'Advocacy Journalist' cites bogus data linking leprosy to undocumented immigrants
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) today urged CNN to acknowledge that anchor Lou Dobbs has been spreading false information about the prevalence of leprosy and its supposed links to undocumented immigrants.
"We're not talking about a newscaster who simply made a mistake — we're talking about someone with a national platform who cites wildly inaccurate data to demean an entire group of people and who, when confronted with the truth, simply repeats the lie," said SPLC President Richard Cohen. "It's outrageous, and CNN should do something about it immediately."
In a letter sent today, Cohen asked CNN/U.S. President Jonathan Klein to take prompt action to correct the misinformation.
On "Lou Dobbs Tonight" this past Monday, Dobbs said he stands "100 percent behind" his show's claim that there had been 7,000 new cases of leprosy in the United States over a recent three-year period, and he further suggested that an increase in leprosy was due in part to "unscreened illegal immigrants coming into this country."
Dobbs' endorsement of the claim came after CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl challenged the leprosy figure during a profile of Dobbs on "60 Minutes" this past Sunday. Stahl cited a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services document that reported 7,029 cases over the past 30 years — not three.
The dispute highlights the SPLC's concern that Dobbs and some others in the media are regularly using discredited and inaccurate information about immigrants — material that often originates with far-right ideologues and organizations dominated by white supremacists and nativists.
Dobbs and CNN reporter Christine Romans said they had gotten the information from the late Madeleine Cosman, who was described by Romans as "a respected medical lawyer" – but who, in fact, was a woman who repeatedly ranted about Latino men raping boys, girls and nuns.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the number of leprosy cases diagnosed in the United States peaked at 361 in 1985. The figure reported on Dobbs' show is easily refuted with just a few minutes of research on the Internet.
"It is highly irresponsible of Mr. Dobbs to rely on disreputable sources while ignoring credible information that does not support his views," Cohen wrote in the letter. "And given the current anti-immigrant climate, it is dangerous to present such false claims about a serious public health issue and demonize an entire group of people in the process."
In the "60 Minutes" piece, Mark Potok, director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project, was quoted as criticizing Dobbs' characterization of undocumented immigrants. The SPLC also has challenged Dobbs for having extremists as guests, and giving them legitimacy, without fully disclosing their affiliations.
On Dobbs' show Monday, during a conversation with Romans, Dobbs said: "Following one of your reports, I told Lesley Stahl, we don't make up numbers, and I will tell everybody here again tonight, I stand 100 percent behind what you said." He later added, "And the fact that it [the number of leprosy cases] rose was because — one assumes, because we don't know for sure — but two basic influences: unscreened illegal immigrants coming into this country primarily from South Asia, and secondly, far better reporting."
In addition to writing about the prevalence of leprosy, Cosman, who died in March 2006, told an anti-immigrant conference in 2005 that "most" Latino immigrant men "molest girls under 12, although some specialize in boys, and some in nuns," a variation on a speech she has given elsewhere. The Winter 2005 issue of the SPLC's quarterly magazine Intelligence Report also contained a profile of Cosman, a lawyer who advised wealthy doctors on how to sell their medical practices and a member of the far-right Jews for the Preservation of Firearms. The piece pointed out that Cosman had lied about having a 1976 book she wrote nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
In the "60 Minutes" piece, Dobbs told Stahl, "Well, I can tell you this. If we reported it, it's a fact."
"How can you guarantee that to me?" Stahl asked.
"Because I'm the managing editor, and that's the way we do business," Dobbs replied. "We don't make up numbers, Lesley. Do we?"
The Facts Behind the Leprosy Claim
Madeleine Cosman's false claim that there were 7,000 cases of leprosy diagnosed in the United States from 2001 to 2004 was included in her article, "Illegal Aliens and American Medicine." More than once, "Lou Dobbs Tonight" reporter Romans repeated Cosman's statistic, saying, "Suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy."
Cosman's piece was published in the Spring 2005 issue of the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, published by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, which represents private practice doctors. The journal is known as a right-wing periodical whose science has been the subject of harsh criticism.
Though the article notes her Ph.D., it does not say that the degree is in English and comparative literature. Cosman had no medical training other than as a medical lawyer.
In the article, Cosman provides no source for her claim of 7,000 cases of leprosy, also known as Hansen's Disease, in three years — presumably 2001 to 2004, given the article's publication date.
The claim has no basis in fact.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in its June 16, 2006, analysis, "Summary of Notifiable Diseases – United States, 2004, that "[t]he number of reported cases of Hansen's Disease (HD) in the United States peaked at 361 in 1985 and has declined since 1988." The CDC's website points to the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Hansen's Disease Program. According to the HHS, 166 new cases of leprosy were reported in the United States in 2005. The 2007 Statistical Abstract of the United States reports that there were 70 cases in 2001; 96 in 2002; 95 in 2003; and 105 in 2004 ).
Cosman's article is laden with editorial comments and unscientific language. Its second sentence reads, "Illegal aliens' stealthy assaults on medicine now must rouse Americans to alert and alarm." The article ends with a rather odd suggestion for a medical journal — "Close America's Borders" — as well as the argument that "[f]ighting against illegal aliens is fighting for individualistic America: land of moral strength, and home of responsible liberty."
Cosman's fearmongering about leprosy is unwarranted. Not only is leprosy not on the rise in the United States, it is also not particularly dangerous. According to the HHS, "Most (95 percent) of the human population is not susceptible to infection" and, if they do become infected, the disease is easily treatable "with standard antibiotic drugs.