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CNN's Immigration Problem: Is Dobbs The Exception —Or The Rule?

by Julie Hollar for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting

CNN anchor Lou Dobbs has been a high-profile voice in the immigration debate, using his show to rail against the country's "broken borders" virtually every evening on Lou Dobbs Tonight. His openly crusading advocacy journalism has raised eyebrows and put CNN president Jonathan Klein on the defensive; as Klein 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." But a closer look at CNN programming indicates that Dobbs' slanted journalism is not as unusual at the network as Klein suggests.

As Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) has noted in the past, Dobbs' tone on immigration is consistently alarmist; he warns his viewers (3/31/06) of Mexican immigrants who see themselves as an "army of invaders" intent upon reannexing parts of the Southwestern U.S. to Mexico, announces (11/19/03) that "illegal alien smugglers and drug traffickers are on the verge of ruining some of our national treasures," and declares (4/14/05) that "the invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans" through "deadly imports" of diseases like leprosy and malaria. And Dobbs makes no effort to provide a nuanced or balanced picture of the issue; as he told CNN Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz (4/2/06): "I'm not interested—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."

But Dobbs isn't the only CNN personality uninterested in nuance or immigrants' rights perspectives. Longtime CNN anchor Jack Cafferty provides daily commentary on the afternoon show The Situation Room, where he has attacked and belittled immigrants' rights protesters while ignoring or dismissing their concerns several times in recent weeks. The day of the massive immigrants' rights rallies across the country, he launched into a scornful tirade that seemed to even threaten violence against the peaceful protesters (4/10/06):

Once again, the streets of our country were taken over today by people who don't belong here…. Taxpayers who have surrendered highways, parks, sidewalks and a lot of television news time on all these cable news networks to mobs of illegal aliens are not happy about it…. America's illegal aliens are becoming ever bolder. March through our streets and demand your rights. Excuse me? You have no rights here, and that includes the right to tie up our towns and cities and block our streets. At some point this could all turn very violent as Americans become fed up with the failure of their government to address the most pressing domestic issue of our time.
Cafferty went on to suggest that the government "pull the buses up and start asking these people to show their green cards.... And the ones that don't have them, put them on the buses and send them home." It's troubling that Cafferty seems entirely ignorant of the fact that under the U.S. Constitution, everyone in this country, whether documented or not, does indeed have rights—or that illegal immigrants pay billions of dollars in taxes each year. (When the Wall Street Journal—4/13/06—surveyed economists on whether illegal immigration provided a net gain to the U.S. economy, 44 of 46 said that it did.)

In another commentary on immigration (3/31/06), Cafferty chastised students who missed school to attend a pro-immigrant protest: "Maybe it would be a good idea if they went back into the classrooms and tried to get that diploma instead of, you know, spending their day out and marching around, jumping up and down and being silly." He similarly ridiculed (4/10/06) a D.C.-area school district's policy of giving students community service credit for attending rallies: "What service are you doing for your community by running around through the streets carrying Mexican flags and advocating on behalf of people who are breaking this nation's laws?"

Recent CNN Headline News hire Glenn Beck promises to add another xenophobic voice to the CNN family's chorus when he begins hosting his own program in May. As Media Matters for America documented (3/27/06), Beck recently slurred Mexican immigrants on his radio show (3/27/06), saying Mexico "is a country that has been overtaken by lawbreakers from the bottom to the top. And now, what you're protesting for is to have lawbreakers come here."

Even some of CNN's generally more restrained journalists have slanted the immigration issue. Reliable Sources host Kurtz described the rallies (4/16/06) as "drawing heavy media coverage that served as a megaphone for their stand against tougher border control and enforcement against those who broke the law in coming to America." Of course, while Kurtz follows Dobbs in summarizing the protests as being opposed to border control and law enforcement, few if any of the organizers of the demonstrations would frame their issue in that way. In fact, many protesters say they support border control as part of comprehensive immigration reform; their primary protest, never accurately explained by Dobbs or Kurtz, is against HR 4437, the draconian House bill that not only would make all undocumented workers felons, but would even appear to make felons of anyone giving humanitarian assistance to an immigrant without inquiring about that person's legal status.

