Earth to Lou: It Could Have Been Different

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.