Know Your Right Wingers
With his television program, Lou Dobbs Tonight, reaching more than half a million American homes every night, Lou Dobbs is one of the most powerful figures in media today. Unfortunately, his popularity affords him a massive bullhorn for his increasingly misguided rhetoric. Though he purports to be an “advocacy journalist,” a “populist,” and an “anti-elitist,” in fact, Dobbs belongs to a new fringe of the conservative movement, one that is insidiously tapping into a dangerous and often racist anti-government sentiment, hell-bent on derailing progressive reforms.
In 1945, Lou Dobbs was born the son of a propane salesman and a bookkeeper in the sparsely populated town of Childress, Texas. When Dobbs was 12, he and his family moved to Rupert, Idaho, after his father’s propane business ran aground. Dobbs went to Minico High School, where he served as student body president, and in 1967 he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard.
Initially, Dobbs went to work for federal anti-poverty programs and then as a cash-management specialist for a California bank. He then slowly worked up the media ladder through a series of reporting and anchoring jobs in Phoenix, Seattle, and Yuma, Ariz., but his TV career really took off in 1979, when he was contacted by a recruiter for Ted Turner, who was then in the process of forming CNN.
Dobbs joined CNN in 1980, thereby helping build the 24-hour news concept. Throughout his time there, he served as an economics correspondent, the host of Moneyline, a corporate executive, executive vice president, and as a member of CNN’s executive committee. He also founded CNNfn, CNN’s financial news counterpart. In 1997, when Rick Kaplan took over leadership of CNN, Dobbs and he began to frequently clash, most notably over Dobbs’s insistence that CNN air Moneyline instead of President Clinton’s speech about Columbine on April 20, 1999. Days later, Dobbs left the network to create space.com, a space and astronomy news website.
He returned to CNN in 2001 and began hosting Lou Dobbs Tonight in June 2003. This May, the program averaged 656,000 daily viewers for its 7 p.m. timeslot. Dobbs also launched a daily three-hour radio program, with broadcasts in major markets in 43 states, plus affiliates in Puerto Rico and Guam.
But don’t mistake Dobbs’s productivity for chops. He’s never seemed to take his role as a reporter very seriously. Just two years after CNN launched Headline News, in a now infamous 1984 New York Times interview, Dobbs proclaimed, “In TV news, you simply have to entertain.”
When Dobbs hosted Moneyline, he talked the talk of efficiency, bottom lines, and competition, acting as a regular cheerleader for Wall Street. And according to a July 25, 1992, article in The Wall Street Journal, Dobbs was even paid amounts between $5,000 and $10,000 to do promotions for Wall Street companies such as Lehman Brothers and Paine Webber Group. CNN criticized those arrangements—a reporter getting paid to promote businesses he covers—as clear conflicts of interest.
In the mid 2000s, Dobbs moved from cheering on Wall Street to hijacking the discussion on immigration reform with an ideological fervor than can only be described as bigoted, nationalist anger. His rhetoric further reveals his disdain toward illegal immigrants. “Criminal illegal alien gangs” are “now running rampant,” Dobbs authoritatively asserts. In an effort to “end gang violence,” a “number of states are tired of waiting for the federal government to deal with the issue and they’re passing their own illegal immigration rules.” Using terms like “criminal illegal aliens,” Dobbs’s rhetoric appeared to blame all Mexican undocumented immigrants for social problems like gang violence.
In framing the debate on undocumented immigration, Dobbs shows footage exclusively of the Mexico-U.S. border, often neglecting the Canadian border (unless he touches on the theoretical North American Union) and immigrants from Europe or Asia. Dobbs even incorrectly implied that undocumented immigrants were bringing leprosy to America. In an April 14, 2005 broadcast of his show, reporter Christine Romans incorrectly stated that 7,000 new cases of leprosy occurred in the past three years. The correct number of years is 30, and it’s impossible to know how many, if any, have been linked to undocumented immigrants. Dobbs’s response was totally uncritical: “Incredible. Christine Romans, thank you.” He later defended this statistic during a 60 Minutes interview.
Feeding Dobbs’s xenophobic flames are his guests, who often have troublesome connections. Twice in 2004, Dobbs hosted guest Glenn Spencer, who has close ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group that has described African-Americans as “a retrograde species of humanity.”
