Let’s hear it for clearing the air. After several years of lobbying by a host of Latino organizations and immigrant rights groups, CNN finally pulled the plug on Lou Dobbs, who rebooted a stalled broadcast career by hoisting up one piñata after another and inviting viewers to take a vicarious whack.
Because many of those whacks were aimed at Latinos — or their language, their culture — it’s no wonder that America’s largest minority is overjoyed at the news that Dobbs has left CNN in what has been prepackaged as a mutual parting of ways but has the feel of a firing. But now, many Latinos are also suspicious of one of the latest plot twists in this telenovela — a new campaign by Dobbs to convince them that he’s really one of their amigos, perhaps because he’s rumored to be considering a run for political office. In fact, Dobbs has gone so far as to pitch himself to Latinos as someone who could be one of their strongest champions on … get ready … the immigration issue.
In an interview last week, Dobbs told Spanish-language network Telemundo he now supports a plan to legalize millions of illegal immigrants, a stance he has long criticized as an unacceptable “amnesty.”
“Whatever you have thought of me in the past, I can tell you right now that I am one of your greatest friends and I mean for us to work together,” Dobbs told Telemundo’s Maria Celeste. “I hope that will begin with Maria and me and Telemundo and other media organizations and others in this national debate that we should turn into a solution rather than a continuing debate and factional contest.” During the interview, Dobbs twice mentioned a possible legalization plan for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., saying that “we need the ability to legalize illegal immigrants under certain conditions.”
My own relationship with Dobbs is complicated. For the last few years, I’ve served as a regular contributor to Cnn.com. And before that, I appeared on Dobbs’ show a half dozen times. Last year, after I wrote a column defending Barack Obama after the then-presidential candidate accused Dobbs of stirring racial and ethnic animosity, Dobbs attacked me in one of his monologue segments. During a chance meeting, Dobbs accused me of calling him a racist and a xenophobe. I told him that, in fact, I had done no such thing. All I’d written was that he was making a handsome living (about $6 to $9 million per year, according to the New York Post) from pandering to racists and xenophobes. That’s all.
Of course, Latinos aren’t the only ones who are happy to see Dobbs leave. More than a dozen media watchdog and immigrants’ rights groups had been lobbying the network to dump Dobbs because they saw him as distasteful, disingenuous, and divisive. One of Dobbs’ first and most vocal critics — San Diego-based immigrant activist Enrique Morones — even calls him dangerous, someone whose words might have had life-and-death consequences.
“Lou Dobbs wasn’t just yelling fire in a crowded movie theater,” Morones told me recently. “He was setting the fire. And that fire directly caused hate crimes against Latinos.”
In fact, one of Dobbs’ gifts was the ability to offend just about every color of the rainbow. His decision to dabble in the birther controversy, which is fueled by accusations that President Obama is ineligible to be president because he was born in Kenya, convinced many African-Americans that he must be a racist. His clumsy approach to tragedies involving radical Islam such as the Ft. Hood shooting hurt his reputation with Muslim-Americans. And, before all that, came his contention that U.S. trade policy was “Exporting America” to India and China, which didn’t exactly endear him to people from those countries. This year, on March 17, after begrudgingly wishing listeners of his radio show a Happy St. Patrick’s Day (he has previously said that he dislikes all ethnic holidays), Dobbs facetiously wished Asians a happy whatever-they-celebrate “you know, St. Jin-Tao-Wow.”
You know, it’s an odd thing, but for a professional communicator, Dobbs does have trouble speaking appropriately. It’s no wonder that he has, over the years, earned a reputation for being anti-foreigner and been caricatured as such.
One former CNN executive who is Indian-American seemed to conclude as much. A few years ago, when she was still with the network, she told me that Dobbs saw himself as the defender of “real Americans” who looked more like him and nothing like her.
A couple of years ago, a black woman who was opposed to illegal immigration called to complain about my criticism of Dobbs. He was no racist, she insisted. Then came the controversy involving Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Dobbs weighed in and really played up the angle that Wright — and by inference, Obama himself — harbored an animosity toward whites. The woman called back to apologize. “You were right,” she said. “Lou Dobbs is a racist.”
It also didn’t help Dobbs’ case any that he kept slipping and doing the same thing he criticized media outlets such as the New York Times of doing: confusing legal and illegal immigration. He gave loads of airtime to commentators, authors, and advocacy groups that want to ban all immigration. And his show would seamlessly weave together segments on border security (which pertains directly to illegal immigration) with segments on language and culture (which can also be impacted by legal immigration). Before long, people figured that Dobbs had issues with Latino immigrants — both legal and illegal. It’s what these people represented that mattered most to him, not how they got here.
Readers have been writing me all week to assure me that Dobbs can’t be a racist because he’s married to — as one reader put it — “a Latina immigrant.” Actually, he’s not. Debi Segura Dobbs is a Mexican-American who was born in the United States. But so what?
“Without a doubt,” Morones said, “Lou Dobbs is a racist. When someone tells me that he is married to a Mexican woman, that’s a red flag. Why mention that? Besides, Mexicans can be racist too. Racism isn’t limited to Anglos.”
True that. But, to my mind, the word that best describes Dobbs is “opportunist.” He figured out that spreading misinformation and sanctioning prejudice was a way to scare up viewers and make some money. For a while, he managed to do both. But eventually, playing that game cost him his job and his reputation. He’ll find another job. Too bad reputations are harder to replace.