Lou Dobbs: Unfair and Unbalanced at CNN

Wian presented an onscreen image of what “Aztlan” would encompass geographically on a United States map.  Incredibly, the source of the map was the Council of Conservative Citizens, a White Supremacist group that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has described blacks as a “retrograde species of humanity,” compared pop singer Michael Jackson to an ape, and hawked neo-Nazi and Holocaust denial material. In a few breathtaking seconds of live television, a top-rated news program on, arguably, the most “trusted” broadcast news station in the country gave the imprint of legitimacy to a white supremacist group. Although some might dismiss this as an unfortunate aberration, it is actually the logical endpoint for Dobbs, a hysterical O’Reilly-esque figure who has used his CNN bully pulpit to advance wild, disingenuous, and sometimes racist opinions over the last few years.

Dobbs’ career began with the launch of CNN in 1980, as the host of finance program Lou Dobbs Moneyline. Since 2001, he has used his program as a platform for his opinions on labor outsourcing and illegal immigration. His once respectable coverage of economics was dropped in favor of a more shallow, pseudo-populist approach, blaming Mexico’s economic problems on “the manana syndrome[-] putting off work until tomorrow.” As Dobbs garnered more and more attention for his rants, Lou Dobbs Moneyline became Lou Dobbs Tonight, and took on the trappings of a talk radio show along the lines of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. Once confined to the business news ghetto, Dobbs became one of the brightest stars on CNN.

Although Dobbs portrays himself as an economic populist, he consistently regurgitates right-wing talking points, regardless of their accuracy. For example, Dobbs falsely alleged on the April 5 edition of his program that a Colorado middle school banned the American flag, when in fact the school had banned all flags and national symbols to defuse ethnic and political tensions between students. He also joined Bill O’Reilly in jumping on the “War on Christmas” bandwagon, alleging that Macy’s religion-neutral “Happy Holidays” greeting cards “exclude[s] everyone who [celebrates] Christmas.” The implied message that Macy’s is discriminating against Christians flies in the face of such events as Macy’s extravagant Thanksgiving Day celebration parade, which features a very prominent Santa Claus float. However, Dobbs is not only a culture warrior: he is also a Republican shill. He falsely stated that Democrats were responsible for the controversial felony provision of the Sensenbrenner immigration bill, which would have criminalized illegal immigrants as felons. He alleged that Democrats vetoed a Republican attempt to downgrade the harsh penalty, but he left out the inconvenient fact that Democrats did so because they were opposed to any criminal penalty. One might wonder, given Dobbs’s hard-line immigration stance, why he would be so eager to shift the blame for the harshest part of the bill to the Democrats. If Dobbs was truly as impartial as he makes himself out to be, he would have ensured that Sensenbrenner and his colleagues were properly credited for the bill they both wrote and advertised, and castigated the Democrats for their opposition to punishment. Yet because of the bill’s unpopularity, Dobbs attempted to shield the Republicans from the fallout.

There are similar instances in which Dobbs spread misinformation to cover for Republicans. For example, Dobbs attempted to smear Tom DeLay’s prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, as a partisan zealot despite his record of prosecuting Democrats. Yet in this Dobbs is not exceptional. If all he did was raise the occasional hackle over Christmas greeting cards and spread political disinformation about Democrats, Dobbs would simply be another Chris Matthews-vituperative but relatively harmless. However, Dobbs’ punditry has an especially disturbing racial dimension.

The first suggestion of this could be seen in Dobbs’ Hurricane Katrina coverage. It was bad enough that CNN producer Ben Blake, on Lou Dobbs Tonight, declared that “bedlam” had broken out in New Orleans with widespread “looting” of such items as dry clothes and clean shoes without considering that the poor, mostly African-American residents required such necessities to survive in a city under up to 20 feet of heavily contaminated water. But Dobbs was intent on effectively blaming the city and its leaders for its problems:

“It is also important, because Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP have injected a straightforward and dramatic and perhaps even truthful charge that much of the failure here is because of race. 

