The Kansas City Star first reported that Kansas City park board member Frances Semler is a member of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps on June 12. Since then I’ve heard a consistent stream of reader comment about the controversy.
The most common concerns about the paper’s coverage have questioned two words used to describe the group: "militant" and "vigilante."
At least three stories said that the organization takes a militant stance or approach to immigration policy, but several others recently have simply called the Minutemen "a militant group."
"I have a big problem with you writing that," said one caller. "In my dictionary, ‘militant’ means militaristic or engaging in active combat. The people who belong to the (Minuteman) Civil Defense Corps aren’t shooting anybody. They aren’t breaking any laws. They’re trying to keep people out who are coming into this country illegally. What’s militant about that?"
I can see these readers’ point. But "militant" can also mean "aggressively active" or "strident," and I think many people would find much of the language at their Web site ( www.minutemanhq.com) fits those descriptors. One article refers to the U.S. Senate as "traitorous," which is "putting a gun to the head of America’s national security and repeatedly pulling the trigger."
Now that kind of hard-hitting writing certainly isn’t unique to the Minutemen -- activists of all political stripes often engage in inflammatory rhetoric. But I also think it’s pretty good first-hand evidence that the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps takes some public positions that can’t be called benign.
Then what about "vigilante?" Again to the dictionary, which says a vigilante is a group or individual volunteering to promote an interest, or to suppress and punish crime. That seems to me the exact definition of what the Minutemen claim as their purpose.
The Star’s Lynn Franey quoted Ed Hayes, Kansas chapter director for the Minutemen, in a June 24 article: "Vigilante means ‘watchman.’ Call me a vigilante. We’re a national neighborhood watch group, that’s what we are."
In the cases of both "militant" and "vigilante," I absolutely agree that they’re loaded with connotations. I don’t think "militant" is the right choice for a news story, but I have no problem with "vigilante." I’m sure many individual members have a sincere commitment to enforcing existing immigration laws peacefully. And several of the readers who’ve contacted me to express their dislike of the Minutemen have accused the group of goals -- including ethnic cleansing and murder -- that are clearly not part of its platform. And I also understand the objections of several readers who thought a Page A-1 story on Sept. 15 quoted too many Minutemen critics and didn’t seek out enough voices defending the organization.
Most of all, I think The Star should look at the Minutemen directly and in more depth. Too much coverage so far has relied simply on supporters’ and opponents’ descriptions of the group, instead of original reporting. The news sections should focus on the facts, not others’ judgments. Leave the pontificating to the Opinion section.