Truth matters. History and context count. "You're entitled to your own opinions. You're not entitled to your own facts," the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed. CNN's Lou Dobbs has migrated to a pre-eminent position in the debate on immigration in the U.S. Since he identifies himself as a journalist, he has a special responsibility to rely on facts and to correct misstatements of fact. CNN, which purports to be a news organization, touting itself as the "Most Trusted Name in News," has an equally strong obligation to its audience to tell the truth.
Dobbs was best known for anchoring CNN's "Moneyline," an early and influential program that helped create the televised financial-news genre. On "Moneyline," Dobbs featured corporate CEOs and generally lauded them. About five years ago, Dobbs began changing his line, invoking populist rhetoric and championing the cause of the middle class. He thematically titled his coverage "War on the Middle Class" and "Broken Borders." Dobbs' signature issue of undocumented immigrants, or, as he calls them, illegal aliens, has tremendous influence on the debate nationally. So it matters if he is wrong.
On March 28, 2006, Dobbs said on his show, "And it's costing us, no one knows precisely how much, to incarcerate what is about a third of our prison population who are illegal aliens." As it turns out, the number of noncitizens incarcerated in the U.S. federal and state prisons is closer to 6 percent, not 33 percent. Note that the 6 percent includes legal immigrants as well.
On April 14, 2005, Lou Dobbs opened his show by saying: "The invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans. Highly contagious diseases are now crossing our borders decades after those diseases had been eradicated in this country." CNN correspondent Christine Romans filed a report, then told Dobbs, "There have been 7,000 [cases of leprosy] in the past three years." CBS' "60 Minutes" later challenged the fact, pointing out that there had actually been 7,029 cases reported over 30 years. When Lesley Stahl confronted Dobbs on the statistic, he defended it, saying: "Well, I can tell you this. If we reported it, it's a fact."
Dobbs' reporter, Romans, said her source was "Dr. Madeleine Cosman, a respected medical lawyer and medical historian." Cosman, who died in March 2006, was a medical lawyer and staunch anti-immigrant activist. She was recorded saying publicly of Mexican men: "Recognize that most of these bastards molest girls under age 12, some as young as age 5, others aged 3, although, of course, some specialize in boys, some specialize in nuns, some are exceedingly versatile and rape little girls aged 11 and women up to age 79."
After I played the tape of Cosman for Dobbs, he conceded to me that his reporter's source, Cosman, was a "whack job."
On May 23, 2006, Dobbs aired a report on a state visit by Mexican President Vicente Fox. His correspondent, Casey Wian, called it a "Mexican military incursion" and displayed a map of the U.S. with the seven Southwest states highlighted as "Aztlan," which, Wian reported, "some militant Latino activists ... claim rightfully belongs to Mexico." The graphic came from the Council of Conservative Citizens, which the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks hate groups, points out is the current incarnation of the old White Citizen Councils of the 1950s and 1960s, which Thurgood Marshall referred to as "the uptown Klan." The SPLC has reported that several of Dobbs' guests and sources have had links to the CCC, such as Joe McCutchen of Protect Arkansas Now, part of the Minuteman vigilante movement, and Barbara Coe of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform. Another guest, Glenn Spencer, head of the anti-immigrant group American Patrol, speaks on the white-supremacist circuit. When CNN's Wolf Blitzer had Spencer on, he told his audience that the SPLC had designated American Patrol as a hate group. When Dobbs had him on, he never identified the connection.
In our conversation with Dobbs, "Democracy Now!" co-host Juan Gonzalez raised the issue of history, of how immigrants have been scapegoated: the Irish in the 1860s, the Chinese in the 1880s and, later, Southern Europeans. Dobbs rolled his eyes, saying, "Are you holding me responsible?" No, and Dobbs knows better. But he must be held responsible for not bringing a historical context to this crucial discussion of immigration reform. The immigration issue will not be solved by vilifying a population. The SPLC has just released a report on the upsurge in anti-immigrant, anti-Latino violence in the U.S.
United Stations Radio Networks has just announced that Dobbs will soon be hosting a three-hour daily talk radio show. The Web site claims, "It's not about what's right and left ... it's about what's right and wrong." Let's hope that Lou Dobbs follows his own advice.