Analysis: Fox's Internal Struggle Over 'Illegal'

It's clear Bill O'Reilly is intent on keeping 'illegal alien' in his vocabulary

Oct 25, 2012— -- It's clear that Bill O'Reilly is intent on keeping 'illegal alien' in his vocabulary. But some Hispanic members of the Fox News family are at odds with O'Reilly and the rest of the company.

Earlier this year, the Fox News host chastised ColorLines' Monica Novoa on his show for her campaign to get media companies to "Drop the I Word." Novoa's campaign maintains that the word "illegal" is dehumanizing and frames the immigration debate in unfair terms.

"Don't demonize people who are accurate in the description as using a slur or using a hate word -- cause that's not true," Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said.

The attack was brutal, and quickly became fodder for conservative bloggers. After asking Novoa if she was an 'illegal alien' a handful of times (Novoa responded that she had lawfully immigrated to the United States each time), O'Reilly told the young activist that she had "not even thought this out" (in reference to immigration law) and concluded that "illegal" is indeed the best way of "describing what the reality is."

Turns out, many within the Fox News ranks disagree. Fox News Latino, for example, has taken a hard position on the issue, conducting a poll this year with Hispanic voters on the issue, and banning the term from their site. In their research, carried out by Latin Insights, Fox News Latino concluded that nearly half of Latino voters they sampled consider the term offensive. The site now uses "undocumented."

"Look. I like Fox News Latino. But I do my own program," O'Reilly told Novoa when she raised the issue of Fox's internal inconsistency. As a cable channel viewed by the public to be the most conservative network in a 2009 Pew survey, Fox News still uses "illegal alien," "illegals," and "illegal immigrant."

Another Hispanic contributor, Fox News pundit Geraldo Rivera, also slammed his colleagues in May for repeatedly using the term "illegal alien" on air.

"Like the words 'Jew' or 'slob' or 'slut', the phrase 'illegal alien' has the elegance of being harsh, but defensible, if accurate," Rivera wrote. "A voluntary decision by my cable news and talk radio colleagues to drop the phrase entirely would be humane and more in keeping with our immigrant nation's centuries old traditions."

Rick Sanchez, a former CNN host, will soon join the Fox News family. He also made public his disdain for the word "illegal" in a tweet earlier this year.

Fox News is notable in the "illegal" debate because it's the only company which seems to be straddling the two sides of the linguistic argument under one roof. And while the New York Times and the Associated Press have stood their ground, both still using the term "illegal immigrant," Fox News has made the switch on its Latino site seemingly to avoid offending its audience. ABC, NBC, CNN, and The Huffington Post, among others, have also dropped the term.

Fox's decision is also notable because it may offer insight into how other media companies will come to the conclusion to drop 'illegal immigrant'.

Charles Garcia, a contributor to Fox News Latino, CNN, and The Huffington Post, has written extensively about the term "illegal" and says he's even discussed the issue in a meeting with Roger Ailes, the President of Fox News Channel. Garcia says that the change at Fox News Latino came in large part because Hispanics were given positions of power within the company.

"It's about playing an insider game instead of an outsider game," Garcia said. "You have to have thoughtful people sitting down and talking about it on the inside."

Despite strong voices on the other side of the issue at the network, like O'Reilly and Tucker Carlson, respected Latino leaders within the company, including Director of Fox News Latino Francisco Cortes, have moved the needle on the debate because they can explain how offensive the term is within the Hispanic community to those outside of it, Garcia says.

"You've got some very very big personalities at Fox and everybody knows who they are. A guy like Roger Ailes has to tread lightly. It's a contentious issue," Garcia said. "And when Frankie went to Roger Ailes and said, 'Look, we shouldn't use this word,' they gave him the latitude to change it, and I give Roger Ailes the credit for having the confidence in Frankie to get that done." Fox News declined to comment for this story.

Garcia believes that all companies will drop "illegal" if Hispanics are able to rise to positions of real power. After Sonia Sotomayor was elected to the Supreme Court, the court's rulings used "undocumented" for the first time to describe those in the country without authorization, Garcia noted.

When it comes to media organizations, Garcia says the problem stems from one place. "The AP is the main problem on this issue, because everybody uses them as an excuse. And on their board of 19, how many are Latinos?," Garcia asked. "Zero. Zero are Latino. Zero." The AP did not immediately respond to a request to confirm.

Unlike Fox News, the AP hasn't budged on the issue after external pressure because they have few Hispanics to push from inside, Garcia argues.

"The AP is like three monkeys on this," Garcia said. "I see no evil, I hear no evil, I speak no evil."