The Hatewatch blog is managed by the staff of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

Earth to Lou: It Could Have Been Different

By Mark Potok on November 12, 2009 - 3:38 pm, Posted in Anti-Immigrant

It didn’t have to end this way for Lou Dobbs. He could have been a contender.

But Dobbs, a supremely self-confident man who often mentions his Harvard education in private conversation, just wouldn’t listen. Time after time, as the “Lou Dobbs Tonight” show he has hosted on CNN since 2003 grew more rabidly critical of undocumented immigrants, he was warned of the kind of people he was putting on his show. He was told that many of the “facts” he was presenting just weren’t so. At first, he was gently called out for his defamations of Latino immigrants, then, as his tone grew sharper still, he was subjected to all kinds of public criticism from human rights groups, the journalism trade press, even a leading New York Times financial columnist. Instead of righting his course, or even slightly moderating his tone, Dobbs called his critics “commies” and “fascists.” He fudged facts, defended earlier falsehoods, and promoted racist conspiracy theories. He fumed.

It all ended last night, when Dobbs announced on his program that he was resigning from CNN effective immediately. In a moment of supreme irony, he complained that public political debate was now overtaken with “partisanship and ideology,” and promised to use “the most honest and direct language possible” in whatever future role he plays in public life. For once, he did not attack his critics.

My colleagues at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and I were some of those critics, and early ones at that. I began speaking to Lou Dobbs in 2004, not many months after he started airing virtually nightly segments entitled “Broken Borders.” By that time, he had already run “reports” complaining about “illegal aliens” getting free medical care, educating their children in public schools, committing sex crimes, getting breaks on college tuition, filling the prisons and spreading diseases.

To my surprise, Dobbs answered my very first call immediately. He was interested in what I had to say, he said, and responded to my warning that an upcoming guest had ties to white supremacy by canceling the appearance. He asked that I keep him apprised of any similar situations. He said he was all in favor of multiculturalism.

That kind of back-and-forth culminated in Dobbs sending a five-person team from his show to the Montgomery, Ala., headquarters of the SPLC, in November 2004, after we contacted Dobbs about a guest who promoted the “Aztlan” conspiracy theory alleging a Mexican plot to “reconquer” the American Southwest. After much of our staff and I spent most of the day briefing Dobbs’ people, they left saying that Dobbs planned a three-part series on extremism in America, and another on racism within the immigration restriction movement. And for a short time, Dobbs seemed open to hearing our criticisms and warnings. But that all came to end on his July 29, 2005, show, when he erupted over an SPLC report exposing racist elements in the Minuteman vigilante movement. Dobbs called us “despicable” and “reprehensible,” although he did not dispute any of the facts we reported.

From there, things went south. That winter, we ran a story detailing members of extremist groups who Dobbs had put on his show. A few months later, we pointed out that in discussing the Aztlan conspiracy on the air, Dobbs used a map of the area Mexico supposedly coveted, explicitly attributed to the Council of Conservative Citizens — a group that has described black people as “a retrograde species of humanity.” Then, on March 6, 2007, I was quoted on NPR saying that Dobbs was helping to mainstream conspiracy theories and propaganda that originated in white supremacist hate groups. Enraged, Dobbs called me a few days later to say that the SPLC and I had no integrity, and that, henceforth, we would be “adversaries.” A couple of weeks later, I went on Dobbs’ show to point out that Chris Simcox — the original founder of the Minuteman movement and a guest Dobbs had had on his air at least 17 times at that point — had told his followers that he had personally seen Chinese Red Army troops maneuvering on the U.S./Mexican border in preparation for an invasion. Dobbs seemed to find that funny, but he didn’t repudiate Simcox.

Then, on May 6, 2007, I was quoted in a “60 Minutes” profile of Dobbs. CBS’ Lesley Stahl pointed out in the piece that Dobbs had claimed in 2005 that “an invasion of illegal aliens” was “threatening the health of many Americans” and followed that up with a report claiming that 7,000 new cases of leprosy had been identified in America in the prior three years. (The truth is that there were about 400 new cases in the years in question, that leprosy is now an easily treatable disease, and that no one knew what role immigrants may have had in any leprosy case.) I criticized Dobbs’ “journalism” in the piece, which sent Dobbs into a rage the next day on his own CNN show. He said he stood “100%” behind his bogus report, and he had his reporter re-identify the source of her allegations — a right-wing fanatic named Madeleine Cosman, who the SPLC had earlier documented telling an audience that “most” Latino immigrant men “molest girls under 12, although some specialize in boys and some in nuns.” Cosman had no expertise in immigration or medicine.

