NPR Continues To Whitewash The Extremism Out Of Certain Immigration Voices

Kris Kobach

NPR recently published a laudatory (some would even say fawning) profile of the “one man” behind the controversial Alabama anti-immigration law, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. From it, we learn that Kobach “looked the part” of a “movie star,” “handsome and loaded with charisma”; that he is “deified by his supporters” in part because of his Ivy League credentials (Harvard, Oxford, and Yale); and that the time spent on immigration issues has been very “lucrative.” Gushed the reporter: “Official documents from Arizona indicate he made $300 an hour with a $1,500 monthly retainer, plus expenses.”

Amid all the flattery, however, KCUR reporter Laura Ziegler dropped hints that Kobach isn't all Mr. Congeniality. But she failed to show how extreme a figure Kobach really is. The fact that he has a history of anti-immigrant action and rhetoric elicited barely a mention. Instead, here is what Ziegler reported:

ZIEGLER: At a campaign event before the 2010 elections, candidate Kobach brought in Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Arizona, who's enforcing the immigration law there. Rallies outside the event, in a Kansas City suburb, showed how both had become lightning rods because of it.

MYRNA OROSKO: My name is Myrna Orosko and I came to the United States when I was four years old. And I came legally with a visa. However, like for many immigrants, it expired. I have to, you know, refuse to let men like Kris Kobach and Arpaio continue to spread a message of hate and intolerance for our immigrants around the country.

Zeigler didn't explain what Orosko meant nor did she point to any “message of hate and intolerance.” She later added:

ZIEGLER: [Southern Poverty Law Center director of research Heidi] Beirich says Kobach is leading a strategic anti-immigrant crusade, which she says has a racial element.

BEIRICH: His decision to first start at the local level with laws in towns that were going through some strife over growing immigrant populations and then to take that to the state level shifted the entire terms of the debate.

While exhorting a government to enforce its immigration laws may not be racist, that's not the reason critics have given for blasting Kobach for “spread[ing] a message of hate and intolerance.” Kobach works on behalf of noted hate group FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. As a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he assigned students a book with an anti-Latino immigrant message.

The book warned:

The continuation of high levels of Mexican and Hispanic immigration plus the low rates of assimilation of these immigrants into American society and culture could eventually change America into a country of two languages, two cultures, and two peoples.

Kobach has relentlessly targeted Latinos for his anti-immigration laws and some believe made it easier for police to harass them. Referring to the Arizona immigration bill, which directs police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop, he wrote to Arizona Sheriff Russell Pearce: “When we drop out 'lawful contact' and replace it with 'a stop, detention, or rest, in the enforcement [of] a violation of any title or section of the Arizona code' we need to add 'or any county or municipal ordinance.' This will allow police to use violations of property codes (i.e. cars on blocks in the yard) or rental codes (too many occupants of a rental accommodation) to initiate queries as well.”

As immigration attorney David Leopold remarked: “Kobach's email to Pearce is chilling. Knowing full well that the phrase ”lawful contact" must go ... he recommends tweaking the law in a manner that would appear to allow profiling. Why else would he be interested in using property or rental codes to ferret out undocumented people?"

And even more telling than his rhetoric is the company he keeps. Pearce, the primary architect of SB 1070, the Arizona law, has been associated with J.T. Ready, a neo-Nazi border vigilante leader. In 2009, Kobach attended a joint tea party/anti-immigration rally with Billy Gilchrist, who was then a chapter leader of the Minutemen border vigilante group. The group's armed volunteers patrolled the Southern border to stop immigrants from coming across. During the rally, Kobach reportedly “said illegal aliens who receive amnesty -- the vast majority of whom will be dependent on government -- after becoming citizens will consequently vote to keep in place the political system that benefits them.”

And let's not forget Sheriff Arpaio, whose office has been inundated with lawsuits because of reported civil rights abuses. He is now the focus of a Justice Department investigation.

Kobach has also been known to brag about his successful efforts at voter caging, which is an illegal way to suppress minority voters.

And while his time spent on immigration causes may be “lucrative,” it has been the reverse for the handful of cities and small towns that have followed his anti-immigrant counsel. Indeed, NPR didn't mention that his signature achievement is passing unconstitutional laws: Large parts of the Arizona law were held likely unconstitutional by an Arizona judge and the Ninth Circuit. A Georgia law modeled on the Arizona law suffered a similar fate. And even the Alabama law has not been allowed to go into full effect with a federal judge ruling that some portions were likely unconstitutional. The SPLC further reported:

Some communities have begun to wake up to the perils of following Kobach and his colleagues into their legal jihad against undocumented immigrants. Early last year, the City Council of Albertville, Ala., took up the idea of hiring Kobach to draft an ordinance but backed off after consulting with others who had worked with him. “The advice I have gotten from towns which passed similar resolutions said they would not do it again,” councilman Randy Amos said then.

Afterward, the publisher of the local Sand Mountain Reporter wrote a stinging editorial. “I fear Mr. Kobach targets towns like ours, and towns like Hazleton, Pa., Valley Park, Mo., and Farmers Branch, Texas, as financial windfalls,” Ben Shurett wrote. “I think he preys on the legitimate concerns, the irrational fears and even some bigoted attitudes to convince cities to hire him to represent their interests in lawsuits that may not be winnable.”

A few months ago, NPR gave the same glossy treatment to Mark Krikorian, one of the nativist leaders of the right's anti-immigrant network. Absent from that interview, however, was any mention of who he really is or what platform he represents. Even a cursory glance through Krikorian's record would have shown that his extremist views on immigration never should have been treated as sensible. Krikorian believes immigrants are considered truly American only if they embrace “Anglo-conformity.” That bigoted statement alone should have disqualified him from being sought out as a credible voice in the immigration debate. But it didn't, and it doesn't.

As I wrote at the time, NPR has a right to interview whomever it chooses, but the fact that it avoided all mention of Krikorian's bigoted views on immigrants is curious. Why leave out the fact that Krikorian is anti-immigrant and works for a think tank started by John Tanton, “a man known for his racist statements about Latinos, his decades-long flirtation with white nationalists and Holocaust deniers, and his publication of ugly racist materials”? Or the fact that he believes “the moral argument” for opposing immigration is “patriotism”? (Incidentally, FAIR is part of the Tanton network.)

Last week, in a post about how “we are all deconstructionists” in the sense that “none of us seems to accept any statement at face value anymore,” NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos wrote:

Hardly a day goes by without my receiving a complaint about “bias” on an NPR story. The dominant narrative has been that NPR is too liberal, though from time to time criticisms have flared from the left that NPR is too conservative -- that it has been cowed by the right and is bending too far to please it.


Three months into the job, I haven't found any trends of actual political bias one way or the other in NPR stories. I promise to keep looking. As my colleague John Felton, a wise retired NPR editor, reminds me, bias is reflected not only in how stories are presented, but also in which ones are picked. NPR might run more stories on the environment and social concerns than, say, Fox News. This type of bias, however, is not inherently bad if the stories are themselves legitimate and fairly presented.

But as Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker countered, “the selection of people as experts and how the reporters treat their views” is a more fundamental barometer of bias. In that sense, the Krikorian treatise, as well as this latest piece on Kobach, would count as “bias.” NPR, deliberately or not, chose to withhold or gloss over critical parts of the story on Krikorian and Kobach, rending either piece neither “legitimate” nor “fairly presented.” Hopefully, NPR hasn't put aside its journalistic integrity to appease its conservative critics.