Immigration Debate Sparks PR Push To Boycott and Censure Lou Dobbs

The issue of immigration has polarized the country, and the news coverage continues to be dominated with both left and right wing punditry and coverage of pro- and anti- immigration protests. At the center of this storm has been CNN's Lou Dobbs, who made the immigration issue front-and-center of his newscasts. While Dobbs effectively publicized a distinctive political opinion regarding immigration, the newsman himself is at the center of a two-pronged campaign by his detractors: To boycott CNN because of Dobbs' positions on immigration and to raise claims that members of alleged hate groups dominate the guest line-up on his program. However, media watchdogs have questioned whether the PR push behind these attacks can work. Kicking Dobbs Out The call to boycott CNN is centered with Jon Garrido, the Phoenix-based publisher of online magazines including Hispanic News and Latin American News. Garrido is the driving force behind a new Web site called Ax AOL, which calls for a boycott of America Online, theoretically forcing its parent company Time Warner to put pressure on CNN (also owned by TW) to fire Dobbs. "Lou Dobbs has become the champion zealot bashing 'illegal immigration' each night at CNN promoting HR 4437 as the only way of dealing with so-called Broken Borders," says Garrido, referring to the legislation from the House of Representatives that favored deportations of those found to be in the United States illegally. Garrido defines Dobbs as a "raving populist xenophobe." Garrido actually had the opportunity to promote his campaign on, of all things, "Lou Dobbs Tonight" on CNN. He not only refused to go on the program, but also publicly demanded that Hispanics not appear on the program. "He's not a journalist in terms of Rather or Jennings," says Garrido, who adds Dobbs doesn't practice "unbiased journalistic reporting. He's a theatrical journalist." (PR News sought comment from Lou Dobbs' PR representatives at CNN for this article, but they declined to return telephone calls.) Garrido is using his Web site to further finance his PR efforts by asking for donations and by selling "Ax AOL" t-shirts; Garrido plans to use the raised funds to launch a television advertising campaign. Garrido declined to tell PR News whether he is coming close to his goal. However, interviews with media watch groups (particularly those whose politics are tilted left of Dobbs) do not see much popularity for a boycott campaign. "We don't advocate boycotts," says Paul Waldman, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, which describes itself as a "progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media." While Waldman has been a critic of Dobbs in the past, he maintains there are better ways to handle the situation. "When we take issue with someone on our Web site, whether it's because they said something that was false or they distorted something, we give people an e-mail address where they can contact the offending party or the offending news organization," he explains. "At least you're communicating with the people who are making the decisions and who are closer to the actual problem that you are seeing." Waldman's lack of enthusiasm for a CNN boycott is shared by Peter Hart, a media analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Hart says that while media critics have the right to say what they want, FAIR doesn't think that boycotting is a useful tactic or in the spirit of the First Amendment. "Dobbs is a big winner for CNN right now," he says. "They're not going to have much luck with a campaign calling for a corporation to dump one of its most popular products." Another media observer, this time from the right, notes the boycott movement is bound to fail because of the vitriolic nature of its language. "The Ax AOL page is explicitly political in its appeal," says Tim Graham, director of media analysis for Media Research Center, which defines itself as "the leader in documenting, exposing and neutralizing liberal media bias." "It is like saying: 'We must remove Dobbs from the airwaves so that amnesty legislation will pass.' I doubt removing Dobbs would achieve that victory. Dobbs is not an anchorman who puts the concept of objectivity first. His shows do carry a point of view. It is clear that he has been regularly critical of current legislative proposals for amnesty in general and pro-illegal alien activists in particular." On Tonight's Show Some critics of Dobbs, however, aren't so angry over what he says, but rather, over what he neglects to mention - most notably, the backgrounds of many of his guests who are agitating for harsher immigration laws. "I don't think that Dobbs stands up there and gives racist rants," says Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and editor of the organization's Intelligence Report. "What he does do is give an endless litany of nativist propaganda that is presented to the public as real news." In his 2005 article "Broken Records" (co-written with Heidi Beirich), Potok gave several examples of past guests on Dobbs' show that either made racist comments or have been connected with organizations that have hate group status. Most of the people mentioned in the article are tied to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which SPLC calls a "racial separatist" group, and the Minuteman Project, the self-appointed border patrollers who are planning their own PR event at Ground Zero in New York this Wednesday, the 26th. "I'm sorry to say that we seem to be seeing a 'Foxification' of cable news networks," Potok says of the right-of-center political slant of the Dobbs program. "I think it's a terrible crying shame to see a news channel give into ratings pressure by putting ideologues in the seats that were once held by real news reporters." Yet Graham at the Media Research Center disagrees with Potok's assertion: "That's just comical. I fail to see how a prime time lineup like Paula Zahn, Larry King, and two hours of Anderson Cooper in New Orleans make you just like O'Reilly and Hannity & Colmes. Who, outside Dobbs (and what, Glenn Beck on CNN Headline News?) is anywhere close to drawing left-wing horror like Fox does? The dueling O'Briens in the morning? Wolf Blitzer? Dobbs allows opponents on to speak, such as Juan Gonzalez, who is so far-left he co-hosts Pacifica Radio's 'Democracy Now.'" "I think what they do is so different," agrees Hart at FAIR, comparing the networks. "Fox, for example, does very little news; it's mostly opinion. CNN tries to do much more for that one has to be thankful that they're trying to do more straightforward reporting." Hart asserts that all of this negative publicity is actually having at least somewhat of a positive effect on CNN. "Reporters can talk to critics of Dobbs' show like Mark Potok - there's a story there and it's a story that CNN's publicists are happy to narrate because they feel any attention to this is more good than bad. It's usually not a good debate about whether Lou Dobbs is a good reporter or not. It's usually about what this means for CNN's identity - are they changing?" But Hart doesn't think CNN will be able to weave bad PR into good PR forever. "If the business lesson is that controversial PR gets you more viewers, I think it's a foolish one," he warns. "I think people that are conservative and want to watch conservative TV have a network [Fox] they can watch anytime. It's unlikely to win in the long-run." "Maybe someone might think that it's good for CNN to hear itself being talked about," Potok admits. But he contends: "In my opinion, credibility is everything for a news organization and CNN seems quite willing to let their credibility evaporate." Contacts: Peter Hart,; Jon Garrido,; Tim Graham,; Paul Waldman,; Mark Potok, 334.956.8200.

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