Skip to main content Accessibility

Bait and Switch

Even as a shaky legislative agreement on immigration reform is debated in the halls of Congress, poisonous and untrue propaganda continues to leak into the national dialogue on undocumented migration to the United States.


The SPLC vs. Lou Dobbs

Even as a shaky legislative agreement on immigration reform is debated in the halls of Congress, poisonous and untrue propaganda continues to leak into the national dialogue on undocumented migration to the United States.

Secret Mexican conspiracies to take over the American Southwest or merge with Canada and the United States. Murders and drunken-driving deaths caused by "illegal aliens" reaching astounding levels. Emergency rooms in California, overwhelmed by the migrants, going out of business. Jobs stolen and wages lost to the tune of billions. Epidemics of frightening diseases like leprosy.

Where do these ideas come from?

In a surprising number of cases, they are propounded on mainstream cable television and radio shows and are even voiced by national politicians. And these tales are dangerous. When millions of Americans are told by people they trust that immigration from the south is destroying their country, many of them take that as fact. It's no surprise that some even respond with criminal violence.

That's why a debate this spring between the Southern Poverty Law Center and CNN host Lou Dobbs was important. For more than four years now, Dobbs has been delivering almost nightly reports suggesting that undocumented immigration is harming this country in innumerable ways. On the way, he's managed to spread ideas that are not only one-sided, but in some cases entirely false.

Take leprosy.

On May 6, CBS' "60 Minutes" ran a profile of Dobbs in which correspondent Lesley Stahl reported that in 2005, CNN reporter Christine Romans "told Dobbs that there have been 7,000 cases of leprosy in the U.S. in the past three years." Stahl pointed out that the government had actually reported that that was the number of cases in America over 30 years, not three. In the three years referenced by Romans, in fact, the government registered just 398 new cases. "If we reported it, it's a fact," Dobbs responded defiantly. He was asked how he could guarantee that. "Because I'm the managing editor, and that's the way we do business. We don't make up numbers, Lesley. Do we?"

The next night, on his own show, Dobbs, after lambasting me for comments I'd made in Stahl's story, repeated that he stood "100%" behind Romans' report. And he brought back Romans, who said: "I was quoting from Dr. Madeleine Cosman, a respected medical lawyer and medical historian… : ‘Suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy.'"

On May 15, SPLC ran ads in The New York Times and USA Today asking that CNN retract Dobbs' false leprosy claim, as Dobbs himself refused to. The following day, SPLC President Richard Cohen and I were invited on Dobbs' show, presumably to argue out the veracity of Romans' claim.

What we were met with was a classic bait and switch.

Just before the debate, Dobbs ran a taped piece that made an entirely new set of claims. Now Dobbs said that new cases had "risen" to 166 in 2005. He insisted that "we did not say there were [7,000] new cases at any time." And then, bizarrely, he reran the clip of Romans saying, on May 7, that "there were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years."

Dobbs also now claimed that Romans' reporting had always been based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But that was simply false. As Romans had made crystal clear in her own comments, the report was based entirely on Cosman, the "respected" lawyer and historian.

Cosman, who died last year, was no "doctor" — she had a Ph.D. in literature. And she was hardly a "respected" authority on disease and immigrants. In fact, she was a wild-eyed propagandist who has made a series of charges about Latino men heading north, including this gem from 2005: "Most of these bastards molest girls under 12, although some specialize in boys, and some in nuns." As the Intelligence Report showed two years ago, Cosman also lied about a 1976 book she wrote being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

The importance of this debate went far beyond Dobbs' refusal to accept responsibility for a clear and egregious error. As Cohen wrote to CNN President Jonathan Klein: "This is hardly the first time that Mr. Dobbs has chosen to rely on dubious sources with a virulent anti-immigrant agenda." If Americans are to sort out the mess that immigration policy has become, they need to know the facts of the situation. Misleading and false propaganda from the likes of Lou Dobbs, who works for a respected news operation, can only poison the debate and demonize a huge number of people in the process.