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On the May 16 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, host and CBS Early Show special contributor Lou Dobbs accused two officials of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) of misrepresenting a claim made on the April 14, 2005, edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight concerning the number of leprosy cases in the United States. But the SPLC's assertion -- that CNN correspondent Christine Romans inaccurately reported there were 7,000 leprosy cases "in the past three years" -- is true, and, when confronted by CBS News correspondent corespondent Lesley Stahl in a May 6 profile of him on CBS' 60 Minutes, Dobbs insisted it was accurate, then again insisted on its accuracy on his own show the following night.
On the April 14, 2005, edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Romans aired a quote by Madeleine Cosman, anti-immigration activist and founding director of the City College of City University of New York's Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Cosman said, "We have some enormous problems with horrendous diseases that are being brought into America by illegal aliens." After the report, Romans said that Cosman "told us that there were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years." However, as Media Matters noted, there have not been 7,000 cases of leprosy "in the past three years," as Romans implied. According to the National Hansen's Disease Program (NHDP) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), there were just 398 cases of Hansen's disease, or leprosy, reported between 2002 and 2004 -- "the past three years" at the time Cosman made her statement.
Cosman wrote in a 2005 article: "Leprosy, Hansen's disease, was so rare in America that in 40 years only 900 people were afflicted. Suddenly, in the past three years America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy." Cosman appears to have derived her false claim by misinterpreting a February 18, 2003, New York Times article. The Times article, written two years before Cosman's article, compared the "900 recorded cases in the United States 40 years ago" with "today," in which "more than 7,000 people have leprosy."
On the May 16 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs hosted SPLC CEO J. Richard Cohen and SPLC Intelligence Project director Mark Potok. On May 9, Cohen wrote a letter to CNN asking that it retract what they called a "dangerous assertion" that Dobbs himself refused to retract "despite unequivocal evidence of its falsehood."
Indeed, despite the inaccuracy of the claim that there have been 7,000 cases of leprosy "in the past three years," Dobbs has offered several defenses of Romans' uncritical citation of Cosman's false claim in the past month:
- On the May 6 edition of CBS' 60 Minutes, Stahl told Dobbs: "We checked that and found a report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, saying 7,000 is the number of leprosy cases over the last 30 years, not the past three, and nobody knows how many of those cases involve illegal immigrants." Dobbs responded: "If we reported it, it's a fact."
- On the May 7 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs told Romans, "I stand 100 percent behind what you said." Romans said, "We don't make up numbers here," and demonstrated that her citation was accurate by quoting from Cosman's article: "Hansen's disease was so rare in America that in 40 years only 900 people were afflicted. Suddenly, in the past three years America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy." Neither mentioned the HHS statistics cited by Stahl.
- Wall Street Journal columnist Carl Bialik reported in a May 8 post about the leprosy statistics on his Journal weblog, The Numbers Guy:
In response to my inquiry about whether Ms. Romans used the leprosy numbers improperly, Mr. Dobbs said through a CNN spokeswoman: 'Christine Romans's comments reflected what Dr. Cosman had said: That the number of active and current cases of leprosy had risen to and remained at more than 7,000 for the past three years as a result of improved reporting and unscreened illegal immigration primarily from Southeast Asia.' "
In the above response to Bialik, Dobbs misrepresented Romans' original citation by stating that Romans and Cosman had indicated that 7,000 was "the number of active and current cases ... for the past three years" rather than the cases that occurred "in the past three years."
On May 16, Dobbs defended Romans' claim by asserting, as he did with Bialik, that Romans was referring to "active" cases of leprosy. Potok told Dobbs that "you claimed ... that there were 7,000 new cases of leprosy in a recent three-year period." Dobbs replied that "we did not say there were new cases at any time," adding, "What we said in point of fact was that there are 7,000 cases on the active -- active leprosy register." Cohen read Romans' May 7 quotation of Cosman's statement, calling it "a pretty strong implication that the number [of leprosy cases] has jumped from 900 to 7,000, or over 7,000, in a very short period of time."
Dobbs then aired a video clip of Romans' 2005 comments to show "exactly what Christine Romans said." But afterward, rather than discuss whether 7,000 referred to "new" or "active" cases, Dobbs said that "the number of cases began rising" in 2000 "to about 166" cases in 2005. Later Dobbs said, "So we did not say, we quite agree, that there were 7,000 new cases. We said there were 7,000 on the registry." Cohen responded: "I didn't agree with what you just said, Lou. ... Miss Romans on May 7, again: 'there have been 400 cases for years and suddenly in the last three years there were 7,000 cases.' I think that implies there's been an explosive growth.' " Dobbs referred to Romans' 2005 statement as "31 words uttered more than two years ago by Christine Romans in response to a question by -- from me, just before going to commercial break." Dobbs also told Potok and Cohen, "The only person that has made anything of this has been you." However, as Media Matters noted, Stahl, Bialik, and Colorado Media Matters had also challenged the leprosy claim, which, again, notwithstanding his assertion that the statement was "31 words uttered more than two years ago," Dobbs was still defending as recently as last week.
