Over the past few weeks, CNN has begun to feel the pressure to drop their anti-immigrant news reader and talking head Lou Dobbs. The effort to get Dobbs off the airwaves has garnered widespread attention, particularly through two websites, DropDobbs.com and BastaDobbs.com. As Jessie noted here a couple of weeks ago, BastaDobbs.com is a website that demands that “CNN deal with its Dobbs problem once and for all.”
In response to these calls for his resignation, Lou Dobbs has asserted his right to free speech as protecting his view that illegal immigrants have no right to be in the US. Let’s look at the discussion – does Lou Dobbs cross the line of what’s considered protected speech?
First of all, it is important to clarify that Lou Dobbs Tonight is not exactly a question of “free” speech. Lou Dobbs, and CNN, make a lot of money from advertisers. Mr. Dobbs is getting paid by CNN to express his views. In that light, CNN needs to take into account how what Dobbs says affects its viewers. Without viewers, there would be no advertising revenue, and no CNN. Also, there are plenty of things Dobbs is not allowed to say on CNN, such as “Swiffer dusters are bad for the environment,” or “Planters peanuts are picked by exploited workers.” Making these statements would cause those two advertisers to pull their commercials from CNN. In that light, should Dobbs be allowed to say: “The invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans”? Especially, should he be allowed to say this when it is unsubstantiated?
One of the most compelling arguments made by people such as Roberto Lovato of Presente.org and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now about Lou Dobbs’ problematic show is that Mr. Dobbs spreads lies about Latinos, immigrants, and undocumented immigrants. This claim is justified.
In 2008, the Media Matters Action Network published a report on the representation of undocumented immigration on cable news networks, appropriately titled: Fear and Loathing in Prime Time: Immigration Myths and Cable News. This report revealed that three shows: The O’Reilly Factor, Lou Dobbs Tonight, and Glenn Beck consistently propagate myths about undocumented immigrants. These myths include the alleged criminality of undocumented immigrants, the falsehood that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes, and the myth that Mexicans plan to carry out a reconquista of the United States. Lou Dobbs seems to be obsessed with the topic of illegal immigration. In 2007, 70 percent of his shows involved a discussion of illegal immigration. In the three shows combined, there were 402 shows in 2007 where illegal immigration is discussed, an average of more than one per day.
Perhaps most controversial is Dobbs’ sensationalist discussion of crime. Dobbs frequently misrepresents the criminality of undocumented people. For example, on October 5, 2006, Lou Dobbs said “just about a third of the prison population in this country is estimated to be illegal aliens.” This is a gross misrepresentation of the reality – less than six percent of prisoners are foreign-born, and only some of those are undocumented immigrants, the remaining being naturalized citizens, permanent legal residents and other visa holders.
All of these myths are easily countered with research. Extensive research by Rubén Rumbaut and his colleagues has demonstrated that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native born: the incarceration rate of the native born was four times the rate of the foreign born in 2006. More than half of undocumented workers pay payroll taxes, and everyone pays property and sales taxes (PDF). The idea of a reconquista is perhaps the domain of a marginalized few, but certainly not the sentiment of most Mexican-Americans.
The constant repetition of hate-filled rhetoric dehumanizes undocumented migrants and renders them appropriate targets for law enforcement activities. One way this can be seen is in polls Lou Dobbs conducts on his show. On his March 5, 2007, show, Dobbs reported that “Ninety-eight percent of you [viewers] voted that illegal immigration, failed border security, and sanctuary laws are contributing to the rise in gang violence in this country.” By consistently presenting undocumented migrants as criminals and dehumanizing them by referring to them as “illegals,” these popular media pundits create animosity toward undocumented migrants in the US.
Creating ill will towards undocumented migrants by spreading lies is certainly something worth complaining about. This not only affects undocumented migrants; it also affects their family members, people who live in communities with undocumented migrants, people who are in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, and people who are not undocumented, but who may be mistaken for an undocumented migrant.
Tanya Golash-Boza is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and American Studies at the University of Kansas. Currently, she is in Guatemala, and blogs about her research at: http://tanyagolashboza.blogspot.com