Feb 1 2004

Dobbs’ Choice

CNN host picks immigration as his ax to grind

With all the attention paid to the near-overt partisanship of the Fox News Channel, it’s important to remember that skewed reporting wasn’t invented by Rupert Murdoch’s cable operation.

In the last few months of 2003, CNN‘s Lou Dobbs Tonight devoted abundant broadcast time to what anchor Dobbs described as an influx of “illegal aliens who not only threaten our economy and security, but also our health and well-being. Millions of aliens crossing our borders.”

The selection of topics, the slanted sourcing and the occasionally inaccurate or incomplete information conveyed on the program all seemed calculated to convince the viewer that the U.S. is in the midst of a crisis that is, according to Dobbs, “changing the very nature of this country” (9/30/03). The title of a series on immigration, “Broken Borders,” conveyed Dobbs’ political position; immigrants were also routinely featured on his show’s regular “Great American Giveaway” segment.

Grim concerns

Dobbs’ immigration reports–which tended to blur the distinction between legal and illegal immigration (see sidebar)–covered a grim array of concerns. Segment after segment was devoted to “illegal aliens” who are getting free medical care (10/1/03), putting their children in schools (10/2/03), committing sex crimes (10/30/03), getting breaks on college tuition (10/22/03), clogging up the federal prison system (11/4/03) and “flooding across our borders in some cases carrying dangerous diseases” (11/20/03).

Dobbs’ tone throughout was one of high alarm. “Illegal alien smugglers and drug traffickers are on the verge of ruining some of our national treasures,” he warned in one show (11/19/03). In another segment (11/20/03) he complained that “700,000 illegal aliens enter this country every year, some carrying deadly diseases.”

Dobbs infused his own comments with a political urgency he found lacking elsewhere: “There are an estimated 10 million illegal aliens in the United States, and federal agencies are doing little to investigate and apprehend them” Dobbs explained (11/18/03). “Ten million illegal aliens live in this country,” according to the anchor (11/17/03). “But many politicians–in fact, most–business leaders and union leaders are silent about this critically important issue.”

Dobbs praised the bravery of those who called for tougher U.S. immigration policies. Interviewing Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) about a proposal to eliminate a foreign workers’ visa program, Dobbs said she was “showing considerable political courage in even taking up this issue. . . . When one talks about this issue, and confronts it directly, they’re accused of being xenophobic, they’re accused of being racist. . . . But the facts are incontrovertible.”

Another of the show’s reports focused on illegal immigrants convicted of sex offenses who, after serving time for their offenses, “subsequently disappear from U.S. law enforcement officials.” In a discussion after the report, Dobbs praised government officials for finally dealing with the problem publicly “because they have been scared to death of the political correctness issues in this instance.” Does Dobbs really believe it requires a unique kind of political bravery to crack down on illegal immigrant sex offenders?

Skewed guestlist

The soundbites and long-format interviews on Dobbs’ program were skewed in favor of the most passionate immigration critics. Viewers were less likely to see analysts who would either defend immigrants or emphasize the relative benefits of immigration.

On the October 31 broadcast, for example, one report featured comments from only two sources, both representatives of anti-immigration groups: Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies and Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. (Interestingly, both groups were founded with the help of John Tanton, an anti-immigrant funder with ties to the white supremacist movement–Intelligence Report, Summer/02.)

That interview was followed by a one-on-one with Arizona State Rep. Russell Pearce, a Republican leading an initiative called Protect Arizona Now, which would make proof of citizenship a requirement for receiving government benefits. Dobbs described the effort this way: “Citizens of Arizona, faced with the growing numbers of illegal aliens in their state, are now taking aggressive action to protect their public services and their state budget.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform’s Stein appeared on Dobbs’ show five times in the month of October, along with five appearances by representatives of the Center for Immigration Studies. Immigrant advocacy groups, by comparison, made a total of four appearances in the month, along with two guests from the Cato Institute, which takes a libertarian position on immigration.

