Nightly Nativism

Nightly Nativism

CNN pundit Lou Dobbs has made himself a “specialist” in channeling nativist, nationalist and even white supremacist rhetoric.


On May 1 the nationwide boycott billed as “A Day Without Immigrants” was all over the evening news. ABC’s World News Tonight reported that “more than a million people took to the streets in thirty cities,” part of “a new wave of protests against legislation that would increase the penalties for being in the US illegally.” On CBS, “they left their jobs and took to the streets to show us what America would be like without millions of immigrant workers.” On Fox, “illegal immigrants and their allies took to streets across America…in an effort to show their economic importance to the country.”

But on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, it was a different story. “Hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens and their supporters today failed in their attempt to shut down most of our cities to support amnesty for all illegal aliens,” the network’s 6 pm news anchor reported that evening. Dobbs elaborated in his online column: “It is no accident that they chose May 1 as their day of demonstration and boycott. It is the worldwide day of commemorative demonstrations by various socialist, communist and even anarchic organizations…. No matter which flag demonstrators and protesters carry today, their leadership is showing its true colors to all who will see.”

You might expect that sort of McCarthyesque description from Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh or some other famously right-wing provocateur on Fox or talk-radio. But Lou Dobbs, on CNN? These days, the network once pilloried by conservatives as a leading voice of the “liberal media” is offering an expansive platform to the nation’s leading spokesman for anti-immigration hardliners. Night after night, under the rousing headline “Broken Borders,” the distinguished-looking 61-year-old instructs his growing audience that illegal immigrants import deadly diseases, rampant crime and international terrorism; they live off welfare, destroy public schools and burden hospitals; what’s more, most haven’t even learned to speak English. Add that they’re foot soldiers sent by the Mexican government to “reconquer” the Southwest, and by the end of the hour, we have seen the enemy–and he’s a Spanish-speaking immigrant. Despite the grave threat, Dobbs declares, our lawmakers are doing nothing about it. Thus Dobbs branded the recent bipartisan Senate reform bill, designed to allow more immigrants to work here legally while also securing the borders, “The Amnesty Agenda”–a “pathetic sham” that would make a “mockery” of the American people.

Dobbs’s hysteria and jingoism are now notorious. He’s been ridiculed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show for calling for the abolition of “ethnocentric” holidays that involve waving other nations’ flags (thus eliminating St. Patrick’s Day); by Andy Borowitz, who wrote in Newsweek that President Bush had decided to move Dobbs to the Mexican border instead of 6,000 National Guard troops; and by the hosts of a Los Angeles radio show, who recently offered a cash prize to the first illegal immigrant mother to name her baby Lou Dobbs.

If the anchor’s antics make for good comedy, they also have a sinister side: Many Americans take him seriously. “Outside of elected officials he’s undoubtedly the most influential spokesman for the anti-immigration movement,” says Wayne Cornelius, a political science professor and director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “I think he’s actually putting real pressure on elected officials by riling up a significant portion of their base.”

As if to underscore that influence, Dobbs conducts a poll that works something like a viewer comprehension test. During one “Broken Borders” segment in May, for example, Dobbs reported on the Senate’s immigration reform bill, part of what Dobbs later called “the absolute abdication of responsibility by this government to provide for the safety of the American people.” He then reported on a rally in Washington of “illegal aliens and their supporters again trying to pressure Congress into granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens in this country.” That led into the evening’s poll question: “Do you believe US senators and representatives are more concerned with meeting the demands of illegal aliens marching in the streets than they are with their constituents?” The results? Surprise! 96 percent of viewers said yes. (As reported on the show, Dobbs’s viewers generally back him up in his polls between 95 and 99 percent of the time.)

Slightly more scientific polls are almost as conclusive. A recent CNN survey revealed that more people trust Dobbs than the President on the issue of illegal immigration. As Jack in California wrote, in one of the many adulatory letters Dobbs reads during every broadcast, “Lou Dobbs for President. Impeach Vicente Fox!”

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.”)

Crass commercialism isn’t a new motive for TV news, of course. But in this case, the impact may be profound. Dobbs’s show “has become the pipeline for nativists and nationalists to move their views from the margins into the mainstream,” says Devin Burghart, a director at the Center for New Community, which monitors anti-immigrant groups. “Many of the most hard-core anti-immigrant activists have appeared on his program–people like Joe McCutchen, one-time member of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), the largest white nationalist organization in the country. He appeared on the program without any attempt [by Dobbs] to expose his involvement with those organizations.”

Indeed, Dobbs often features and quotes activists with links to extremist and even openly racist groups, as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, reported last year. Yet Dobbs consistently fails to mention those connections–even when he or his reporters interview the founder and leader of a hate group. Glenn Spencer, for example, who heads the nativist American Patrol, deemed a hate group by both the SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League, was portrayed as a hero for running a “shadow border patrol” with “a handful of committed friends” using technology that rivals the federal government’s. The reporter didn’t mention that Spencer has also predicted a war with Mexico; his popular website, which often quotes Dobbs and links to his show, spreads rumors that immigrants are plotting to overthrow the Southwest United States. There’s also Protect Arizona Now (PAN), which successfully pressed a ballot initiative that denies state services to illegal aliens and requires state employees to report them. Dobbs ran glowing features on the group and its campaign, never mentioning what many news outlets had reported: that Virginia Abernethy, a self-described “white separatist” and former editorial adviser to the white-supremacist CCC, headed PAN’s national advisory board.

