REPORT: CNN's Lou Dobbs problem and the immigration debate

In light of Lou Dobbs' reported plans to help lead the upcoming lobbying campaign of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) -- an organization designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- Media Matters for America reviews some of the most egregious conspiracy theories, hate speech, and undisclosed conflicts of interest in Dobbs' immigration reporting.

In light of Lou Dobbs' reported plans to help lead the upcoming lobbying campaign of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) -- an organization designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- Media Matters for America reviews some of the most egregious conspiracy theories, hate speech, and undisclosed conflicts of interest in Dobbs' immigration reporting.

Dobbs fails to disclose ties to “hate group” FAIR while citing it as credible immigration source

Dobbs has close ties to “hate group” FAIR. In August, FAIR -- an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a "hate group" -- announced that Dobbs is scheduled to help lead its annual “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” radio host rally. A year earlier, Dobbs broadcast his CNN show from the FAIR rally and announced on the air that “the Federation for American Immigration Reform is to be commended.” In addition, the group has given Dobbs an award for “his continued efforts in leading the immigration reform movement through both his talk radio show and his television show.” In the past year, Dobbs has cited FAIR as a credible source on immigration issues at least six times and has routinely failed to disclose his close association with the group.

FAIR boasted Dobbs' “prominence” would add to “the visibility and stature” of its 2008 anti-immigration rally. In its press release announcing Dobbs' 2008 participation in its rally, FAIR wrote that Dobbs' “prominence will add to the visibility and stature of an event that has already had an enormous impact on the national debate about immigration policy. ... With the participation of the Lou Dobbs Tonight program to Hold Their Feet to the Fire 2008, that message is certain to reach the widest possible audience.”

Dobbs' show cites FAIR in news reports without disclosing Dobbs' ties. Between September 10, 2008 -- when Dobbs broadcast his CNN show from FAIR's rally -- and FAIR's August announcement that Dobbs would help lead the 2009 rally, Dobbs' CNN show has cited FAIR as a credible source on immigration at least six times and has regularly failed to disclose Dobbs' ties to group. For example, on the June 11, 2009 Lou Dobbs Tonight, correspondent Casey Wian reported: “By Schwarzenegger's estimate, California spends $4 billion a year on social services for illegal immigrants or about 17 percent of the state's deficit. But in 2004 the Federation for American Immigration reform, a group that promotes stronger border security and greater restrictions on immigration estimated that cost at $9 billion a year.” On Dobbs' January 30, 2009, CNN show, Wian reported: “The Pro-Enforcement Federation for American Immigration Reform issued a statement saying the Obama administration appears to be caving in to business and ethnic interest pressure groups to delay or perhaps eliminate this vital protection for U.S. workers.”

FAIR founder Tanton has history of racist statements. FAIR was founded by John Tanton, who still sits on the organization's board of directors. In 1986, Tanton reportedly wrote: “As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night?” In 1993, he reportedly wrote, “I've come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” In 1997, Tanton was quoted by the Detroit Free Press as saying that without a reduction in immigration levels, the United States will be overwhelmed by people “defecating and creating garbage and looking for jobs.”

FAIR has history of racially charged ads. FAIR also has a history of backing racially charged advertisements. For example, on April 24, 2004, The Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star editorialized that ads backed by FAIR at the time were “trash” that “incite hate,” “play upon stereotypical racial fears,” and “are full of half-truths and lies.'”

Dobbs failed to disclose his fundraising for Hazleton legal defense fund while reporting on immigration ordinance

Dobbs broadcast show praising Pennsylvania town for ordinance targeting undocumented immigrants. On his May 2, 2007, CNN show, Dobbs reported from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, for a “special report” called "Broken Borders," which he said, “examine[d] [Hazleton's] efforts to deal with the harsh realities of illegal immigration.” In 2006, Hazleton passed the "Illegal Immigration Relief Act," a controversial ordinance drafted by the city's mayor, Lou Barletta, that sought to suspend the permits of local businesses and others for employing “unlawful workers” and landlords for renting to “illegal aliens.” Several groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged the legislation. During the broadcast, Dobbs praised Barletta's efforts, stating, “Hazleton, the community, is leading the battle against illegal immigration, stepping in where the federal government has simply failed to perform its duty.”

Dobbs failed to disclose his promotion of Hazleton's legal defense fund. At no point during Dobbs' hour-long Hazleton broadcast did he disclose that, on the Lou Dobbs Tonight website, he had been promoting a solicitation for donations to Hazleton's legal defense fund. On his show's website, Dobbs posted a link to Small Town Defenders, a site backed by Barletta that solicited money for the city's legal fight against challenges to its immigration ordinance.

