Lou Dobbs, "Heir to the Nativist Tradition" Against Mexicans

David Leonhardt fact-checks the CNN anchor with a vengeance - but could the Times itself withstand similar scrutiny?

The assault on CNN anchor Lou Dobbs for his opposition to illegal immigration continued in David Leonhardt's Wednesday column "Truth, Fiction and Lou Dobbs." Leonhardt focused on Dobbs' shaky claim about a connection between illegal immigrants and a rise in leprosy in the U.S. and went on to tar him as "heir to the nativist tradition that has long used fiction and conspiracy theories as a weapon against the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Jews and, now, the Mexicans."

"The whole controversy involving Lou Dobbs and leprosy started with a '60 Minutes' segment a few weeks ago.

"The segment was a profile of Mr. Dobbs, and while doing background research for it, a '60 Minutes' producer came across a 2005 news report from Mr. Dobbs's CNN program on contagious diseases. In the report, one of Mr. Dobbs's correspondents said there had been 7,000 cases of leprosy in this country over the previous three years, far more than in the past.

"When Lesley Stahl of '60 Minutes' sat down to interview Mr. Dobbs on camera, she mentioned the report and told him that there didn't seem to be much evidence for it.

"'Well, I can tell you this,' he replied. 'If we reported it, it's a fact.'"

"With that Orwellian chestnut, Mr. Dobbs escalated the leprosy dispute into a full-scale media brouhaha."

Leonhardt, a former reporter turned economics columnist for the Times, fact-checked Dobbs thoroughly. Perhaps unusually for a Times reporter, he found that an increase in a disease from year to year was absolutely no cause for concern.

"To sort through all this, I called James L. Krahenbuhl, the director of the National Hansen's Disease Program, an arm of the federal government. Leprosy in the United States is indeed largely a disease of immigrants who have come from Asia and Latin America. And the official leprosy statistics do show about 7,000 diagnosed cases - but that's over the last 30 years , not the last three.

"The peak year was 1983, when there were 456 cases. After that, reported cases dropped steadily, falling to just 76 in 2000. Last year, there were 137.

"'It is not a public health problem - that's the bottom line,' Mr. Krahenbuhl told me. 'You've got a country of 300 million people. This is not something for the public to get alarmed about.' Much about the disease remains unknown, but researchers think people get it through prolonged close contact with someone who already has it.

"What about the increase over the last six years, to 137 cases from 76? Is that significant?

"'No,' Mr. Krahenbuhl said. It could be a statistical fluctuation, or it could be a result of better data collection in recent years. In any event, the 137 reported cases last year were fewer than in any year from 1975 to 1996."

Leonhardt went on to state that Dobbs "gives airtime to white supremacy sympathizers," based on some of his guests.

"The problem with Mr. Dobbs is that he mixes opinion and untruths. He is the heir to the nativist tradition that has long used fiction and conspiracy theories as a weapon against the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Jews and, now, the Mexicans."

Leonhardt does venture off the Times' reservation by suggesting illegal immigrants hurt the poor and make the middle-class and rich better off:

"There is no denying that this country's immigration system is broken. But it defies belief - and a whole lot of economic research - to suggest that the problems of the middle class stem from illegal immigrants. Those immigrants, remember, are largely non-English speakers without a high school diploma. They have probably hurt the wages of native-born high school dropouts and made everyone else better off.

"More to the point, if Mr. Dobbs's arguments were really so good, don't you think he would be able to stick to the facts?"

It's too bad the Times doesn't give its own statistics this kind of hostile scrutiny - like its April 22 lead story on an alleged increase in infant mortality among black babies in the South. The Economist's blog quibbled with the Times' numbers in a way similar to how Leonhardt is now criticizing Dobbs.

"65 more dead babies is 65 too many.But it's a small enough number that one needs to consider things like measurement error - did Mississippi change its criteria for infant mortality? - and random variation before leaping to the conclusion, as the article does, that this is some fundamental sea change in operation."

Finally, Leonhardt could stand a little humility, based on the many substantial mistakes made by the Times itself.