Saturday, December 08, 2007

Journalism's accountability problem

-- by Dave

The Washington Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, could be found whining in her column today about the meanies who seem to be upset about the paper's misreportage of rumors surrounding Barack Obama's Muslim background:
Hamilton said, "Reasonable people can disagree on this. But the people I have heard from are not reasonable. What I find especially disheartening is the idea that our motives are simply assumed to have been malicious."

This is the new world mainstream journalists live in, one that will continue to be explored in this column.

What people like Howell, and Hamilton, and a whole horde of their mainstream-media cohorts, just don't seem to get is that this "new world" is a world they made.

The profession of journalism has a real problem: at its highest and most powerful levels, its practitioners have become immune to anything resembling real accountability -- and their abuses are piling up because of it. Abuses are nothing new, but neither is some modicum of accountability; yet nowadays, when they happen at powerhouses like the Washington Post and the New York Times and CNN, no one is held accountable.

They keep running the same congenitablly wrong pundits, keep churning out the same Village mentality reporting, and most of all, they keep pretending that their bad, misleading, and false reportage really is nothing important. Sure they make a few mistakes, but hey, they're just trying to do their job -- because, after all, facts are just a matter of opinion, right?

Their consumers have just about had enough of it. Obviously, the perpetrators never like being called out, but if they're looking for someone to blame, the mirror is a good place to start.

Glenn Greenwald and a host of others have recently been assiduously documenting the grotesque journalistic malfeasance of Joe Klein, but even more importantly, that of Time magazine and its editors, in its handling of Klein's misreportage on FISA, which he mistook for an avenue to a cheap shot at Democrats.

But almost as egregious -- perhaps more so, considering his reach -- have been the antics of CNN's Lou Dobbs, who has been piling up a record of parroting far-right propaganda in the immigration debate, and then has been furiously evading any responsibility for doing so.

So let's use Lou Dobbs to see if we can explain to the Deborah Howells of the business why people are becoming so fucking pissed off -- enough, hey, to even swear a little. Dobbs, of course, doesn't work for the Post, but he's an icon of the "mainstream media" world that has Howell wringing her hands.

Earlier this week, Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! tried once again to hold Dobbs' feet to the fire, and he spent the better part of an hour dancing around instead.

Fairly typical was this exchange:
AMY GOODMAN: So, Lou, you said a third of the prison population are illegal aliens.


AMY GOODMAN: The fact is, it’s something like 6% of prisoners in this country are non-citizens, not even illegal, just non-citizens.


AMY GOODMAN: And then a percentage of that would not be documented.

LOU DOBBS: Well, it’s actually—I think it’s 26% in federal prison.

AMY GOODMAN: But you said of all prisoners.

LOU DOBBS: I said about—yes, but I—and I misspoke, without question. I was referring to federal prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: But you didn’t say that, and so it leaves people with the impression—

LOU DOBBS: Well, I didn’t, but then I just explained it to you.

AMY GOODMAN: But you have a very large audience on CNN.

LOU DOBBS: I have a very large audience and a very bright audience.

AMY GOODMAN: And you told them that a third of the population of this country are illegal immigrants. 6% , which is under the population of immigrants—

LOU DOBBS: 6% , right.

AMY GOODMAN: —in this country, of prisoners—

LOU DOBBS: In state prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: —are immigrants.

LOU DOBBS: In state prisons. In state prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: No, 6% overall are immigrants. You said 30% are illegal.

LOU DOBBS: Well, I think we’ve established—we could sit here and say this all day, Amy. The fact is, the number is 26% in federal prisons. That’s what I was referring to. I did not—I misspoke when I said “prisons.” I was referring to the federal prisons, because that’s the federal crime: immigration. And that—

AMY GOODMAN: Have you made a correction on your show to say that 30% of—?

LOU DOBBS: I’m sure we have. We’ve reported—absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: We didn’t see it.

LOU DOBBS: Do you know how many reports we’ve done on illegal immigration in this country?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, many.