Dobbs forced to retract smear of U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Dobbs smeared U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as sympathetic to “Mexico's export of drugs and illegal aliens.” On March 10, 2009, Dobbs criticized President Obama for delivering a speech on education to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Dobbs accused Obama of “pandering to the pro-amnesty open-borders lobby” and aired a clip of a FAIR spokesman saying, “We don't want the president to make it appear as if he's favoring one particular group in the disposition of public benefits.” Dobbs also said, “Making a decision to talk about a national initiative on education from the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which is effectively an organization that is interested in the export of American capital and production to Mexico, and Mexico's export of drugs and illegal aliens to the United States. This is crazy stuff.”

A week later, Dobbs apologized for “misspeaking.” On March 17, 2009, Dobbs said he “made a mistake,” explaining, “I, of course, do not believe that the chamber supports or condones either drug or human trafficking. My apologies to the ... U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and I hope that they will forgive me for that misspeaking.”

Dobbs' show used hate group graphic to push “reconquista” myth

Dobbs pushes far-right claim that Mexican immigrants plotting to reclaim U.S. Southwest for Mexico. Dobbs' show has repeatedly advanced the smear that some Mexican-Americans and Mexican citizens -- particularly “illegal aliens” -- are plotting to take over the U.S. Southwest for Mexico. On the March 31, 2006, edition of his show, Dobbs introduced a report by stating, “There are some Mexican citizens and some Mexican-Americans who want to see California, New Mexico and other parts of the Southwestern United States given over to Mexico. These groups call it the reconquista, Spanish for reconquest. And they view the millions of Mexican illegal aliens in particular entering the United States as potentially an army of invaders to achieve that takeover.” Correspondent Christine Romans reported, “Long downplayed as a theory of the radical ethnic fringe, the la reconquista, the reconquest, the reclamation, the return, it's resonating with some on the streets,” and went on to say, “A lot of open borders groups disavow it completely. But the growing street protests in favor of illegal immigration, Lou, are increasingly taking on the tone of that very radicalism.”

Dobbs aired hate group graphic to illustrate “the Vicente Fox Aztlan tour.” On the May 23, 2006, Lou Dobbs Tonight, Wian characterized then-Mexican President Vicente Fox's trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, as a “Mexican military incursion” and claimed that "[y]ou could call" Fox's trip to the United States “the Vicente Fox Aztlan tour,” an apparent, baseless reference to those who purportedly espouse the concept of “reconquista.” During Wian's report, CNN featured the following graphic of “Aztlan” that was sourced to the Council of Conservative Citizens -- an organization whose “Statement of Principles” says: “We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called 'affirmative action' and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”


CNN spokesperson called Dobbs' use of hate group graphic “regrettabl[e].” In response to criticism, a CNN spokeswoman later said that a “freelance field producer” had “grabbed the Council of Conservative Citizens map without knowing the nature of the organization” and that its inclusion in the segment “regrettably, was missed in the vetting process.”

Dobbs continues to defend wildly off-base leprosy reporting

Dobbs spread leprosy falsehood in claiming “invasion of illegal aliens” threatening Americans' “health.” On the April 14, 2005, edition of his show, Dobbs said, “The invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans.” Dobbs introduced a report in which Romans said that “the woman in our piece [lawyer Madeline Cosman] told us that there were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years. Leprosy in this country.” Dobbs responded, “Incredible.” However, the claim was wildly inflated. According to the National Hansen's Disease Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 398 cases of Hansen's disease, or leprosy, were reported in the United States between 2002 and 2004 -- “the past three years” at the time Romans made her statement. Indeed, 7,000 was roughly the number of total leprosy cases reported in the 29 years prior to Dobbs' leprosy segment. Cosman's claims were originally published in the journal of an organization that has, among other things, promoted conspiracy theories about the death of Vince Foster.

Dobbs repeatedly refused to correct leprosy falsehood. Despite the fact that Romans' original 2005 reporting on leprosy has been proven false, Dobbs repeatedly refused to correct and take responsibility for the falsehood and indeed defended Romans' reporting on multiple occasions. For example, on the May 6, 2007, edition of 60 Minutes, Dobbs said of the leprosy claim, “If we reported it, it's a fact.” On the May 7, 2007, edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs told Romans, “I stand 100 percent behind what you said.” Dobbs again defended his show's leprosy reporting as recently as September 9, saying that in the original report, “we pointed out that there was leprosy rising in this country, and the reporter misstated -- because the source on the story misstated -- the number of years it had taken to do that. But the number -- the cases -- were 7,000. And we reported that.”