Dobbs has used material directly from the CCC–in the process spreading and adding legitimacy to some of that group’s more bizarre views. In an almost surreal segment in May, Dobbs reporter Casey Wian described the US visit of Mexican President Vicente Fox as a “Mexican military incursion.” As Wian spoke, a full-screen graphic appeared, with seven Southwestern states in darker color, portrayed as a map of “Aztlan,” a mythical nation of the Aztec people comprising part of the territory Mexico lost to the United States 150 years ago. According to Wian’s report, Mexico and “militant Latino activists” secretly aim to take it back. The map was provided by the CCC, which has called blacks “a retrograde species of humanity” and warned that immigration is turning the US population into a “slimy brown mass of glop.”

Earlier this year, Lou Dobbs Tonight covered a local protest in California against Home Depot’s efforts to hire Spanish-speaking workers. Dobbs aired a clip of California Coalition for Immigration Reform spokeswoman Barbara Coe–identified merely as a protester–saying Home Depot had “betray[ed] the American people.” Dobbs didn’t mention that Coe’s coalition is considered a hate group, or that she is a CCC member who’s referred to Mexicans as “savages” and, in a speech last year, called undocumented workers “illegal barbarians who are cutting off heads and appendages of blind, white, disabled gringos.”

“They’re not willing to tell the truth about these groups,” says Mark Potok, editor of the SPLC’s Intelligence Report. Two years ago Potok alerted Dobbs and his staff to the backgrounds of their extremist guests. In response, Dobbs sent five producers and reporters to Montgomery, Alabama, for all-day meetings with the SPLC’s hate monitors. “As they left they were promising to do a series on extremism and racism,” says Potok. “They never did anything.”

Instead, Dobbs’s show continued to showcase extremists–many of whom now hail the anchor as their champion. The Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which describes itself as animated by a “low-immigration vision” and whose leaders are frequent guests on Dobbs’s show, gave Dobbs its Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration in 2004. CIS executive director Mark Krikorian praises Dobbs for his “unusual voice among the elite that expresses the widespread public concern over immigration,” adding that Dobbs’s “conventional business background gives him even more credibility with the general public.” Asked if CIS feeds Dobbs material for his show, Krikorian responded: “We used to send him stuff, but since he decided to really take up the issue, he started calling us.” (Dobbs himself refused repeated requests for comment.)

Dobbs’s Home Depot story exemplified another specialty–showcasing otherwise insignificant anti-immigrant protests to make a particular Dobbsian point. On his nightly newscasts, the small-town border sheriff and his volunteer posse take on the status of war heroes. The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps [see Susy Buchanan and David Holthouse, page 29] becomes a vigorous volunteer border patrol. The woman whose Social Security number was stolen becomes the sympathetic face of hardworking Americans victimized by cheating and conniving immigrants. And right-wing groups calling for a “tourism boycott of Massachusetts” to protest the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill–or, as Dobbs puts it, “Kennedy’s stance on amnesty”–get instant publicity.

These small stories of xenophobic Americans are transformed into vivid, storybook illustrations of Dobbs’s own worldview. Former senior staffers at Dobbs’s show told me the anchor specifically searches for local stories to support his positions. “He approaches stories with a partisan ax to grind,” one former employee told me, asking not to be named out of fear of reprisal. “He runs the place as a tin-horn dictator. 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.” (A second former senior Dobbs staffer, who also declined to speak on the record, confirmed the accuracy of this description.)

That’s led to blatant distortions of key facts. Dobbs searches high and low for statistics showing the negative impact of immigration on the US economy, and he conveniently leaves out contradictory information. In 2003, for example, a reporter on Dobbs’s show announced that the National Academy of Sciences had reported that immigrants cost American taxpayers $20 billion a year. But the group’s study actually concluded that immigrants add between $1 billion and $10 billion to the annual US gross domestic product. (Dobbs later debated the point on his show with Peter Hart, from the watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, who had noted the distortion; Dobbs insisted he was just reading the data differently.)

More recently, Dobbs reported that the much-debated Senate bill would increase immigration by 100 million people over the next twenty years, costing taxpayers some $54 billion, citing a Heritage Foundation report. But Dobbs didn’t mention that the report has been attacked by independent analysts as wildly overstating the numbers. In another broadcast he cited the right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) for the statistic that “the net cost of illegal immigration to our economy, including social services, is now roughly $45 billion annually.” Less partisan experts, such as Wayne Cornelius, say that’s “grossly inaccurate.”