The last time I was on Dobbs’ show was on May 16 of that year, along with my boss, SPLC President Richard Cohen. (Our appearance followed by a day the printing of SPLC ads in The New York Times and USA Today calling on CNN President Jonathan Klein to retract Dobbs’ false leprosy claim, as Dobbs himself refused to do so.) Our interview was preceded by a setup piece containing a completely new set of claims about leprosy. Now, Dobbs claimed that new cases of leprosy had “risen” to 166 in 2005. Nothing was said about the supposed 7,000 cases, and Dobbs never conceded any error at all. The mail we got after the show from Dobbs’ supporters was memorable. “You people disgust me and I hope you burn in Hell,” wrote one. “In memory of your appearance on Lou Dobbs, I will make a GENEROUS donation to a well known hate group in YOUR NAME.” Another put it like this: “You can shove tolerance up your ass as far as possible. Hate is alive and growing!” And a third wrote to regret that cowboy days were over, otherwise “you and your associates would be hanging by a rope.”

We fared a little better with The New York Times, where David Leonhardt wrote a long column concluding that “Mr. Dobbs has a somewhat flexible relationship with reality.” Around the same time, the Columbia Journalism Review wrote that Dobbs was “tamper[ing] with facts” and “pretending the confusion was someone else’s fault.” Dobbs’ response to all of this was to attack SPLC and the Times, informing his CNN audience that he would tell them “who’s really telling the truth and who the commies are and who the fascists are who have the temerity to attack me.”

In the years since, SPLC has regularly written about Dobbs, documenting the real truth about his various claims and pointing out his role in poisoning the debate about immigration in the United States. Our point was never to stop a robust debate about immigration — quite the contrary, we were all in favor of such a debate, but felt that it should be based on facts, not racist propaganda or conspiracy theories. Finally, in late July of this year, after Dobbs seemed to suggest that President Obama was not a U.S. citizen, SPLC President Cohen wrote CNN’s Jonathan Klein to ask that Dobbs be fired. “Respectable news organizations should not employ reporters willing to peddle racist conspiracy theories and false propaganda,” Cohen wrote. “It’s time for CNN to remove Mr. Dobbs from the airwaves.” The letter set off a chorus of similar demands from other human rights groups, and a movement by many of them to press that demand grew quickly. It concluded yesterday with Dobbs’ departure.

Did it have to happen this way? Obviously not. But Dobbs never could hear anyone whose opinions varied from his own. When he was confronted by Stahl in the “60 Minutes” piece about his leprosy error, Dobbs’ response was typical. “Well, I can tell you this,” he told Stahl. “If we reported it, it’s a fact.”

Stahl replied, “You can’t tell me that. You did report it.”

Dobbs: “Well, no, I just did.”

Stahl: “How can you guarantee that to me?”

And then, this gem from Dobbs: “Because I’m the managing editor, and that’s the way we do business. We don’t make up numbers, Lesley, do we?”

As it turns out, he did. No longer, however, at CNN, “The Most Trusted in Name in News.” Not any more. But it didn’t have to be this way.

  • Bob

    What a concept, a man who stands up for FOLLOWING the law! THANK YOU MR. DOBBS!!!
    We are (well, were when we were successfull) a nation of laws, not riots in the street. Given the present Administration and polically correct atmoshpere, we must pray the violence does not expand beyond the well know extremist organizations like ELF and Green Peace.

  • beholder

    I simply found more info from both sides presented from Fox than from others – their viewership numbers say others agree.

    By your logic, Dancing With the Stars must be even more informative than Fox. I never said the viewers numbers were low. I said that the programming is grossly slanted to convince rather than inform, to dazzle with superficial reflection and canned conclusions rather than pursue critical ideas through open debate. If you read my comments, you will see that I don’t get my news from television. I don’t even have a television. I stay informed from a variety of internet sources, radio, or going there and seeing for myself what is going on.

  • dave varez

    beholder , I dont think that you , and many , who have come to conclusions on Fox have really become well versed in it , and may be coming to your conclusions based on minimal perusals rather than in depth viewing – ie; Combs was Hannity’s adversary , not O’Reilly’s

    My conclusions have nothing to do with my owm views – I am not debating issues here , just the presentation of them , and regardless of right or wrong and the assumptions thereof , I simply found more info from both sides presented from Fox than from others – their viewership numbers say others agree.

    By the way , despite rarely agreeing with him , I found Combs to be an incredibly sharp , knowledgable proponent of his views and had developed a respect for him per his astuteness.

    And when debates among “experts” are presented , pretty much equal time is given to outside debaters – hard to not gain an insight on all views presented.

    But I guess you find Katy Couric , Dan Rather – and Keith Olbermann the true essence of “fair and balanced” instead.

    Hey , one thing I wont argue with – it’s a free country , you’re welcome to your conclusions.

  • beholder

    Since you are talking about the middle east, why not go to a news network that is based in the middle east?

