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http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-rutten1apr01,0,5755977.story?coll=la-home-headlines
From the Los Angeles Times

Lou Dobbs: bile across the border

Tim Rutten

April 1, 2006

IT'S been a while since a major American news organization treated an important national issue as irresponsibly as CNN now does immigration.

Ever since Fox News took over the top spot in the cable news ratings, CNN has thrashed from one failed strategy to another. At the moment, the network's reporters and anchors bleed all over every story they touch.

Does anybody really care how they feel about doing their job? Apparently not, if the ratings are to be believed. The most recent numbers show that even the hapless MSNBC's Keith Olbermann has eclipsed CNN in his time slot among the most desired viewer demographic.

The network's one modest success story is Lou Dobbs. His shtick is to take a page from Fox's playbook and retool the talk-radio sensibility for the tube. No real reporting, just lots of opinion aggressively presented with a recurring focus on the requisite obsession — in his case, illegal immigration and, to a lesser extent, what the correspondents on his nightly program have taken to calling "so-called free trade." Night after night, he rages against illegal immigrants and "unconscionable acts," like the Senate's Kennedy-McCain bill. How far does he go? Well, in a report from the Cancun summit Thursday, viewers were told that illegal immigrants were bringing leprosy into the United States.

"Fair and balanced" already is taken, so one supposes that Dobbs' slogan will have to be "bully and bluster."

His program doesn't actually add up to much more than that, but its recklessness and violent rhetoric on immigration unsurprisingly attracts a following — and in cable it doesn't take much of a following to boost your numbers. This week, Jonathan Klein — who runs CNN, for now — assured the New York Times that Dobbs' anti-immigrant advocacy "is not a harbinger of things to come at CNN. He is sui generis, one of a kind."

That's a sort of relief.

But it didn't stop Klein from plastering Dobbs, a onetime financial journalist best known for fawning interviews with corporate chief executives, and his views across every inch of the network all week long. (Why does the image of drowning men and ropes come to mind?)

Last August, in an op-ed piece for the Arizona Republic, Dobbs wrote, "In the United States, an obscene alliance of corporate supremacists, desperate labor unions, certain ethnocentric Latino activist organizations and a majority of our elected officials in Washington works diligently to keep our borders open, wages suppressed and the American people all but helpless to resist the crushing financial and economic burden created by the millions of illegal aliens who crash our borders each year."

Gosh, that is an obscene alliance, and who better to blow the whistle than a guy who has spent most of his television career spit-shining corporate boots?

"They work just as hard to deny the truth to the American public," Dobbs continued. "That's why almost every evening on my CNN broadcast we report on this country's 'Broken Borders.' The truth is that U.S. immigration policy is a tragic joke at the expense of hard-working middle-class Americans."

IT'S an arduous business being the only honest man in the room, but Dobbs is nothing if not dogged. (And as the only guy at CNN with a winning ratings strategy, why not be?) Every single one of his broadcasts in January contained a segment on illegal immigration. In February and March, he took a break only to share his overflowing anxiety and rage over the Dubai ports deal.

The pause allowed him to further refine his vision of his mission — and its enemies. "One of the things that frustrates many of us who care about our country and the truth," Dobbs wrote on CNN's website Friday, "is the rampant barrage of misinformation, disseminated by such vociferous special interests, whether they are ethnocentric social activists, labor unions, the Catholic Church or Corporate America. The truth is, advocates of amnesty, guest-worker programs and open borders are unconcerned about the 280 million American citizens, the men and women of this country who work for a living and their families."

Thank God the American media finally has found a voice willing to champion working families against their traditional enemies: organized labor and the Catholic Church. Just imagine the malevolence of organizations willing to spend a century deceitfully advocating things like decent wages, safe working conditions and healthcare so that they could lull people into trusting their views on immigration. Finally, working men and women have Lou to see through it all for them.

As for Dobbs' distaste for any display of ethnic origin — it is, at least, consistent. In a recent televised exchange with Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, he explained how offensive he found it when demonstrators displayed Mexican flags:

"I don't think that we should have any flag flying in this country except the flag of the United States. And let me tell you something else, since we're talking about double standards … I don't think there should be a St. Patrick's Day. I don't care who you are. I think we ought to be celebrating what is common about this country, what we enjoy as similarities as people."

Now, maybe it is time for somebody to tell the sinister truth about St. Patrick's Day — and isn't the Catholic Church behind that too?

Or maybe Lou should get out more. Here in Los Angeles, the feast of St. Patrick — like, dare we mention it, Cinco de Mayo — brings all sorts of people together, mainly in bars. In fact, as an old business reporter, you'd think Dobbs would recognize a great all-American tradition at work: Breweries appropriate minor holidays from people's country of origin and convince them that, here in America, they have to be commemorated by drinking gallons of beer and vomiting in the streets.

Lou, this is capitalism at work, and the middle-class men and women who operate saloons across this great country would be lost without these holidays. Well, even messiahs make mistakes.

It's odd, though, how these middle-class working men and women — denied Dobbs' unshakeable grip on crystalline truth — seem to have much more complicated and nuanced views of immigration than he does. Thursday, for example, a national poll conducted by Pew Research Center and the Pew Hispanic Center found that the country is about evenly divided over immigration issues. About 53% of the respondents in a nationwide sample said they thought illegal immigrants should be sent home, while 40% said they should be allowed to stay under some sort of guest worker program. Half of those who thought undocumented immigrants ought to be deported still believed that some ought to be allowed to remain as guest workers.

That's about what you'd expect to find about the sort of complex social, political and economic problem over which serious-minded people are likely to have serious differences.

Even more interesting was the fact that only a tiny fraction of those surveyed think immigration is a major problem; just 4% believe it's the nation's most pressing issue. That's a particularly significant finding since Pew "over-sampled" urban areas — that is, they made sure that their 6,000-person national sample included 800 respondents from each of five metropolitan areas where you would expect feelings over immigration to run highest. Only in Phoenix did a majority (55%) regard illegal immigration as a "very big" community problem.

Maybe the rest of them are just too deeply in thrall to big business or unions or the Catholic Church to see Dobbs' truth. Maybe they don't watch CNN — or maybe they recognize self-interested demagoguery when they see it.

This week, CNN founder Ted Turner told an audience in Atlanta that he regrets selling the network to its current operator, Time Warner. "I had a sacred trust there, and I let it go."

It's easy to smile at Turner's now-periodic Lear-on-the-heath outbursts. He could, of course, take some of the billions he earned selling his network and its viewers out and try to buy it back. Somehow, that doesn't seem likely. These days, the news media's proprietor class sometimes expresses contrition but never does penance.

(Sorry Lou, like social justice, solidarity and the living wage, those are Catholic concepts. Can we mention them without being divisive?)

Still, Turner's histrionics aside, it's hard not to be wistful for a time when concepts like trust and betrayal and responsibility signified something beyond a marketing strategy around CNN's headquarters.

 

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