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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Mr. Dobbs Has a Somewhat Flexible Relationship with Reality"

CNN has been going downhill for awhile now:

Truth, Fiction and Lou Dobbs, by David Leonhardt, NY Times: The whole controversy involving Lou Dobbs and leprosy started with a “60 Minutes” segment a few weeks ago.

The segment was a profile of Mr. Dobbs, and while doing background research for it, a “60 Minutes” producer came across a 2005 news report... In the report, one of Mr. Dobbs’s correspondents said there had been 7,000 cases of leprosy in this country over the previous three years, far more than in the past.

When Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” sat down to interview Mr. Dobbs.., she mentioned the report and told him that there didn’t seem to be much evidence for it. “Well, I can tell you this,” he replied. “If we reported it, it’s a fact.”

With that..., Mr. Dobbs escalated the leprosy dispute into a full-scale media brouhaha. The next night, back on his own program, the same CNN correspondent who had done the earlier report, Christine Romans, repeated the 7,000 number, and Mr. Dobbs added that, if anything, it was probably an underestimate. A week later, the Southern Poverty Law Center — the civil rights group that has long been critical of Mr. Dobbs — took out advertisements in The New York Times and USA Today demanding that CNN run a correction.

Finally, Mr. Dobbs played host to two top officials from the law center on his program, “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” where he called their accusations outrageous and they called him wrong, unfair and “one of the most popular people on the white supremacist Web sites.” We’ll get to the merits of the charges and countercharges shortly...

Mr. Dobbs argues that the middle class has many enemies: corporate lobbyists, greedy executives, wimpy journalists, corrupt politicians. But none play a bigger role than illegal immigrants. As he sees it, they are stealing our jobs, depressing our wages and even endangering our lives. That’s where leprosy comes in.

“The invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans,” Mr. Dobbs said on his April 14, 2005, program. From there, he introduced his original report that mentioned leprosy...

According to a woman CNN identified as a medical lawyer named Dr. Madeleine Cosman, leprosy was on the march. As Ms. Romans, the CNN correspondent, relayed: “There were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years.” ...

Mr. Dobbs and Ms. Romans engaged in a nearly identical conversation a few weeks ago, when he was defending himself the night after the “60 Minutes” segment. ...

[T]he official leprosy statistics do show about 7,000 diagnosed cases — but that’s over the last 30 years, not the last three. The peak year was 1983, when there were 456 cases. ... Last year, there were 137. “It is not a public health problem — that’s the bottom line,” Mr. Krahenbuhl told me. “You’ve got a country of 300 million people. This is not something for the public to get alarmed about.”...

So Mr. Dobbs was flat-out wrong. ... Of course, he has never acknowledged on the air that his program presented false information twice. Instead, he lambasted the officials from the law center for saying he had. ...

I have been somewhat taken aback about how shameless he has been during the whole dispute, so I spent some time reading transcripts from old episodes of “Lou Dobbs Tonight.” The way he handled leprosy, it turns out, is not all that unusual.

For one thing, Mr. Dobbs has a somewhat flexible relationship with reality. He has said, for example, that one-third of the inmates in the federal prison system are illegal immigrants. That’s wrong, too. According to the Justice Department, 6 percent of prisoners in this country are noncitizens (compared with 7 percent of the population). For a variety of reasons, the crime rate is actually lower among immigrants than natives.

Second, Mr. Dobbs really does give airtime to white supremacy sympathizers. Ms. Cosman, who is now deceased, was a lawyer and Renaissance studies scholar, never a medical doctor or a leprosy expert. She gave speeches in which she said that Mexican immigrants had a habit of molesting children. Back in their home villages, she would explain, rape was not as serious a crime as cow stealing. ...

Finally, Mr. Dobbs is fond of darkly hinting that this country is under attack. He suggested last week that the new immigration bill in Congress could be the first step toward a new nation — a “North American union” — that combines the United States, Canada and Mexico. On other occasions, his program has described a supposed Mexican plot to reclaim the Southwest. In one such report, one of his correspondents referred to a Utah visit by Vicente Fox, then Mexico’s president, as a “Mexican military incursion.” ...

The most common complaint about him, at least from other journalists, is that his program combines factual reporting with editorializing. But I think this misses the point. Americans, as a rule, are smart enough to handle a program that mixes opinion and facts. The problem with Mr. Dobbs is that he mixes opinion and untruths. ...

[I]f Mr. Dobbs’s arguments were really so good, don’t you think he would be able to stick to the facts? And if CNN were serious about being “the most trusted name in news,” as it claims to be, don’t you think it would be big enough to issue an actual correction.

    Posted by on Wednesday, May 30, 2007 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Press | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (37)

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