    Fox news puts up a stooge like Colmes to provide a smarmy pencil necked pin headed stereotype as an amusing foil to whatever the conservatives have to say. The formula is very simple: search out facts that seem to substantiate a popular conservative view, present those facts thunderingly and authoratatively in a superficial segment, then pan to Colmes to squirm and muse on it for a few minutes before cutting back to O’Reilly, who says, see folks, Fox news is Fair and Balanced. Colmes is nothing more than Fox News’ house negro.

  • dave varez

    First off beholder , you did not address the point of discussion I made – that I – maybe you missed all those segments – listened to a plethora of opinions and arguments delineating the positions of both sides of an issue , made by respected proponents of both sides on FOX.

    Thus I was exposed to the opposite of what may have been the “house view” , more than anywhere else. Are you saying that Olbermann is where to go for balance , not Fox?

    Second , it is no surprise to me that your initial philosophical lecture saying basically nothing was the prelude to “how dare they mock Obama , but
    it’s ok to defile Bush.”

    BUT – its Fox , not you , who lacks objectivity.

    Bush didn’t kill anyone – Saddam gassed an entire Kurdish town to death.

    The Shites and Sunni’s killed each other instead of celebrating freedom , and if you bother to check official statistics instead of the hate media you obviously believe , you’ll find that the “million” you refer to that they tell you is ridiculous.

    But your politics , deducing that it’s ok to defile Bush but off limit to mock Obama , eliminates any possibility of logical objective discussion with you –

    You are that which you are complaining about –

    My point is – reread my initial post on this –

    That FOX , while not trying to disingenuously feign neutrality like the pathetic Katy Couric types do so embarrassingly , nonetheless provides information directly from alternate points of view for viewers to consider.

    Why do you think that they are #1 and their viewership is higher than the rest COMBINED , even when Conservatives are out of favor?

    You might consider that you are missing something because you refuse to consider the facts objectively per your emotional bias.

  • WMDKitty

    @beholder — Dude, you’ll get more out of the joint than you EVER will out of Fox Noise.

  • beholder

    And last I checked CNN doesn’t have a landing page for photo shopped images of Obama or Biden so that people can do violence with an image. It is violence, and I think the Secret Service ought to investigate the kinds of people who are so angry at their government that they would derive satisfaction from distorting the human image. Yes I am prepared for the angry backlash that Bush was depicted as a demon. Bush also left one million dead in Iraq and convinced America to do so on the basis of lies — 900 lies. That is a far cry from calling Obama a ghetto-dwelling Islamo-Bolshevik illegal alien from the first day he set foot in the White House, and never letting up despite the dearth of facts.

  • dave varez

    Beholder , please re-read my comment and your response.

    Do you believe that you actually said anything?

    Christine didn’t agree with me , and she said that she doesn’t agree.

    You provided an esoteric lesson on the abstract that sounds like you found an old stash of hash , still potently intact – and tested it out!

    Per your reference to O’Reilly or others , I had acknowledged that there is a “house view” , and I agree that some hosts there dominate , but Combs was the best you could get IMO to counter Hannity’s point of view , and no stupid lackey yes man.

    And I’m not referring to the FOX segments without balance – I’m referring to the ones with it.

    I have learned/listened to very influential , knowledgable , and well versed proponents of views on both sides in Fox debates , I dont know where you guys were when I was watching this (haven’t watched in awhile – has that changed?) –

    But go try to get an opposing point of view watching Olbermann.

  • Christine L

    Fox news? Seriously? Have you seen the movie OutFoxed? If not, I recommend watching it. It gives interviews from past Fox employees and their experiences.

    Any news you watch needs to be thought of as part entertainment, I watch CNN. It isn’t perfect, but they do have several commentators from both sides. They are doing a decent job of showing both sides of the issues. They also show a clearer line between the news and the commentary.

  • beholder

    dave, surely you realize that any line of questioning can lead a debate in any direction that the moderator chooses. I have seen Bill O’Reilly shout down and even cut off the mike of his interlocutors, so fully convinced he is that his is the right point of view — and moreso, the ONLY point of view worth having. The idea of debate is not to convince yourself of your righteousness, but to build a reasoned argument along more or less accepted principles of logic, rhetoric, and persuasion. What I see here is you getting into the generalities of an ideological issue and attempting to build a case around a value judgement.

    You should be careful with that — values can be as fallacious and misleading as they are compelling to whoever holds them. There is a need for some degree of compromise over values for there ever to be a consensus on any issue of ideology. At best, ideology is a reflection of what you see. But remember: you see with your mind, not with your eyes. And how your mind interprets what you see can be extremely deceptive, objectively, even if you believe it to be true.

    So I think we would need to look at some of the specifics of this question to have a meaningful discussion about it. I also think there is no point, because you have already demonstrated that you have closed yourself off to any possibility that anyone else might be right, or that you yourself may not be infallible.