Since the airing of his profile on 60 Minutes, in which Stahl confronted Dobbs about the statistic, Dobbs hosted a radio program on New York radio station WFAN on May 15 from 6 to 10 a.m. ET. WFAN is owned by CBS Radio, and the time slot in which Dobbs appeared was formerly occupied by Don Imus, for whom WFAN served as the flagship station until his recent firing. Additionally, Stahl noted on 60 Minutes, "While we were talking to Dobbs, unbeknownst to us, he was talking to CBS News and has now joined The Early Show as a weekly commentator."
From the May 16 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:
DOBBS: The number of reported incidents of leprosy in this country is rising, and that isn't the worst of it. Some doctors who deal directly with that disease, also called Hansen's disease say many cases go unreported and that the actual increases and the total number of cases on the national registry may be even more significant. Bill Tucker reports.
BILL TUCKER (CNN correspondent): Dr. Bill Levis is one of the most respected doctors in the world on the treatment of leprosy, or Hansen's disease as it's now known, and he says the disease is on the rise.
Levis is the attending physician at the Hansen's disease clinic at New York City's Bellevue Hospital. It is one of 11 such federally funded clinics in eight states and Puerto Rico. Leprosy peaked in the United States 1983, when 456 new cases were reported, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which attributes the rise to a large increase in immigration from Southeast Asia.
The number of new cases bottomed out in 2000, but the number of leprosy cases has more than doubled in the years since. Respected medical authorities say there are reasons to suspect those numbers understate the number of leprosy cases.
DR. WILLIAM LEVIS (Bellevue Hospital Hansen's Disease Clinic): In the last 30, 40 years we've had 7,000 by registry figures that are maintained, but it's likely to be significantly more than that because not all states require, including New York state, are requiring reporting of the disease. So it's underreported.
DOBBS: We want to show you now, as I get ready to talk with Mark Potok and Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center, all of this originating in an excerpt from 60 Minutes that profiled me two Sundays ago. Lesley Stahl talked in that report with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
[begin video clip]
POTOK: The impression you get pretty strongly, I think, day after day is that, you know, sort of all 11 million illegal aliens are bringing leprosy, they're bringing crime, they're bringing all these terrible things to the United States.
STAHL: If these people have come into this country illegally, what is so wrong with somebody taking it up as an advocate?
POTOK: That does not sort of give one the go-ahead to say that, you know, these are a group of rapists and disease-carrying people who are coming to, you know, essentially to destroy the culture of this country. You know, I think that's a long leap.
[end video clip]
DOBBS: A long leap. The only question here is, who made the leap?
POTOK: The point is, is that the criticism that we made of you over the leprosy claim, which was certainly false -- what you claimed was that there were 7,000 new cases of leprosy in a recent three-year period --
DOBBS: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. One minute --
POTOK: In fact, that three year period is about 450 cases.
DOBBS: In point of fact. In point of fact, what we said was -- and I think we really should go to that -- we did not say there were new cases at any time. And not only have you said that there, you've said in this, this email -- well, let's go first to the ad that was placed in The New York Times and USA Today yesterday, and I want to tell our viewers, I want everybody to know I invited Mark Potok and Richard Cohen to join us last week, I believe it was last Wednesday, to join us.
Now, in the ad placed in The New York Times and the USA Today yesterday, the Southern Poverty Law Center in an open letter to CNN, said, quote, "Despite being confronted with undisputed evidence to the contrary, Mr. Dobbs says he stands 100 percent behind the claim that there have been 7,000 new cases of leprosy in the United States in recent years."
Now, Mark, Richard, gentlemen, you know we never said they were new cases. What we said in point of fact was that there are 7,000 cases on the active -- active leprosy register.
COHEN: Lou, Lou, Lou --
DOBBS: You also -- sure.
COHEN: You're letting yourself off too easy, Lou. Let's be serious here.
DOBBS: Well, I'm sure -- I'm sure that you would not permit that. Surely.
