Last week, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote of Lou Dobbs' tenuous relationship with the truth — "a somewhat flexible relationship with reality"— and his refusal to own up to an erroneous, fear-inducing report in violation of a basic journalistic creed.
It seems Dobbs wants to stick to a completely false assertion — first aired on his CNN program in 2005 and repeated again this May — that "there had been 7,000 cases of leprosy in this country over the previous three years, far more than in the past." Dobbs attributed this increase to "unscreened illegal immigrants."
Leonhardt reported that there have indeed been approximately 7,000 diagnosed cases — but not over the past three years as Dobbs would have viewers believe. Rather, these incidents occurred over a thirty-year period and have "dropped steadily" since a peak of 456 cases in 1983. "Mr. Dobbs was flat-out wrong," Leonhardt writes. But facts be damned, Dobbs is sticking by his numbers ("If we reported it, it's a fact," Dobbs said.)
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — a civil rights organization that fights discrimination and monitors hate groups — ran an ad in the New York Times and USA Today calling for CNN to issue a correction on Dobbs' show. In its Open Letter to CNN the SPLC wrote: "The source for Dobbs' leprosy claim is the late Madeleine Cosman — an anti-immigration zealot who once publicly stated that 'most' Latino immigrant men 'molest girls under 12, although some specialize in boys, and some in nuns'Ã¢â‚¬Â¦.Given that Mr. Dobbs refuses to retract his leprosy claim, we believe it is CNN's responsibility to do so. We suggest that the appropriate place for the correction is the same place where the falsehood was told: on Mr. Dobbs' show."
In response to Leonhardt's article — which Dobbs called a "personal scurrilous attack" — Dobbs said he wouldn't have used Cosman if he had known of her background. But last year, Daphne Eviatar reported in The Nation, "Dobbs often features and quotes activists with links to extremist and even openly racist groupsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. Yet Dobbs consistently fails to mention those connections." Also, in "vilifying immigrants," Dobbs "searches high and low for statistics showing the negative impact of immigration on the US economy, and he conveniently leaves out contradictory information."
This pattern of ignoring the facts and engaging in inflammatory rhetoric not only poisons an important national debate on immigration — as SPLC President Richard Cohen said in a recent web chat— it also places Dobbs in what Eviatar described as "a long line of illustrious, and notorious, Americans who have played pivotal roles in the nation's periodic outbreaks of nativismÃ¢â‚¬Â¦."
Leonhardt wrote, "The most common complaint about [Dobbs], at least from other journalists, is that his program combines factual reporting with editorializing." But that's not the real problem, in my view. I have no problem with the mix of factual reporting and editorializing, interpretive journalism married to factual accuracy. (In fact, I think Dobbs has done a good job in this regard when it comes to issues like outsourcing, the minimum wage, and corporate welfare.) We do that every week in The Nation — along with investigative reporting, editorials, review essays, etc. And unlike CNN, which claims to be politically "neutral," we are politically engaged and open about our politics and values. We are also assiduous in our fact-checking — always believing that accuracy is a duty, not a luxury or simply a virtue. And we publish clarifications and corrections as needed.
But there are no signs that CNN is doing anything to set the record straight or address Dobbs' relationship to factual accuracy. Even CBS — which initially caught what Frank Rich described as "Lou Dobbs's hoax blaming immigrants for a nonexistent rise in leprosy"— has now hired him as a commentator for The Early Show. How far will Dobbs go in pushing his fact-challenged immigration agenda on this new outlet? And if he truly wants to serve his viewers by reporting on what he calls a "nonpartisan independent reality" then isn't it time he stop pulling the wool over folks' eyes?
Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
© 2007 The Nation