On November 11, Lou Dobbs abruptly quit his CNN program, bringing a sudden end to a television program most notable for its remarkably one-sided presentation of immigration issues.
Since 2003, Dobbs regularly used his CNN platform to issue misleading and alarmist warnings about the threats posed by unauthorized immigrants. Dobbs has spoken of an “army of invaders” scheming to reannex parts of the southwestern U.S. to Mexico (3/31/06), claimed that “illegal alien smugglers and drug traffickers are on the verge of ruining some of our national treasures” (11/19/03) and declared that “the invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans” (4/14/05).
Repeated segments on Dobbs’ show were devoted to “illegal aliens” 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). More recently, Dobbs promoted a misleading report (3/9/09) that suggested hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants would get jobs due to the government stimulus program.
Indeed, he seemed almost eager to misrepresent statistics in order to further his anti-immigrant agenda. Dobbs was famously challenged by CBS host Lesley Stahl (60 Minutes, 5/6/07) about his erroneous suggestion (4/14/05) that immigrants were causing an alarming increase in leprosy in the United States. Dobbs’ remarkable response—“If we reported it, it’s a fact”—was just as incorrect as his original reporting (which, it turned out, was based on inaccurate numbers peddled by a far-right anti-immigrant activist—FAIR Action Alert, 5/11/07).
While that incident received significant attention, it was certainly not the only time Dobbs’ program misrepresented reality. Extra! (1-2/04) noted that Dobbs distorted a study of the costs and benefits of immigration, turning the study’s finding of a small economic benefit into a multi-billion-dollar cost to the nation’s economy. He also inflated the proportion of the prison population believed to be undocumented immigrants (New York Times, 5/30/07) and recently garbled a CNN poll on immigration to argue that “most” Americans “want illegal immigrants now in the country to leave” (10/22/09; FAIR Blog, 10/23/09).
The show was a regular platform for a variety of anti-immigration advocacy groups. Dobbs (5/23/06) even went so far as to use an on-screen graphic from the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens in a report fanning fears about Mexican plans to invade the Southwest (Huffington Post, 5/24/06). He didn’t leave the overheated rhetoric to his guests, though. Before a Republican presidential debate (11/28/07), Dobbs called immigration advocates “misguided abject fools” who are “working to subvert the will of the majority of the people of this country.”
To a reporter’s comment about how the governor of Arizona “supports comprehensive immigration reform, including a guest worker program,” Dobbs responded (4/19/06): “All I can say to that is lah-dee-dah. The idea that the governor has taken such a superior view over the poor, humble residents of her state.... Is there any way in which they might turn out at the polls to express their grievances?” Environmental groups opposed to building a border fence between the U.S. and Mexico were “complete idiots” (5/19/08). Immigrants’ rights protests were regularly derided (5/1/08): “They ignore the fundamental values of the nation and demand an end to the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. We’ll have complete coverage of this travesty.”
Such language is unsurprising, since there was never any pretense of balance to Dobbs’ show. As he put it to CNN host Howard Kurtz (4/2/06): “Are you interested in six or seven views, or are you interested in the truth? Because that’s what I’m interested in; that’s what my viewers are interested in.” Declining to present contrasting views because they conflict with one’s own definition of “truth” is not exactly the approach they teach in journalism school, of course. As reported by Daphne Eviatar in the Nation (8/28/06), some CNN reporters were concerned by the show’s techniques:
Former senior staffers said that Dobbs would search out stories that supported his anti-immigrant agenda. As one put it, “He’s assembled correspondents who feel beholden to him. They are given the line on the story and told how to assemble it in his partisan manner before they’re sent out to do the story.”
One of Dobbs’ standard defenses over the years has been that his concern is about unauthorized immigration, not with legal immigrants. But his show blurred that distinction a number of times. Dobbs introduced one report (11/4/03) about “illegal aliens, those noncitizens taking up a third of the cells in our federal penitentiaries.” The ensuing report noted that there was no way of knowing how many immigrant prisoners were actually unauthorized.
In another report (9/23/03), Dobbs expressed outrage over a group of immigrant rights activists: “People who have not respected immigration laws in this country are now demanding equal treatment under the law.” A week later (9/30/03), Dobbs acknowledged that the activists he was criticizing were not, in fact, lawbreakers. More recently, Dobbs (1/16/08) attacked the campaign activities of one Nevada union, complaining that “as many as half of the union’s members are illegal aliens.” Actually, the union had reported that about half of its members were immigrants.
It should be noted that Dobbs’ troubling record of distortion is not limited to immigration. He has featured one-sided discussions on climate change (12/18/08, 1/5/09) and issued nonsensical complaints about the White House economic stimulus plan (Extra!, 4/09). Dobbs was one of many figures (FAIR Media Advisory, 3/15/06) in the corporate media to cheer a premature Iraq War victory (“Some journalists, in my judgment, just can’t stand success, especially a few liberal columnists and newspapers and a few Arab reporters”—4/14/03), and most recently caused a stir (Associated Press, 8/3/09) by giving airtime to “birther” guests to advance the discredited notion that Barack Obama is not actually a natural-born citizen.
In his final CNN broadcast (11/12/09), Dobbs suggested that he would continue in the public arena in some fashion: “Some leaders in media, politics and business have been urging me to go beyond the role here at CNN and to engage in constructive problem-solving as well as to contribute positively to a better understanding of the great issues of our day.” Dobbs also alluded to “the lack of true representation in Washington, D.C.” Such comments have fueled talk that Dobbs may want to run for public office—possibly with his sights set on a 2012 Senate race in New Jersey (New York Times, 11/24/09). That notion seemed more plausible after Dobbs went on the Spanish-language Telemundo network (Wall Street Journal, 11/25/09) and seemed to moderate his stance on his signature issue, saying, “I am one of your greatest friends,” and pledging that “we need the ability to legalize illegal immigrants under certain conditions.”
Dobbs’ propagandistic approach to journalism was an embarrassment that CNN seemed more than willing to tolerate as long as his ratings were high (Extra!, 5-6/06); with much of the cultural anxiety formerly fueling the anti-immigration movement now focused on the Tea Party movement associated with Glenn Beck, Dobbs’ viewership has been in a prolonged slump (New York Observer, 7/30/09), so it’s not too surprising to find him looking for a new home. One report (New York Post, 11/16/09) suggested that CNN gave Dobbs $8 million to leave.
CNN president Jonathan Klein once told the New York Times (3/29/06): “Lou’s show is not a harbinger of things to come at CNN. He is sui generis, one of a kind.” One can only hope.