LOU DOBBS: I mean, my god.

In point of fact, there simply is no record of Dobb having corrected the mistaken report on the air.

And Dobbs continuously claims in other cases that he also has issued corrections when, in fact, he has not:
LOU DOBBS: What would you have me say, Amy? Because what—the reality is what you don’t say, is that Leonhardt’s piece was filled with errors. Secondly, Madeleine Cosman, as we learned following that report in Physicians and Surgeons, the publication, is precisely what you styled her: she is a wack—or was a wackjob. But the New York Times didn’t know that, either. If you would read the obituary for Madeleine Cosman in the New York Times—have you done that, by the way? She died a year ago, which was, by the way, a year after we had used her as a source in a report, along with other people. Did you read that obituary? Did you find that the New York Times had come to basically the same conclusion we had, that she was a credible source? Because if you read that obituary, it is glowing and filled with plaudits for Madeleine Cosman. And so—

... LOU DOBBS: How in the world can you use my name and “anti-immigrant” in the same breath?

AMY GOODMAN: When we hear comments like—

LOU DOBBS: You hear—

AMY GOODMAN: —a third of the—from you—we’ve played them, so we can’t refute the videotape, Lou.

LOU DOBBS: Have you looked, Amy—

AMY GOODMAN: We can’t refute—a third of prisoners are—

LOU DOBBS: Yes. And we discussed that?

AMY GOODMAN: —are illegal immigrants—

LOU DOBBS: Have we discussed it?

AMY GOODMAN: No, a third of prisoners are illegal immigrants, not true. 7,000 leprosy cases in the last three years because of illegal immigrants—

LOU DOBBS: Christine Romans misspoke—

AMY GOODMAN: —not true.

LOU DOBBS: -- We said that. And that’s as straightforward as we can put it.

AMY GOODMAN: And you made an announcement on your show—

LOU DOBBS: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —and you will say it here—

LOU DOBBS: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —that it is not true. Illegal immigrants are not responsible for 7,000 cases of leprosy over last three years.

LOU DOBBS: Not over the last three years. But the likelihood is that illegal immigrants are responsible, because they are the ones who brought Hansen’s disease—

AMY GOODMAN: ”The likelihood”—based on what, Lou?

LOU DOBBS: Based on doctors at the Hansen Center,—


LOU DOBBS: —who said that—listen to me. Hansen’s—I mean, if you guys—you guys are just ridiculous in your loss of proportion here. You’re talking about one report. But if you want to talk about it, tuberculosis and Hansen’s disease are both screened, and they are so similar in the symptoms and their presentation that doctors look for that in the screening. Without question.

AMY GOODMAN: But as you agree now, you’re formally apologizing for having a presentation on your show—

LOU DOBBS: I already have.

Well, he sort of did, though it was the damnedest "clarification" I've ever seen -- one in which, while admitting that Cosman's material was spurious, he not only made himself out to be a victim, but he falsely claimed that it had only been reported as credible one time, two years previously, when in fact he and Romans had defended the reportage only three weeks previously. Here's what he said:
Today's New York Times column is primarily a personal attack on me, focuses on an ad-lib on the set of this broadcast uttered more than two years ago by Christine Romans on a number of cases of leprosy in this country. An unscripted ad-lib, not a report by the way -- we've never done a report on leprosy until we had to set this record straight a couple of weeks ago. That's over four and a half years of reporting on that issue.

As I noted at the time:
Actually, Dobbs reasserted the false statistics as "factual" as recently as three weeks ago. And nowhere in this entire diatribe does Dobbs clear the air and explain to his audience that the leprosy statistics he cited -- 7,000 cases -- referred to a thirty-year period, not a three-year period. He claims that a separate report did so, but if it did, it was (a) buried, and (b) completely inadequate as a correction.

Dobbs goes on to actually confess that he was wrong to use Madeleine Cosman as a source:

That columnist also said I gave air time to white supremacists, and mentions one by name, Madeleine Cosman, who wrote the article that Christine Romans used as a source for her later leprosy statement.

