeit his membership in the New York Rotary Club.  While Peale privately felt that Graham, by hiding his central role in the project had let him suffer the consequences, Peale never said anything publicly.  According to Woodward, Graham for his part, never did own up to his role in the stop-Kennedy, anti-Catholic effort.

No two editors are alike and therefore differ on how they deal with what’s fit to print or how much should they allow to be published.  As with editors, media values of what is—and is not—fit to print also change, as shown in White House coverage.

In the 1930s and 40s, few photographs were taken of FDR in a wheelchair because of either a gentleman’s agreement or a decision by the press because they believed his polio, contracted as an adult, did not impact his performance. They also believed it might show the Chief Commander as a weak leader before and during World War II.

Later reporting also never appeared on JFK’s White House escapades with actress Marilyn Monroe and pressroom intern Marion Fay “Mimi” Alford, later published in her memoirs that she lost her virginity to him.

By the 1990s and since, the press prints everything, as with the sordid details of the Monica Lewinsky scandal involving President Bill Clinton and his intern/paid staffer.

Former President George H. Bush found himself angrily denying unconfirmed reports that he had had an extramarital affair with his appointments secretary Jennifer Fitzgerald, in Switzerland in 1984.  In fact, the Bush campaign reportedly had been expecting a question of this nature for some time during his race against Clinton.  Bush was dogged with similar rumors in 1988.  Hillary Clinton, wife of Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, made a veiled reference to rumors about the president’s personal life several months ago when her own husband’s fidelity was being questioned.  Bill Clinton had taken a similar tack on the infidelity question, while specifically denying the claims of Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas woman who says she had a longtime affair with him.

Now everything appears to be fair game to report in the press and social media for the world to read—substantiated or not.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

January 5, 2017 · Filed under Winter

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Stan Smith, MD // Jan 6, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    This expose of a gross miscarriage of journalism in the Petoskey News-Review, against Dr. John Tanton, hopefully will dampen future thrusts into the unrelated private beliefs of society’s icons.

  • 2 george a. colburn, ph.d. // Jan 6, 2017 at 1:22 pm

    Well done, Ken Winter. Intelligent POV…balanced and obviously from a thoughtful former journalist oft confronted with publish-or-alter decisions. Today, it seems to me, many local newspapers w/o competition often can stray from solid journalistic practices. Just another dilemma faced today by citizens of the electronic age.

  • 3 jim shirilla // Jan 6, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    Well done . It is nice to read a balance report of history rather than ones personal opinion. History does tend to repeat itself as we have seen many time.

  • 4 Allen Damschroder // Jan 6, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    Thanks Ken for shedding light on the irresponsible, uncalled for comments in the PNR concerning John Tanton.


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