Dobbs began turning his longtime financial-news show, CNN's Moneyline, into an opinion rant about five years ago, capitalizing on the issue of outsourcing. Attacking free-trade policies and the companies that take advantage of them in a series of segments called "Exporting America," Dobbs increasingly cast himself as a quixotic champion of an American middle class ignored by politicians in the interests of big business. Although his privately sold newsletter still recommended investing in some of the companies outsourcing the most jobs, as reported by the
Columbia Journalism Review
, publicly Dobbs became the Harvard-educated spokesman for the little guy. The little American, that is. Over time, Dobbs's anger that foreigners overseas were getting formerly American jobs was transformed into fury at the foreigners taking the low-paid jobs that are still here. "Broken Borders" was born.
By vilifying immigrants, Dobbs is following in a long line of illustrious, and notorious, Americans who have played pivotal roles in the nation's periodic outbreaks of nativism [see Daniel Tichenor, page 25]. "Whenever we've had a great wave of immigration, there's been a backlash," says Wayne Cornelius. But there's a difference this time. "In previous waves, the reaction can be attributed in part to economics. Now, unemployment is down to 4 percent; there's no reason to target them."
Still, Dobbs, who abandoned the financial-news pretense when he renamed his show Lou Dobbs Tonight in 2003, has taken an increasingly hard-line, restrictionist view. He champions Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner's bill in the US House (HR 4437), which would make assisting any undocumented immigrant a felony. He supports sending tens of thousands of troops to militarize the US-Mexico border, and favors building a fence along its entire length. And although he's never acknowledged it, his constant call for enforcing US immigration law would mean deporting some 12 million people.
As the stakes grow higher and Dobbs's tone more shrill, his popularity has soared. In the second quarter of this year his show had the largest total viewer growth of any on CNN, with more than 800,000 viewers each night. While that's still only half of O'Reilly's top-rated cable-news audience, Dobbs is catching up, and CNN is giving its star more and more airtime. Now, in addition to five hours a week on his own show, Dobbs is regularly featured as an immigration expert on CNN's other evening news programs. (CNN says Dobbs is a legitimate immigration specialist deserving of extra airtime: "Anytime you can have somebody bring that level of expertise to a subject, you'd want to have that knowledge on the air," says network spokeswoman Christa Robinson.)
Not everyone inside CNN feels that way. Although the network keeps a tight rein on what even former staff can say (former anchor Aaron Brown, for example, needed permission from CNN to speak to me, which was denied), one senior former Dobbs staffer told me, on condition of anonymity: "Lou went from straddling the line between journalist and pundit to becoming a full-blown pundit, shifting the debate very, very far to the right. People don't get it. They trust that CNN is a reputable organization, so they trust that he's a respected journalist. They think he won't put anyone on who's a right-wing nut. But he does."
Another former CNN news staffer from an overseas bureau said (also on condition of anonymity) that whenever Dobbs's producers contacted the bureau for stories, "they would request stories that would fit their agenda.... We wanted to provide a balanced view. But people on Dobbs's show would look at the script and ask for changes. If we gave too much of a balanced view, they would kill the story."
As for why the network tolerated this, both current and former CNN staff, although not privy to executive-level discussions, said their understanding was that Dobbs had autonomy based on finances. "His show brought in a lot of revenue," one former senior Dobbs staffer said.
As another former CNN newsperson put it: "Lou was one of the originals at CNN, and when he left, they really suffered. (Dobbs left CNN in 2000, reportedly after a dispute with management, and returned a year later.) Now Lou is his own island; he dictates to them what he does."
According to several former staffers, many at CNN find Dobbs's views deeply offensive. But over time, many have become jaded. "At first people said, 'How can they let him keep beating this dead horse? There's no even-handedness; it's outrageous,'" one former senior news staffer told me. "But now, people have become so desensitized to it all. Then again, if you want to stand on your soapbox about journalistic integrity, where are you going to go?" (CNN president Jonathan Klein refused The Nation's requests for an interview, but he has told the New York Times that "Lou's show is not a harbinger of things to come at CNN.")