COHEN: Just wait, Lou. Just wait. You said or your reporter Christine Romans said on May 7th that Hansen's was a disease so rare that "in 40 years only 900 people were afflicted. Suddenly in the past three years America has more than 7,000 --"
COHEN: " --cases of leprosy." I think that makes it pretty -- that's a pretty strong implication that the number has jumped from 900 to 7,000, or over 7,000, in a very short period of time.
DOBBS: Well, let's -- Richard, let's let --
COHEN: You were wrong to claim that.
DOBBS: Let's listen, and I would ask you to listen as well along with our viewers, to exactly what Christine Romans said, and if we could roll that, please.
ROMANS [video clip]: It's interesting because the woman in our piece told us that there were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years.
DOBBS: That report, as you gentlemen know, was done two years ago. In point of fact, the up-tick in cases from 76, I believe, in 2000, which was the low point of the number of cases began rising to about 166 in the most recent year reported, 2005, the year in which that report was made.
COHEN: You're not being fair. You're not being fair.
DOBBS: Please --
COHEN: Let me finish. Miss Romans repeated the same kind of outrageous claim on your show on May 7. The thing that hasn't -- the thing that -- leprosy cases haven't been going up in recent years, Lou, they've been bouncing around. You can see the figures, 133, 134, 131. You're looking at the same numbers I am. What has increased are the number of hate crimes against Latinos. It's a serious problem, Lou --
COHEN: --and you ought to talk about it.
DOBBS: How much have they increased?
COHEN: Let me finish. Let me finish. The reality is that hate crimes occur because people demonize Latinos and other persons in our country. They spread false statistics about it. The 7,000 figure that you've done on your show is all over hate websites. You, Lou, unfortunately, are one of the most popular people on the white supremacist websites. Let me finish. You can't -- you can't -- you can't -- you're not responsible, Lou, for people who admire you, but you've got to ask yourself why the Council of Conservative Citizens considers you their favorite pundit.
DOBBS: Well, I will leave that to you to divine and, as you have, I think, interestingly created some rather -- what I consider to be tangential discussion, I think you know -- I certainly know that Mark Potok knows -- that I think the CCC is a reprehensible organization based on its beliefs and its attitudes. I think you know that very well. So I'm not quite sure what you're going to, but let me -- let me go back to something here because I don't want to let you off quite that easily, either. So we did not say we quite agree that there were 7,000 new cases. We said there were 7,000 on the registry. I want to talk to you about --
COHEN: I didn't agree with what you said, Lou.
DOBBS: I'm sorry?
COHEN: I didn't agree with what you just said. Miss Romans on May 7, again there have been 400 cases for years and suddenly in the last three years there were 7,000 cases. I think that implies there's been an explosive growth, and you've got the statistics in front of you. I heard you cite them. That's not the case.
DOBBS: Let me cite them for everybody one more time, and if we've got that graphic, I'd like to do that -- which in, by the way, your publication you said the cases have been declining. Since 2000, they have in fact been doubling, rising from 76 to 110, to 133 to 131, 166, and you just listened to one of the most foremost experts in Bill Tucker's report say to you that they are absolutely, absolutely understated and significantly so.
COHEN: And they've always been understated, Lou.
DOBBS: But let's go to the more important issue here, if we may. You also take -- take me to task for using the source that was in the report that Christine Romans did. Now, I want to be clear here. We're talking about 31 words uttered more than two years ago by Christine Romans in response to a question by -- from me, just before going to commercial break. She did not ever -- the report by Bill Tucker is the first report on this broadcast ever about leprosy in relation to illegal immigration, and you gentlemen both know that.
POTOK: Let me try and make one, Lou, here.
DOBBS: The only person that has made anything of this has been you, gentlemen, and I can't imagine your motivation for doing so.
POTOK: Well, it's certainly not true that we're the only ones who have made this point. As you know, many, many organizations have made this same point.
DOBBS: Well, we certainly have not. We have done one 30-word expression --
POTOK: Look, I -- I agree with you.
DOBBS: -- at the end of a report on multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, and you have talked about it endlessly in your newsletter --
POTOK: Let me speak for just a moment.
DOBBS: -- in your intelligence report, in your advertising, which -- I don't know, does it spur fundraising? I don't know.
COHEN: You know, it's interesting, Lou, that the John Birch Society made the same claim against us that you just uttered. The reason we're taking you seriously --
DOBBS: Now you've aligned me with the CCC, the John Birch Society. Is there anyone else you'd like to align me with?
COHEN: Lou, Lou, Lou, you're an important media figure, a very important figure, and immigration is an important issue in our country. What we don't think should happen is the debate be poisoned by misleading statistics about crime, about leprosy, about anything.