Kurtz continued on the same tack, asking conservative guest Jonah Goldberg, "Has the media coverage of this issue glossed over the fact that, by the way, these people are breaking the law?"

Kurtz went on to tell an approving Goldberg that "you have to admit that these immigrants got awfully sympathetic coverage with these demonstrations...with comparisons to the civil rights movement. But 84 percent in an L.A. Times poll say they believe illegal immigration is a serious problem." In fact, that's not what the Times reported (4/13/06): "Although 84 percent of poll respondents agreed that illegal immigration was a problem, 31 percent identified it as one of the country's major problems." The poll also showed 66 percent of respondents favoring some kind of amnesty—the same position taken by the protesters.

CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield also skewed the immigration debate in his attempt (The Situation Room, 4/13/06) to explain how both sides use loaded language in the "name game." Greenfield noted the negative connotations associated with the word "alien" and explained the argument that labeling people "illegal" suggests that "illegality governs their lives"—arguments that several journalists' associations have also made (National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Turning then to "undocumented worker," he argued:

Undocumented, that suggests the problem here is some kind of bureaucratic snafu that could happen to anyone, showing up at the DMV without the right paperwork or trying to return something to a department store. It doesn't suggest anything about the act of getting into this country in the first place, by breaking the law and by surreptitiously crossing the border.
But as many as 50 percent of immigrants in the U.S. illegally did not break the law or "surreptitiously cross the border" to enter the country; they overstayed their visas after entering legally (, 5/21/04). So the fact that the term "undocumented" doesn't "suggest anything about...surreptitiously crossing the border" is actually a point in its favor.

Greenfield went on:
Worker, that's one of the most evocative words in our whole political vocabulary. It implies a host of admirable notions, hardworking, working families. And remember Bill Clinton's constant references to people who work hard and play by the rules? There's almost a hint here of the idea that, if you work hard, you must be playing by the rules, even if you broke those rules to get here.
If the term "undocumented worker" implies that such people are hard workers, then it is a generally accurate term. The fact is that the vast majority of people who come or stay here illegally do so for the express purpose of working, often doing demanding physical labor. As economist James K. Galbraith argued (Guardian, 4/13/06), "The fact that their presence may be illegal is a problem not with the people but with the law…. These marches are, mainly, about work. They are about the right to work, and to live from work, in simple dignity, independence and freedom."

Greenfield's stretch to find balance in the "name game" echoes a segment from Dobbs' program a few days earlier (4/10/06), in which Dobbs declared that "the illegal alien lobby is manipulating the language of these protests and demonstrations for much wider and often hidden political purposes." He went on to explain:
Illegal aliens and their supporters say they are marching today in support of what they call immigrant rights. They say they are celebrating the rich immigrant tradition of this country. But they fail to distinguish in their fight for illegal immigration this country's rich tradition of legal, not illegal, immigration.
Actually, until the Civil War, the United States had no immigration laws to speak of—so there's no real distinction between legal and illegal immigration for almost the first century of U.S. history (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, "Overview of INS History"). Federal immigration law began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and immigration policy was explicitly directed toward keeping out undesirable nationalities until 1965—a legacy that is hard to describe as a "rich tradition."

Dobbs turned to correspondent Bill Tucker, who agreed that "language blurs the issue": Referring to the website from an anti-HR 4437 group, he said that "a viewer would think that immigrants and immigrant communities in America are under attack. The website...demands that Congress grant immigrants full rights under the law. Legal immigrants already have those protections."

In fact, under an April 29, 2003 court ruling, legal immigrants do not have the same due process rights as citizens. "Congress may make rules as to aliens that would be unacceptable if applied to citizens," then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist declared in the ruling.

Tucker concluded that "the language is important, because democracies thrive on truth and discussion." Dobbs responded that on his broadcast, "we certainly intend to use language appropriate to the meaning we intend."

That much is clear. In the very same program, correspondent Casey Wian reported that the April 10 protesters "may wear white to symbolize peace, but they smell blood now that Congress has failed to pass border security or immigration reform legislation."

Language is indeed important in the immigration debate—which makes it all the more troubling that CNN gives so much space to slanted stories on immigration.

About The Author

Julie Hollar is the communications director for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, FAIR. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been quoted in such media outlets as the L.A. Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.