In truth, the evidence is mixed on the impact of illegal immigration on American workers. While there’s evidence that large numbers of illegal immigrants exert a slight downward pressure on wages in the lowest-paying industries, it’s also clear that the influx of immigrants has expanded the national economy, creating many new jobs. Dobbs is correct that working-class wages have stagnated in recent decades, but most economists blame new technology and the loss of manufacturing jobs, not illegal immigration. As more than 500 independent economists, including five Nobel laureates, declared in an open letter to President Bush and Congress in June, “the gains from immigration outweigh the losses.”

Such reasoned analysis and nuance are not Dobbs’s forte. Dobbs does invite guests he disagrees with on his show–the better to ramp up the drama. But he quickly derides their arguments, scoffs at their data and interrupts their answers. When Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, tried explaining how making English the official language of the United States could endanger non-English speakers during a crisis, Dobbs ignored the point and commented: “Implicit in what Janet just said is some suggestion that this is not a warm or welcoming country.” He dismissed that notion by saying that the United States is “littered with languages [that are] not English.”

Not surprisingly, after such treatment, many “guests” have refused to appear on his show a second time. Former employees told me that Dobbs’s producers are frequently turned down by reputable experts. One immigration expert I interviewed, who asked not to be named so as to avoid a public feud, said he refused to appear on CNN at all because of Dobbs.

Cornelius was on the show once, but he says he was “hoodwinked” and won’t do it again. “The only part of the interview they used was me saying, ‘Yes, enforcement has collapsed since the early 1990s, and there’s no objective risk of an undocumented immigrant being apprehended at the workplace.’ They left out that the reason is primarily because of the economic disruption it would cause. It’s not just a matter of incompetence; the costs of enforcing the immigration laws to the economy and society generally are too high.” Cornelius had added that strict enforcement wouldn’t eliminate illegal employment, just drive it further underground. But that was all edited out, he says. “It made me look as if I were just another soldier in Lou’s army.”

Angelo Amador, immigration expert for the US Chamber of Commerce, has had similar experiences and now refuses to appear on taped segments. “When it’s taped they use what they want to,” he says. “After I said no, the producer called me back and said they couldn’t get any business groups to go on the show. I wasn’t surprised.”

Still, CNN showcases its popular anchor at every opportunity. In May, when President Bush gave his national speech on immigration reform, CNN watchers heard more from Dobbs than from the President–first on his own show, then on The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer, and later on Larry King Live and Anderson Cooper 360. “It’s time to cut through the nonsense here,” Dobbs announced on The Situation Room, assuming the grave-yet-contemptuous look he reserves for this issue. “We have a border that is the source of the principal amount of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and meth coming into this country,” he proclaimed. “Six thousand National Guardsmen in an adjunct support role is pure cotton-candy nonsense…. We should also be holding the government of Mexico accountable…. They are exporting poverty. They are overcrowding the major schools in Los Angeles. They are creating a crime wave in point of fact in certain parts of the country.” (According to experts like Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson, the opposite is true: The nationwide decline in violent crime throughout the 1990s was correlated with a sharp increase in immigration; others have shown that immigrants appear to be less violent than non-immigrants and have the lowest rates of incarceration.)

Dobbs’s concerns go far beyond illegal immigration. When he accepted the Katz Award from CIS–after a glowing introduction from Congressman Tom Tancredo, the leading anti-immigration extremist in Washington and a frequent Dobbs guest–he explained that illegal immigration “spans a broad range of fundamental issues that should be of concern to all Americans who are worried about the direction of this country.” After noting that the US population has doubled in forty years, Dobbs warned his audience, “We are importing the population growth of other countries, whether it’s China or Mexico or any country in the world.”

Dobbs’s fears about the cultural impact of immigration on the United States apply to Latino American immigrants across the board, legal or illegal. That some sang the national anthem in Spanish while protesting the Sensenbrenner bill this spring, for example, seemed to hit at the heart of his concerns: What will this nation look like, and sound like, in the future?

That anxiety, fueled in part by demographic studies showing that white Americans will be a minority within the next two decades, may well explain why Dobbs connects with such a large and loyal audience. The anchor takes care not to discuss immigration issues in explicitly racial terms. But he schedules guests on his show to make the demographic point.

After Diane West, a columnist for the conservative Washington Times, wrote that the United States would “cease to be a nation” if the Senate’s immigration reform bill passed, Dobbs invited her on his show and gave her ample time to elaborate. Projected immigration “has the effect of a demographic tsunami, and it will be mainly Hispanic,” West said. “It will be mainly Mexican. And so, what the question becomes is, Do we want to become a northern section of Latin America? Do we cease to become literally an English-speaking people, become bilingual, and/or Spanish-speaking? And with these questions, you really begin to get at the heart of the matter … a new demographic.”

Dobbs prudently eased away from West’s “demographic” concern. But not completely. “The issue of multiculturalism, however, and the issue of multi-language,” he said. “That becomes a very serious issue, doesn’t it?”

For the hundreds of thousands who tune in faithfully to watch Lou Dobbs, securing our “broken borders” may be as much about preserving white American culture as about security or economics. It’s a cause white nationalists have long advanced. But it’s a new role for television news.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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