The Media Is Changing Its Tone on Immigrants

PHOTO: Dobbs

In mainstream broadcast journalism, no one railed harder against undocumented immigrants than former CNN broadcaster Lou Dobbs.

To watch Dobbs through the 2000s, you might think that immigration was mostly about people hopping fences. Or that thousands of "illegal aliens" from Mexico were bringing an epidemic of leprosy to the U.S. It remains his approach as the current host of "Lou Dobbs Tonight" on the Fox Business Network.

But now -- as Congress looks to tackle immigration reform and create a way to legalize some of the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. -- Dobbs is on the margins of the debate instead of at the front. And he's part of a larger media trend. News outlets are shifting away from over-generalizations that portrayed undocumented immigrants as lawbreakers.

Just look at the string of media outlets that have changed their editorial style around the use of the phrase "illegal immigrant."

For years, activists have said the term is dehumanizing, and that a human being shouldn't be branded as illegal, but media outlets didn't listen. In part because nobody wants to be seen as pandering to special interests.

But many of the largest news outlets in the country -- including the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times -- have dropped "the i word" in recent weeks.

Although groups that want low-levels of immigration don't appear to be happy with that change.

Take, for example, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). It's an organization that was seeded by a controversial population control advocate named John Tanton.

The group doesn't just oppose illegal immigration and citizenship for undocumented immigrants. They also want to dramatically reduce legal immigration.

But without a Lou Dobbs-style platform for their message, groups like CIS have less leverage in the media -- or elsewhere -- this time around.

You can see that reflected in a panel discussion the group is holding today. (Disclaimer: I'm one of the panelists.)

They're looking at the way The New York Times editorial page covers immigration, and they don't like it.

"Far from seeking to turn the illegal tide, the Times welcomes it, defends it, and encourages it," one CIS research fellow recently wrote. "Rather than advocating compromise on immigration policy, the Times stokes confrontation."

But what groups like CIS consider compromise could be part of the problem.

The immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate was drafted by Democrats and Republicans. But no one involved with the bill wants to slash legal immigration. In fact, they view immigration as an economic driver, and want to expand it.

So the issue isn't so much that media outlets are suddenly more liberal or conservative. It's that the center on the issue has shifted.

Prominent conservatives like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) believe that immigration is a positive economic force. And they're saying that groups like CIS have hijacked the Republican Party with a message that isn't rooted in conservative economic theory.

That's left voices like Lou Dobbs and CIS, well, without much of a voice.

Update, 4:51 p.m. An earlier version of this article stated that The New York Times had dropped the term "illegal immigrant" from its style guide. The outlet hasn't dropped the term, but issued new guidelines encouraging reporters and editors to "consider alternatives when appropriate."

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