Dobbs' Dubious Disease Numbers

CNN host stands by faulty leprosy statistics

During a May 6 60 Minutes profile, CBS reporter Lesley Stahl asked CNN anchor Lou Dobbs about a statistic cited on his program regarding immigrants and leprosy. While Dobbs assured Stahl that his show had the facts right, he was wrong.

Stahl cited an April 14, 2005 report that alleged that 7,000 new cases of leprosy, or Hansen's Disease, have been discovered in the past three years—presumably due to increased immigration.

Dobbs' response was remarkable:

STAHL: We checked that and found a report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, saying: "Seven thousand is the number of leprosy cases over the last 30 years," not the past three, and nobody knows how many of those cases involved illegal immigrants. Now we went to try and check that number, 7,000. We can't. Just so you know....

DOBBS: Well, I can tell you this. If we reported it, it's a fact.

STAHL: You can't tell me that. You did report it.

DOBBS: Well, no, I just did.

STAHL: How can you guarantee that to me?

DOBBS: Because I'm the managing editor, and that's the way we do business. We don't make up numbers, Lesley. Do we?

While Dobbs' defense—it's true because I said it—might be convincing to him, it's an odd position for a journalist to take. (FAIR, for the record, noted that Dobbs misrepresented 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—Extra!, 2/04.) In any event, Stahl's numbers are in line with the leprosy statistics compiled by the National Hansen's Disease Program, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Instead of acknowledging the error, Dobbs went on the attack on his May 7 show, arguing that CNN had quoted a "medical lawyer" who made the 7,000 new cases claim. But rather than provide evidence that this expert's opinion was right, and the government's record-keeping horribly off-base, Dobbs simply returned to unsubstantiated assertions:

"It's remarkable that this—whatever confusion, or confoundment, over 7,000 cases, they actually keep a registry of cases of leprosy. And the fact that it rose was because—one assumes—because we don't know for sure—but two basic influences—unscreened illegal immigrants coming into this country primarily from South Asia, and secondly, far better reporting."

A Centers for Disease Control report notes (3/30/07), "The number of reported cases of Hansen disease (HD) in the United States peaked at 361 in 1985 and has declined since 1988." The Health Resources and Services Administration reports that "166 new cases were reported in the U.S. in 2005 (the most recent year for which data are available)." So Dobbs can offer no evidence that there are thousands of new leprosy cases in the last few years, nor can he point to a rise in such cases; instead, he claims that "you know, in talking with a number of people, it's also very clear, no one knows but nearly everyone suspects there are far more cases of that."

Dobbs' correspondent, Christine Romans, attributed the statistic to "Dr. Madeline Cosman, a respected medical lawyer and medical historian writing in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons." The Southern Poverty Law Center (5/9/07) pointed out that Cosman's PhD was in English and comparative literature, and described the journal that published her work in its Spring 2005 issue as "a right-wing periodical whose science has been the subject of harsh criticism." SPLC quotes Cosman speaking at a 2005 anti-immigrant conference as saying that "most" Latino immigrant men "molest girls under 12, although some specialize in boys, and some in nuns."

Obviously, the fact that Dobbs points to such a source does not vindicate his journalism; it casts it into further doubt. Dobbs' troubling contention that if his show said it, it must be true seems to be preventing him from looking critically at the sources of his information.


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