    As another cautionary statement about fallacies, you refer to the media as an entity. The media have many individuals and many organizations, many vehicles for disseminating ideas, and many different types of editorial directives. I remind you, or perhaps you did not know, that the word “editor” comes from the same word in Latin that was used to describe the person responsible for orchestrating the gladitorial games and contests for the amusement of the people.

    People are generally not amused when their ideas are rationally and factually challenged: so I am willing to conclude that you prefer Fox news because it does not require you to have any conflict of belief or any necessary crisis of conflicting evidence. You seek not to be informed, dave, you seek to be reassured. And fox does that. It’s comforting like smoking a joint. And the happiness is just as short lived and illusory.

  • dave varez

    Yeah beholder , that’s my problem , I’m high.

    Any normal person can easily tell that the media is not biased towards Obama , and learns oh so much more of both sides of an issue listening to Keith Olbermann , or Katy Couric , than a debate on FOX by proponents of both sides of the issue..

    Except for me – because I’m high.

  • beholder

    dave, with all due respect, are you high?

  • dave varez

    Without getting into debates about the issues themselves , the majority of the media , both mainstream and cable , have been slanting their reporting unashamedly and unquestionably to support Obama policies , though that has been tapering off a bit lately.

    How do you support only those who are unbiased when the entire structure has been biased?

    Fox is probably the best , and I’m not saying that because they are Conservatively biased , which obviously they are.

    I am saying that because regardless of their “house view” , I have heard more honest debate from knowledgable proponents on both sides of an issue , and learned more about both sides of an issue via debate there , than any other news source.

  • beholder

    Me? I don’t watch television, for starters. It’s way too superficial and misleading, and as Christine L points out, dramatic.

    I usually get my news from a variety of internet sources, and attempt to sort out the conflicts myself to determine what is really going on. I think the media in general do a pretty good job, I just don’t think Dobbs did, nor do I think Fox does because one hour of prime time is news and the rest is views. People take the opinions for facts, and that is a very critical error.

  • Christine L

    What newscasters/programs do you feel do a good job? Where do you get your news from? Maybe part of this necessary change is to support those who give honest news and facts without the drama.

  • beholder

    I still don’t miss Dobbs. I don’t think I ever will.

  • Christine L

    or the drama that is Glenn Beck

  • dave varez

    Keith Olbermann

  • Christine Laursen

    Great question. I’d like to see a way for us to move forward with facts. The drama, fear tactics, and dishonest reporting has become the norm for many news programs and “reporters.” Who do you think stands out?

  • dave varez

    “Holding Lou Dobbs accountable is a great start.”

    Christine , I’m just curious –

    After this great start , who do you think should be the next few targets?

  • Christine Laursen

    Good work. It will be awhile before the general population understands the difference between free speech and holding persons accountable for false reporting and creating a violent atmosphere. The time for us to hold reporters and the media personally accountable for the work they do has come. We are responsible for our actions…and our words, especialy when someone has a national platform to talk from. Holding Lou Dobbs accountable is a great start.

  • vickie morrison

    Glenn Beck is just as crazy. Fox News line up of freaks!

  • Marisa

    After reading all these commehts, the bottom line is this: Lou Dobbs is gone from CNN. Good bye, Lou, and good riddance.

  • dave varez

    Allen said,

    on December 22nd, 2009 at 10:12 pm
    “We don’t have to say that the birthers are racist. All we have to do is to ask them, why do they think that this President should be held to any higher standards of proof than any other President”

    Not “any other President” , Allen – rather , any other candidate for President.
    The fact that info was not provided prior to election as requested does not reflect a claim against a sitting President – it simply reflects a continuation of the unfulfilled request to a candidate , blindly elected anyway with questions still unanswered.
    Any candidate where a question existed would have been similarly scrutinized – I can only imagine a Republican candidate having similar questionableness , considering that even Palin’s clothes were hyped as an issue by the Dem smear machine!
    Not to mention McCain actually being scrutinized because he was born in Panama to a military parent , that being used to question his viability to be President!
    Obama is not being held to any higher standard , and not only is bringing race into this a despicable tactic , but it ignores the great support Powell , Rice , and Thomas were given by the same Conservative/Republican people now being accused of racism. How stupid is that tactic?
    And are there some extremists who are racist ?
    Of course. But they are on both sides of the aisle ,
    and seeking them out to try to make a point is silly – Should I claim Dems were against the three above I mention because of their race?
    Of course not , I dont believe that for one minute – it was their politics only which the Dems rejected- and I’d be wrong to think anything else , and nobody did. But we coulda pointed to some Dem extremists and yelled “racism” . Couldn’t we have?I’d be curious as to your position on the comments made by Reid considering your , and others , jump to a ridiculous charge of racism per this issue with zero reason to do so.