Dubious stats

A lopsided guest list wasn’t the only problem. In a report (10/30/03) on the economic impact of immigration, CNN correspondent Lisa Sylvester claimed that “researchers at the National Academy of Science concluded that while the gains to the U.S. economy due to immigration could be as high as $10 billion, the cost is higher–as much as $20 billion.” Host Dobbs added that “the economics are beginning to look somewhat convincing, don’t you think?” Sylvester’s response: “Clearly, the costs seem to be outweighing benefits in this case.”

But that’s not what the 1997 NAS study found. The researchers estimated that immigration provided a net gain for the U.S. gross domestic product of between $1 billion and $10 billion (see New York Times, 5/18/97)–in other words, that the benefits outweighed the costs. The $20 billion “cost” factoid was advanced by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (press release, 5/19/97), which extrapolated on a set of annual estimates in the NAS report, arguing there is “a total cost to those taxpayers of $15 to $20 billion dollars, much higher than the economic benefits.”

Dobbs is best known as a business reporter; his show was, until recently, called Moneyline. So it might make sense that he would focus on the economic impact of immigration: “The real losers are the hard-working millions of Americans each day who are watching their wages depressed in many cases,” he declared on one show (11/17/03). (Dobbs’ sympathy for labor is not particularly consistent. Discussing workers at Wal-Mart–11/22/02–he commented: “They’re not unionized, so the union must not have a terrific story either. . . . End of story as far as the markets are concerned. That’s what counts.”)

A more cautious conclusion comes from that same NAS report misused by Dobbs to demonstrate the fiscal burden of immigration. Workers without high-school diplomas, according to the study, have seen their wages drop, in part due to competition from immigrant workers, while workers who were not in direct competition with immigrant workers may have benefited from their presence in the domestic economy.

This nuanced view of immigration policy as having winners and losers points to the vital need for a broad debate on the costs and benefits of immigration. Clearly, CNN‘s Lou Dobbs Tonight is not the best place to look for one.

SIDEBAR:Terms of Debate

CNN‘s Lou Dobbs is disgusted by the way some people talk about immigration: “We’ve got nearly approximately 700,000 illegal aliens crossing our borders every single year,” he lectured one guest (9/30/03). “It continues unabated despite the national security interest in this war on terror. We have not been deporting illegal aliens. As a matter of fact, you just used the expression ‘undocumented worker.’ They’re illegal aliens. The niceties of language–it’s sort of interesting to hear how there’s been this language shift, from ‘illegal alien’ to ‘undocumented worker’ to ‘guest without status.’ I mean, where does the nonsense end?”

In one debate (11/19/03), Dobbs the moderator took a moment to express his frustration with the terms a guest was using: “You’ve added the word ‘immigrant’ rather than ‘illegal alien,’ which is the point we’re talking about. And, really, there’s quite a major, important distinction, do you not agree?” In fact, there’s not much distinction in definition between “alien” and “immigrant”–aside from the fact that “alien” is generally considered to be pejorative and “immigrant” more neutral.

As for the distinction between legal and illegal immigration, Dobbs has blurred that line himself, as when he previewed a report about the federal prison population (11/4/03): “Coming up, we’re going to take a further look at the impact of illegal aliens. And it is an expensive proposition, particularly in our nation’s prisons. Illegal aliens, those noncitizens taking up a third of the cells in our federal penitentiaries.”

Minutes later, CNN correspondent Bill Tucker said of incarcerated noncitizens: “And while they were in prison, you’d think we’d identify which ones are illegal aliens. We don’t.” Tucker added that “one-third of the people in federal prisons are not United States citizens. Incredibly, there’s no system currently in place to identify how many of those prisoners are also illegal aliens.” He finished his report that night by telling Dobbs that there was “no way to know whether they’re illegal or not.” In other words, Dobbs’ claim that one-third of federal prisoners were “illegal aliens” was made up out of thin air.

In another segment (9/23/03), Dobbs was outraged over a cross-country “freedom ride” campaign for immigrant and workers’ rights. “Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal, this next story will amaze you,” Dobbs explained. “People who have not respected immigration laws in this country are now demanding equal treatment under the law. They have begun a cross-country demonstration for those rights, in fact.”

Responding to a viewer’s letter a week later (9/30/03), Dobbs commented, “I should point out, not all of the people on those buses are illegal. Although we are told that some of them are, according to organizers of the group.”–P.H.