The fact is, I made a mistake, and I've said we would never have used her as a source if we had known of her controversial background two years ago, at the time of the offending ad-lib. But the columnist fails to note that his own paper wrote a glowing obituary of Madeleine Cosman when she died last year.

Oh, really? When he did he say this?

Because just last May 7, 2007, this was what Dobbs and Romans said:

DOBBS: And there was a question about some of your comments, Christine. Following one of your reports, I told Leslie Stahl, "We don't make up numbers." And I will tell everybody here again tonight, I stand 100 percent behind what you said.

ROMANS: That's right, Lou. We don't make up numbers here. This is what we reported.

We reported: "It's interesting, because the woman in our piece told us that there were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years. Leprosy in this country."

I was quoting Dr. Madeleine Cosman, a respected medical lawyer and medical historian. Writing in The Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, she said: "Hansen's disease" -- that's the other modern name, I guess, for leprosy -- "Hansen's disease was so rare in America that in 40 years only 900 people were afflicted. Suddenly, in the past three years America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy" -- Lou.

DOBBS: It's remarkable that this -- whatever, confusion or confoundment over 7,000 cases. They actually keep a registry of cases of leprosy. And the fact that it rose was because of -- 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 the -- secondly, far better reporting.

ROMANS: That's what Dr. Cosman told us, Lou.

Goodman and Gonzalez also tried, without any more success, to pin Dobbs down on his outrageous use of a graphic taken from the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens in a report warning the public about the looming invasion of illegal aliens and their intent to found an "Aztlan" in the Southwest:
JUAN GONZALEZ: The Southern Poverty Law Center criticized CNN for airing that report, in part because, as your reporter Casey Wian spoke, a graphic appeared on the screen. It was a map of the United States highlighting the seven Southwestern states that Mexico supposedly covets and calls Aztlan. The map was prominently sourced to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which is considered by many to be a white supremacist hate group.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Lou Dobbs?

LOU DOBBS: You know the response, and you know the reality. That—how long was that screen up? How long was that map up?

AMY GOODMAN: Enough to see it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A few seconds.

LOU DOBBS: The field producer who—did you know it was from the CCC? Which is a hate group.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s attributed right there. It says Council of Conservative Citizens.

LOU DOBBS: Right. And it couldn’t be clearer, could it? I mean, we weren’t hiding anything. We had no idea what they were. The field producer who used it went on the web, pulled—did a “grab,” as it’s called, and put it up. And she was suspended for a day for doing so.

Did you guys know that we have sent our producers and our reporters down to the Southern Poverty Law Center years ago to make certain this sort of thing doesn’t happen? That’s how seriously we take the issue. And for you to talk about the incursion, you forgot to point out that that was coming out of rather jocular discussion of the incursions by Mexican forces along the border and the response of the US government.


LOU DOBBS: And, I mean, are you offended?

AMY GOODMAN: Lou, did you say you have no idea what the Council of Conservative Citizens is?

LOU DOBBS: Did I say I don’t?


LOU DOBBS: I certainly do now. Absolutely. What did I—you didn’t hear what I just said?

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to—

LOU DOBBS: They’re acknowledged as a hate group. Absolutely.

JUAN GONZALEZ: See, but the problem, this—

LOU DOBBS: What is the problem here?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Projecting the image to your viewers that there’s a Mexican desire to reconquer, the Reconquista of the Southwestern United States, does create images—and especially in people who are not necessarily as intelligent as you necessarily or who have studied as much as you have—

LOU DOBBS: Thank you for conceding that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —that the country is under siege.

LOU DOBBS: My god, are you so self-important that you don’t think people have a sense of humor when Casey Wian says this is an authorized incursion by the Mexican government? You don’t think people have a sense of humor about that? The reality is, I think most people do. The other thing is, who are you trying to protect America from? I’m a little confused, because the reality is that there is a strong radical group of Reconquistas and Aztlan aficionados, and I have had them demonstrating against me in a couple of cities over the past few weeks. Don’t sit here being disingenuous—


LOU DOBBS: —and sanctimonious, because, let me tell you something—

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m not being disingenuous.

