By Eleanor Pelta, AILA First Vice President
Late yesterday, CNN announced that Lou Dobbs was stepping down from his position as “advocacy anchor” of the network in order to “seek a more activist role.” CNN announced that Dobbs would now “carry his banner of advocacy journalism elsewhere.” Although CNN’s press release described the parting as “amicable,” news reports covering Dobbs’ departure cited recent tensions between Dobbs and CNN, relating in part to Dobbs’ on-air perpetuation of the widely-discredited theories of the “Birthers,” who questioned President Obama’s U.S. citizenship. Advocacy Journalism? Advocacy, perhaps. But journalism? It was surprising that CNN actually used this term in its’ press release. What exactly is an “advocacy journalist?” Given that a common definition of journalism is writing or reporting of news or facts in a direct presentation without interpretation, and that journalists work hard to present both sides of a particular issue, isn’t “Advocacy Journalism” a contradiction in terms?
We should be proud that AILA was the first organization in the immigrant rights community to stand up to Dobbs. Initially Dobbs staffers would tape interviews with AILA spokespeople and use only snippets of the interview to support Dobbs’ own views. Then AILA made clear to Dobbs and his producers that we would not appear on his program unless it was on a live segment. Since such a segment could not be edited and manipulated, Dobbs refused. AILA’s coalition partners followed suit, with the result that over the past 22 months, Dobbs had virtually no access to real immigration expertise. As the New York Times and The Washington Post continued to run articles discrediting Dobbs, the impact of Dobbs’ lack of access to our expertise was keenly felt—it came to a head when a representative from the office of CNN’s President called AILA to find out why Dobbs wasn’t using AILA as a resource—then the “cat was out of the bag,” as it were.
Clearly CNN must have recognized that the constant ravings of an anti-immigrant demagogue can’t be good for its ratings—let alone its’ self-image as an independent news-reporting organization. Before we all breathe a collective sigh of relief, however, let’s look carefully at Dobbs’ parting words. Last night, he stated, “…[S]ome leaders in media, politics and business have been urging me to go beyond the role here at CNN and to engage in constructive problem-solving, as well as to contribute positively to a better understanding of the great issues of our day. And to continue to do so in the most honest and direct language possible.” In light of Dobbs’ beliefs and how he has already “contributed” to the immigration debate thus far, these words take on a very ominous meaning. What might Dobbs do when he is no longer constrained, even minimally, by the boundaries of a credible news organization?
To get a sense of what might happen, we need only look at the career trajectory of one of Dobbs’ spiritual predecessors—similar in style if not his radical and irresponsible spewings—Father Charles Coughlin. Father Coughlin was a Canadian-born priest serving at Royal Oak, Michigan’s National Shrine of the Little Flower Church. One of the first political leaders to reach a mass audience through radio, Father Coughlin began his radio career as a staunch Roosevelt supporter. But, like Dobbs who claims he was radicalized by the events of September 11, Coughlin became disillusioned by the New Deal in the mid-1930’s and embarked on a campaign against “money changers” and the government, which in his view was “permitting a group of private citizens to create money.” It was not long before he was preaching out-and-out anti-Semitism, claiming that the Depression was caused by an “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers,” and that Jews (including Lenin and Stalin, both of whom, according to Coughlin, were Jewish) fomented the Russian Revolution in an effort to uproot Christianity in Russia. His magazine, “Social Justice,” also published anti-Semitic material; he began to endorse some of the policies of Hitler and Mussolini, and at a 1938 rally in the Bronx, gave a Nazi salute and stated “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.”
At the height of his popularity, Coughlin received more mail than FDR. When Coughlin temporarily lost his radio operating permit, he raised funds among his many supporters, purchased air time, and played recordings of his speeches. When it seemed that the government might actually try Coughlin for sedition, the Roman Catholic Church forced him to retire from his “advocacy” activities.
Those who really want to preach hate and perpetuate lies will always find a venue to do so. What will “Dobbs unleashed and unplugged” do?”He will clearly find another “Bully Pulpit,” whether it is another media outlet willing to air his rants or a run for public office, perhaps financed by those who pour their money into FAIR and the Center for Immigration Studies.Maybe we can take a minute to be thankful that Dobbs is no longer on CNN, since the victories of those who fight for immigrant rights are few and far between these days. But then let’s watch—and prepare—for his next move.