Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Fighting Lou Dobbs with Ethics

A group of Hispanic leaders recently tried to get an audience with CNN executives about Lou Dobbs and the anti-immigrant tone of his show. They were unsuccessful.

As a news media person for 33 years, complaints about content are going to fall on deaf ears with media decisionmakers. It all gets tied into the First Amendment and the right to free speech, particularly unpopular speech. And there's another factor with Dobbs; he brings in conservative viewers from the FOX network who would otherwise not watch CNN. So his show and its tone is a must-protect asset for the network.

CNN, however, is vulnerable on ethical issues regarding Dobbs. In his show, he freely expresses his opinions on issues and politicians. He comes off with such bravado. Where CNN has ethically erred is in letting Dobbs outside of his hour of fear-mongering, to outrageously serve as a moderator on election coverage asking questions of panelists. Ethically, he should not be allowed to step from opinion-giver to a moderator role. A moderator is supposed to be an unbiased observer asking questions. Dobbs' fame is for being biased.

Another wrong by CNN is in using Dobbs as a source for their stories on immigration. Besides being unethical, that's just plain lazy. Dobbs cannot be an opinion-giver about immigration on a network, and then a source for immigration stories on other network shows and an unbiased moderator in election coverage. It just doesn't wash. It really stinks.

After making this case on ethics to CNN, Hispanic leaders should then go to organizations that oversee the news media and call out journalists and their employers for wrongdoing. The Columbia Journalism Review, Poynter Institute, Editor and Publisher magazine, the Society of Professional Journalists and a host of other groups should be lobbied.

Finally, Hispanic leaders should ask CNN for the appointment of an ombudsman, a person employed by a news organization to field questions and complaints from the public about the outlet's product. News outlets like The New York Times and National Public Radio boost their credibility by employing independent observers, who then are free to write about what viewers or listeners or readers are complaining about.

Sometimes, they join the public in the condemnation and call for corrective action. A CNN ombudsman should be given air time in prime time to daily speak up for the viewers, or to explain to the viewers why they are wrong in their complaint.

Dobbs has made factual mistakes in his show that he has been slow to admit or rationalized away. 60 Minutes uncovered a whopper concerning immigrants and claims they were increasingly bringing disease into this country. A CNN ombudsman would not have to wait on Dobbs to correct his mistakes. That person could call him out in a timely manner.

A report released this week by Media Matters Action Network -- "Fear and Loathing in Prime Time: Immigration Myths and Cable News" -- found that 70% of Dobbs' shows in 2007 cited illegal immigration.

The best hope for Hispanic leaders is to limit Dobbs to his hour of fear-mongering on CNN. Fear-mongering, no matter the negative consequences, is protected free speech. But CNN is wrong in letting Dobbs spread his poison beyond his show in different roles unethical for an opinion-giver to assume.

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