But we should put in context, it seems to me also, that the city of New Orleans is 70 percent black. Its mayor is black. Its principal power structure is black. And if there is a failure to the black Americans who live in poverty and in the city of New Orleans, those officials have to bear much of the responsibility… 

“Why has there not been, from the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, other certainly well-meaning groups, focusing on the racial issues here, no mention of the fact that the mayor of New Orleans, who has to bear first responsibility in this, Ray Nagin, is himself black? That the power structure of the city of New Orleans is primarily black? The police department, the majority of which is black? Why has there been no focus on those facts and those responsibilities?”

Although Dobbs littered his speech with qualifications, his real message is apparent: Bush is not to blame; instead, the black mayor, black police force, and other elements of the “black power structure” of a city that is “70% black” deserves the ultimate blame for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The disdain in Dobbs’ voice as he repeated the word “black” over and over again was evident. With his characterization of poor people trying to survive as looters, and his blaming of the largely black populace of New Orleans for the city’s poor response, Dobbs is using coded language to communicate a timeless racist message: Black people can’t do anything right, least of all run a city.

Dobbs’ new pet issue, illegal immigration, on which he seems to have staked his claim to fame, is also clear evidence of his alarmism and xenophobia. He warns that an “army of invaders” is descending upon the Southwest. According to Dobbs, these illegal aliens are also threatening the health of Americans through the “deadly imports” of diseases such as malaria and leprosy and through committing sex crimes. If one was not paying careful attention, Dobbs could easily be mistaken for Dr. Strangelove’s General Jack Ripper, who warned about Communists out to “sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

Imitating his ideological cousins at Fox News, Dobbs twists statistics and sometimes comes up with numbers off the top of his head. In a 2003 report on illegal immigration, Dobbs and correspondent Lisa Sylvester claimed that a National Academy of Science report on illegal immigration found that “while gains to the U.S. economy due to immigration could be as high as $10 billion, the cost is higher-as much as $20 billion”. However, the actual study stated that immigration provided a GDP net gain of $1-$10 billion, and did not mention a higher loss. The $20 billion that Dobbs cited came from a separate report by an anti-immigration think tank.

Dobbs has also cited disingenuous poll data to claim overwhelming public support for the anti-immigration agenda. The poll misleadingly stated that the Sensenbrenner bill, with its felony provisions, would “[try] to make illegal immigrations go home.”  In addition, the poll did not explain the measure’s funding for a 700-mile fence, instead explaining it as “fortifying the border.” Completely certain that he is the only one in the mainstream media who has not been “co-opted by open borders and illegal immigration advocates.” Dobbs injects fear and misinformation into the illegal immigration debate.

Most damning, Dobbs has a history of providing a platform for figures involved in the White Supremacist movement. “Experts” from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) have appeared several times with Dobbs, yet he apparently does not realize, or care, that both groups were founded with the help of John Tanton, the godfather of the anti-immigration movement who is the founder of U.S. Inc, an organization that provided millions of dollars to the CIS and FAIR. Tanton is also the author of the “WITAN” memos, which charged that, among other things, Hispanics would outbreed Europeans: “Those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down.” Tanton’s “WITAN” memos also alleged that Latino immigrants would bring “the tradition of the mordita (bribe)” to Southern California. In addition, Tanton published The Social Contract, a pseudo-racist journal that alleges that the natural end result of immigration would be the downfall of “successful EuroAmerican culture.”

FAIR’s links to the White Supremacist movement go beyond association with Tanton. FAIR has worked with or employed many CCC members, including John Vinson, a CCC advisor; Jared Taylor, a CCC board member; and Dan Stein, the editor of The Social Contract. Again, it is hard to believe that Dobbs was unaware of these links. Even if he was, it is still simply irresponsible journalism. But he does not only cite these think tanks for facts; he actually features guests who are members of CCC-affiliated White Supremacist organizations.

Dobbs has twice interviewed Glenn Spencer of the American Patrol without mentioning that his group is considered a hate group by both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. He did not mention that Spencer has spoken twice at conventions organized by the Council of Conservative Citizens, or that Spencer has stated that “thousands will die” in what Spencer sees as an inevitable Mexican invasion. And Dobbs has also interviewed Barbara Coe of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR). The Southern Poverty Law center has listed the CCIR as a hate group, and Coe, a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens, has been quoted as referring to Mexicans as “savages“. Not surprisingly, John Tanton’s U.S. INC also gave money to the CCIR.