In 2008, Dobbs broadcast from the “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” conference in Washington, D.C. This conference was organized by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a controversial anti-immigration organization whose founder, John Tanton, has made comments comparing immigrants to bacteria. Dobbs has frequently invited members of FAIR on his show, billing them as experts and citing them as reliable and objective sources. In fact, FAIR, along with two other leading anti-immigration groups, Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA, were all founded by Tanton.
Between 1982 and 1994, FAIR received $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund, a “not-for-profit foundation established in 1937 to advance the scientific study of heredity and human differences.” According to documents obtained by Paul Lombardo of The Albany Law Review through Truman State University, the Pioneer Fund’s founding president, eugenicist Harry Laughlin, declared that “‘the great mass of defectiveness’ swelled by immigrants, the feebleminded, and children of racial intermixture would swamp America.” Laughlin has also argued for the legal definition of the “American Race.”
As the immigration debate declines in popularity among the American people, Dobbs is testing the waters in new controversies. Most recently, Dobbs has offered his up spaces on television and radio as a soapbox for members of the birther movement. He first brought the legality of Obama’s citizenship up the during the 2008 presidential campaign, and he resurrected the issue this July, repeatedly declaring that Obama has failed to produce appropriate documents establishing his citizenship, despite the fact that Obama has produced his birth certificate on numerous occasions (even though other presidents and presidential candidates were not asked to do the same).
Dobb’s record of relentless attacks and distortions has been met with increasing opposition. Latino groups, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have called on Dobbs to stop negatively portraying Hispanic immigrants. A group of Hispanic organizations launched bastadobbs.com (basta is Spanish for “enough”) dedicated to educating Latinos about the threat posed by racialized media programs such as Lou Dobbs Tonight. A group of 15 organizations, including Media Matters, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and The Hispanic Institute, has launched a DropDobbs campaign urging advertisers to stop supporting Dobbs’s program. Nevertheless, Dobbs continues to produce segments like “Broken Borders,” “The War Within” and “The War on the Middle Class”—features in which he and his guests almost invariably attack immigrants.
Dobbs would be an almost laughable figure if he and his guests weren’t considered credible authorities on immigration. Despite a 30 percent drop in ratings in the last year, mostly thanks his coverage of the birther “controversy,” Dobbs’ FAIR cronies were sourced more than 500 times in the mainstream media in 2008 and have testified before Congress numerous times.
In his own words
“They’re a joke.”
-on the Anti-Defamation League, Lou Dobbs Tonight, February 4, 2008
“You're an ethnocentric organization.”
-To Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, Lou Dobbs Tonight, February 4, 2008
“Well absolutely. I mean Mexico is incompetent, it's corrupt, its government. They encourage their citizens, the least educated, the least skilled of their citizens, the most impoverished, to as they put it, migrate to this country, to break our laws and to send back what amounts to about $25 billion in remittances each year to Mexico.”
-on Mexico, Lou Dobbs Tonight, August 21, 2008
“By some estimates, as many as three million illegal aliens have been entering the country, a million each year, proving the United States has the most open borders of any nation on the planet at a time when we are apparently in a global war on terror. But that has not led to secure borders. And the total number of illegal aliens in this country is now estimated at being between 12 and 20 million.”
-on Immigration,Lou Dobbs Tonight, April 9, 2009
“This broadcast has covered illegal immigration in this country and border security for six years. In that period of time, we have referred to disease three times.”
-on Immigration,Lou Dobbs Tonight, February 4, 2008
"One of our callers, by the way, pointed out that [President Obama] didn't release — he didn't release his medical records, either. Now isn't that interesting? And hasn't produced some other documents. What's the deal? What is the deal here? I'm starting to think we have a — we have a document issue. Do you suppose he's un — no, I won't even use the word undocumented. It wouldn't be right."
-on Obama, Lou Dobbs Radio, July 21, 2009
“The number of czars now in the Obama administration: roughly 20. That would amount to almost as many czars as there were in czarist Russia throughout history.”
-on Obama,Lou Dobbs Tonight, June 5, 2009
Delaney Rohan is an editorial intern for Campus Progress. He graduated from University of Florida this May and is currently a graduate student at American University.