Dobbs pushes North American Union myth that his colleague calls a “conspiracy theor[y]”

Dobbs accuses government of plotting to form mythical “North American Union.” Dobbs has repeatedly suggested that elements in the U.S. government are secretly plotting to merge the United States with Mexico and Canada. On March 3, 2009, Dobbs said on his radio show: “There is an agenda at work here. I truly believe it's all about -- and Barack Obama referred to it in his meetings with [Canadian Prime Minister] Stephen Harper in Ottawa, in which they talked about harmonization. This is an effort, I truly believe, to extend ultimately to the North American Union -- that is, the combination of Mexico, the United States, and Canada. That's underlying much -- that's subtext for much of what is happening. There's no other explanation -- other than outright corruption and utter madness.” During the June 21, 2006, edition of his CNN show, Dobbs stated that “the Bush administration is pushing ahead with a plan to create a North American union with Canada and Mexico” and later asked: “Do you think, our question is, maybe somebody should take a vote if we're going to merge Canada, Mexico and the United States as the leaders of the three countries are attempting to do with the security and prosperity partnership? Yes or no. Cast your vote at”

Dobbs' CNN colleagues dismiss North American Union as “conspiracy theor[y].” On the August 21, 2007, edition of The Situation Room, correspondent Suzanne Malveaux aired a video clip of then-President Bush's response to a question about the North American Union, in which he said, “It's quite comical, actually, when you realize the difference between reality and what some people are talking on TV about.” Malveaux said Bush's denial followed “a lot of talk in the blogosphere and conspiracy theorists.” According to a search of the Nexis database conducted at the time, the North American Union had been mentioned on 53 Lou Dobbs Tonight broadcasts on CNN prior to Malveaux's statement. Indeed, during a Malveaux report just the day before -- on the August 20, 2007, edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight -- on-screen text read: “Critics say SPP [Security & Prosperity Partnership] an Attempt to Create a N. Amer. Union.”


Dobbs injects loaded “amnesty” graphics into CNN journalists' reports

Dobbs' “amnesty” graphics distort CNN's reporting. Dobbs has repeatedly distorted CNN correspondents' reports on immigration reform by pairing these purportedly straight-news reports with on-screen text containing the politically charged word “amnesty.”

Only on Lou Dobbs: During Bash report, on-screen text labeled immigration bill “amnesty.” During the June 7, 2007, edition of his show, while correspondent Dana Bash reported on Senate deliberations of the immigration bill, Lou Dobbs Tonight included two separate on-screen texts referring to the bill as “amnesty” and the “amnesty bill,” respectively, even though Bash herself had noted in previous reporting that “amnesty” is a characterization of the bill favored by “conservative critics.” When The Situation Room aired the same Bash report earlier that day, it used the less inflammatory descriptor “Immigration Bill” in its on-screen text, suggesting that Dobbs' program was responsible for adding editorial commentary during what was ostensibly a CNN news report by a neutral journalist.


More on-screen “amnesty” from Lou Dobbs Tonight. During the June 14, 2007, Lou Dobbs Tonight, “amnesty” once again appeared in captions beneath news reports by CNN correspondents on deliberations over the Senate immigration bill. This time, separate reports by Bash and Malveaux were accompanied by on-screen text referring to “Bush's amnesty push,” “pro-amnesty senators,” and the “amnesty bill,” even though both Malveaux and Bash had noted that “amnesty” is a characterization of the bill favored by “critics.” Again, when The Situation Room aired similar reports earlier that day, the accompanying on-screen text featured the less inflammatory descriptor, “Immigration deal.”

Dobbs' “amnesty” captions appear below three more CNN correspondents' reports. During the June 16 and 17, 2007, editions of CNN's Lou Dobbs This Week, “amnesty” once again appeared in captions beneath news reports by CNN correspondents on deliberations over the immigration bill. A report by correspondent Andrea Koppel and a panel discussion featuring correspondents Candy Crowley and John King were accompanied by on-screen text referring to “Amnesty Push: Illegal Alien Amnesty Agenda,” even though all three correspondents had noted in previous reporting that “amnesty” is a political characterization favored by opponents of the immigration bill.