As if Katie Couric didn't already have enough problems.
Weighed down by record-low ratings at the anchor desk of "CBS Evening News," and by reports suggesting she will leave that post two years before her multimillion-dollar contract expires, Couric now has civil rights groups - mostly Hispanic - on her back.
And for good reason.
The CBS newscast that carries her name recently aired a one-sided and inaccurate report about illegal immigrant women who give birth to their children in the United States. The news story challenged the broader constitutional law of birthright citizenship and stated - without providing the correct context - that the births cost U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars annually.
The story's central figure was a woman identified as an illegal immigrant, who was lying in her South Texas hospital bed - her right arm wrapped around her newborn and her left hand punctured by an intravenous needle - while reporter Byron Pitts lectured her that "many Americans who struggle to take care of their own families think it is unfair that they should have to take care" of non-U.S. citizens.
Immigrant advocates found the report so crass, and so far below the network's journalistic standards set by legends Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, that they accused Couric of sinking to the depths of Lou Dobbs, the CNN broadcaster and contributor to CBS's "The Early Show" who has inflamed national anti-immigrant sentiment. One Hispanic group posted on its website a photo of Couric that morphs into Dobbs.
"Anti-Latino falsehoods deserve no time on our public airwaves," stated a letter to CBS by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Council of La Raza. The groups and others have asked to meet with CBS "to help raise the dialogue and provide the American public an honest and accurate analysis of this nation's broken immigration system." And in a separate letter to CBS, the Asian American Justice Center lodged a similar complaint against the entire four-part series that included the report.
CBS has not responded to the civil rights groups' request for a meeting. "We appreciate the passionate and articulate feedback on our series. We will continue to do our best to listen to the many voices engaged in immigration issues, to produce fair and accurate stories and to bring national attention to this complicated topic," CBS said in a statement.
The Latino-led action against CBS comes at a critical time. The rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, hate crimes against Latinos and election-year political pandering on immigration has caused Hispanic leaders to forcefully push back against the scapegoating that touches immigrants and various generations of Latinos.
NCLR, MALDEF and the National Hispanic Media Coalition now have websites aimed at correcting "inaccuracies" in the media. The CBS broadcast is serving as the latest example of unbalanced reporting.
In its written complaint to CBS, MALDEF cited a Texas comptroller's study noting economic benefits due to the presence of undocumented immigrants. MALDEF also maintained the CBS report exposes the woman "and implicitly leads her to believe that she is protected from deportation." And it portrayed birthright citizenship as "an unfair benefit to immigrants rather than a core principle" of constitutional law.
One gaping hole in the news story involved a hospital administrator's statement that the facility has "uncompensated care of over $200 million a year," which the reporter tied to emergency room care for non-citizens. But how is that known if the hospital does not verify citizenship or legal vs. illegal immigration status?
Civil rights leaders also contended Couric's broadcast was inconsistent, not just because of her brand as "America's sweetheart" but also because, in June, she is to receive the 2008 Alice Award, named for Alice Stokes Paul, the women's suffrage leader and author of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Despite objections to Couric's broadcast, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joe Baca (D-Calif.) plans to attend the civil rights event honoring Couric. Baca has gathered 399 co-sponsors to his bill to posthumously award Paul the Congressional Gold Medal.
"Right now, I believe that a chance to dialogue with Ms. Couric and the CBS News brain trust may be the most appropriate course of action. They need to be informed that their story was not only offensive to Hispanics but also misleading in its portrayal of immigrants as a drain on society," Baca said.
The Latinos' battle for respect is being waged on multiple fronts.
The Hispanic Caucus recently lashed out at Democratic Party leaders for staging House hearings - beginning next week in the Ways and Means Committee - on bills that would enforce the border, sanction employers or extend visas for seasonal workers.
The leadership is refusing to consider broader reforms such as legalizing the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country out of fear it would jeopardize moderate Democrats in swing districts. Though Republicans have failed so far to make immigration a wedge issue in their presidential primaries and recent special elections, Democrats are using the hearings to stall conservatives' border enforcement bills.
Hispanic Caucus members faulted Democratic leaders for considering only measures that would benefit special interests, such as those needing seasonal worker visas for the summer, or high-tech industries that hire highly skilled employees.
Democratic leaders are "spineless" for not debating comprehensive immigration reform, said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
Top Democrats "want to have, on one side, the support of Hispanics. But on the other hand, they don't want to spend one cent of political capital" to look out for them, added Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.).
In the media, the Lou Dobbses of the world "say that we bring disease and crime to our country," NCLR President Janet Murguia said recently. So when CBS aired its report, Murguia wondered, "Is no one above exploiting this issue?"
And if CBS is playing to immigration hawks to boost its sagging ratings, the network risks being tuned out by the expanding Latino community. Advertisers know that by 2011, Hispanic buying power will total $1.2 trillion, almost 10 percent of all U.S. purchasing power.
"We are not going to be the victims of anti-immigrant reporting, and we are not going to sit by as the community is demonized," said Peter Zamora, a MALDEF attorney.
That is the message Latinos are delivering to CBS, with the expectation that balanced reporting on Hispanics and immigrants will be the standard long after Couric's name is removed from the evening newscast.
Gebe Martinez is a longtime journalist in Washington and a frequent lecturer and commentator on the policy and politics of Capitol Hill.
© 2008 Politico.com