This kind of trash is not journalism. Lou Dobbs is using CNN to provide a worldwide audience for racists and quacks. This very process legitimizes and mainstreams their rhetoric. It is comparable to the New York Times running a story with choice quotes taken from The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. This is, in effect, exactly what Lou Dobbs did when he used the Council of Conservative Citizens as a source for his story on the supposed “Aztlan” conspiracy. It is hard to believe that Dobbs is ignorant enough not to have even the slightest inkling of the histories, statements, and affiliations of his guests. Taken into context with his comments, Dobbs’s very public association with these fringe figures raises the question of whether he approves of their racist off-camera statements. 

It certainly seems possible because Dobbs has also advocated strongly for the Minutemen Project, a notorious vigilante group. “I support the Minutemen Project and the fine Americans who make it up,” Dobbs has declared. Dobbs has quoted Joe McCutchen during a feature on the project, extolling him as an example of the “fine Americans” of that organization. Again, he failed to mention that McCutchen has ties to the CCC and another hate group, American Renaissance. The Council of Conservative Citizens listed McCutchen as a member in a 2001 publication, and McCutchen has spoken at a CCC-sponsored event in North Carolina. McCutchen also wrote a letter to American Renaissance asking readers for money to finance an electoral campaign. McCutchen also has a history of writing anti-Semitic letters to newspapers. In one letter, McCutchen stated that “the central government, banking, media, and entertainment are controlled by Jews.”

Similarly, Dobbs has interviewed Minutemen Project founder Chris Simcox without disclosing some of the more unsavory facts about him. He did not mention, for example, that Simcox’s wife had gotten a court order for custody of his teenage son because she feared that he had suffered a mental breakdown and was dangerous. Simcox ranted to anyone who would listen about what he believed would be imminent nuclear attacks on Los Angeles. He left frightening voicemail messages to his wife and son about war and destruction, including one in which Simcox stated that he would teach his son how to use guns:

I have purchased another gun. I have more than a few weapons. … I intend to teach my son how to use them. … I will no longer trust anyone in this country. … My life has changed forever, and if you don’t get that, you’re brainwashed like everyone else. … I’m going to go down to the Mexican border…and protect the borders of the country I love. You hear how serious I am. 

Another choice answering machine excerpt: “I am dead serious…I will not speak to my son or anyone again unless you can recite at least the preamble of the Constitution.” Like many other anti-immigrant spokespeople Dobbs has interviewed, Simcox has connections with hate groups. He spoke at a convention affiliated with Barbara Coe’s CCIR and stated that illegal immigrants were “jeering at little girls walking on their way to school.” At least there is some comic relief here: when Simcox was arrested for carrying a weapon in a national park, he was also carrying a Wyatt Earp action figure.

Simcox is clearly paranoid and delusional, but instead of directing him to a psychiatric ward, Dobbs gave him a legitimate platform to spread his message. It’s hard not to conclude that Dobbs shares Simcox’s paranoia. However, this paranoia has struck a chord in America precisely because of the times we live in. We are in the midst of a war on terror fought mainly in the shadows by a government whose corruption, lawlessness, and incompetence defy reasonable explanation. Corporations wield unparalleled influence in Washington, and all of this is abetted by a press that at best could be called docile, at worst an unofficial branch of the government. Along with Dobbs and the Barbara Coes of this country, we focus the sum of our anger, fear, and powerlessness on the “illegals” without confronting the ultimately more disturbing truths about our part in refusing to hold the powerful responsible. Rage is an appropriate reaction to the dire problems of our time. But this rage should be focused against those who bear real responsibility for our problems: the members of both parties on Capitol Hill who have sold us to the highest bidder.

Lou Dobbs is one more figure in a long line of pseudo-populists demagogues, beginning with the depression-era Father Coughlin, who used times of economic hardship to focus anger on convenient scapegoats. Dobbs’ message has seeped into the political discourse, mainstreaming the hate and paranoia spread by his guests. However influential Coughlin was, he only had a radio show. With CNN, Dobbs’ disinformation and fear mongering has a worldwide audience. If the network cares about its status, it should rid itself of Dobbs.