Accuracy in media coverage

It was gratifying to see New York Times columnist David Leonhardt take on the issue of media accuracy and immigration in his recent column Truth, Fiction and Lou Dobbs. The public discourse about immigration can be heated enough without the TV talking heads stoking the fires.
Dobbs is an anchor at CNN with the station’s second largest audience; he also has a syndicated radio show and has authored books. In recent years, he has morphed from a conservative economist to a self-styled populist and champion of the middle class. One of his frequent themes of late has been his “war on the middle class” focusing on such issues as outsourcing, minimum wage, and job protection. He also has a taken a strong and prominent anti-immigration stance, demonizing undocumented workers and citing them as the source for wage suppression, crime, health hazards, and a host of other ills plaguing the middle class.
But as Leonhardt notes, Dobbs often gives a nod and a wink to the most racist of anti-immigration spokespeople who frequent his show. And he is frequently fast and loose with his facts – sometimes out and out wrong. Such is the case with his recent propagation of the idea that cases of leprosy are rising alarmingly largely due to immigrants, an assertion he has made repeatedly both on his show and in other media such as 60 Minutes.

“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, the flesh-destroying disease — technically known as Hansen’s disease — that has inspired fear for centuries.
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.
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.”
“Incredible,” Mr. Dobbs replied.
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. “Suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy,” she said, again attributing the number to Ms. Cosman.”

Leonhardt followed up to verify this information with James L. Krahenbuhl, the director of the National Hansen’s Disease Program, an arm of the federal government, only to learn the cited “facts” were totally wrong. The 7000 cases of leprosy cited occurred over a span of three decades, not the three years that Dobbs asserted. But despite having aired this false and damaging claim on several occasions, neither Dobbs nor CNN have issued a correction or retraction. In fact, Dobbs’ defensiveness when confronted about the matter sent Leonhardt to the archives to examine show transcripts, where he discovered other instances of false information being disseminated about immigrants. Here’s a case in point:

“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.”

Leonardt also discusses how the line between news and opinion/advocacy blur frequently on his show. Dobbs often plays to emotions and fears, fanning the fires of hatred and discord by giving a forum to white supremacy sympathisers and using highly charged terms such as “invasion.”
Mr. Dobbs should do a better job of getting his facts straight and should turn the rhetoric down a few notches. CNN should do a better job of drawing a line between news and opinion. Both should take pains to correct the record for their damaging errors. And kudos to David Leonhardt for holding Dobbs’ feet to the fire. Reasonable people can disagree on matters surrounding the immigration issue, but there should be no place for inflammatory rhetoric and factual distortions – particularly from those who we trust for our news.