LOU DOBBS: —there are many idiots on either extreme of this debate, and don’t kid yourself—

AMY GOODMAN: But, Lou, I think what’s important here—

LOU DOBBS: —and you know it.

AMY GOODMAN: —once again, is the pattern. It’s the pattern—

LOU DOBBS: The pattern—come on, please.

AMY GOODMAN: No, let me make my point, because what I talk about is facts.

LOU DOBBS: OK, let’s look at the pattern. The pattern is, for five years, we’ve been reporting on illegal immigration. The pattern is that we have been reporting on the impact of illegal immigration. It doesn’t suit your partisan views—and that’s understandable—or your ideological views. But don’t get carried away with yourselves, for crying out loud!

Poor Lou -- it's really all about him, isn't it? It's about trying to tear him down, not about the fact that his bad reportage -- which have the obvious effect of reinforcing racist stereotypes of immigrants as disease-ridden criminals intent on invading our fair land and taking it over -- is helping to foment a violent backlash against Latino immigrants.

Nevermind that the bad CofCC information about "Aztlan" actually formed the basis for the whole report -- and Dobbs never has made that clear to his audience, nor has he ever backed off on the misbegotten "Aztlan" reportage in general. As Alex Koppelman observed:
CNN is trying to play this off as an isolated mistake. Don't be fooled: it's not. The fact that Dobbs and reporter Casey Wian showed the CCC map only makes the subtle pattern of racist fantasies given voice on Dobbs' show more visible. (By the way, relatively unnoticed -- the same night Dobbs was citing the CCC, he was leaving unchallenged, even laughing along with, one guest's suggestion that in order to get rid of illegal Mexican immigrants New Yorkers should order pizza and then arrest the delivery person. Thanks, Lou. We'll get right on that.) For months now, Dobbs and Wian have been reporting on "reconquista" and "Aztlan" movements, movements that exist not in the minds of mainstream Mexicans but in the fever dreams of white supremacists. That Dobbs eventually aired material pulled directly from a white supremacist organization should surprise no one -- when you're subtly citing them on a regular basis, the unfiltered truth is bound to bubble up at some point.

Goodman's column discussing the Dobbs interview makes clear how frustrating it is to watch a fellow journalist -- one who you shouldn't have to explain fundamental journalistic ethics to -- dance and evade their responsibility for a long trail of misreportage, nearly all of which has served to demonizde and denigrate the presence of Latino Americans.

I've said it before, and it bears repeating:
Mainstream journalists like to complain that bloggers frequently promulgate bad information and then fail to own up to it when exposed. It's one of the reasons that blogs are supposedly unreliable sources of information.

But they really haven't a lot of room to make this accusation as long as they continue to ignore the continuing antics of Lou Dobbs, who as Media Matters observes, still hasn't corrected his nakedly false reportage on the rates of leprosy infection associated with illegal immigration. Indeed, he's been dodging the issue by claiming that his figures were correct all along.

... As a longtime working journalist, this utter lack of accountability among powerful figures in the mainstream media -- a trend dating back to the 1990s, when the New York Times itself was able to simply ignore the damning exposure of Jeff Gerth's shoddy Whitewater reportage by Gene Lyons in Fools for Scandal -- is both infuriating and disheartening, because it does in fact damage the credibility of us all. It is the primary reason, I believe, for the existence of the blogosphere, particularly the media critique that has existed on the left side of the aisle.

Dobbs' record has been fully exposed for some time now. You'd think that, by now, he would have begun to suffer some serious professional consequences for his abrogation of basic standards and his refusal to be accountable for them.

But, ah, not so much. This week it was announced that Dobbs is getting a daily radio show.

This is the new world the consumers of mainstream media news now live in. Wonder if Howell will explore that in her column.

UPDATE: Should have figured that Digby would also catch this.

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