Coloring the News About Immigration (Book Excerpt)

By William McGowan
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 12, Number 3 (Spring 2002)
Issue theme: "Media coverage on immigration - where's the balance?"

Measures designed to enhance diversity in newsroom staffing and coverage have made journalism much more sensitive to the concerns of a huge wave of new, nonwhite Americans and have given the news reporting process greater access to, and sympathy for, these groups than ever before. But sensitivity and access have often been purchased at the expense of rigor, and a thick coat of piety and cant has often obscured plain truths. Too many journalists have been all too ready to celebrate immigration's relationship to America's increasing cultural diversity, even when the facts on the ground don't support such enthusiasm. In the process, they have left important questions unanswered and dismissed legitimate concerns as "nativism." Rather than engage in a full and frank examination of immigration, news organizations have been too ready to follow a romantic script that exaggerates its benefits and ignores its downsides.

The influx of new immigrants has put a tremendous strain on schools, social welfare systems, hospitals, prisons and police forces. It has put a strain on our social fabric as well, as Third World immigrants with values and attitudes very different from mainstream American norms pursue the process of assimilation with much less focus and pressure from the outside than earlier generations. The huge swell of immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants, has also tended to depress wages in lower-skilled occupations too, and it has allowed a frightening array of criminals and criminal syndicates to set up shop here while no one was really looking.

There are also legitimate grounds for concern over the sheer numbers involved almost a million legal immigrants annually and another 300,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants. According to one authoritative report, nearly half of the population of the Dominican Republic said they would emigrate to America if they had the opportunity.

When Did Assimilation Become a Bad Thing?

That this immigration is occurring at a time when the disciples of diversity are disparaging the successful formulas and frameworks for absorbing newcomers forged at the turn of the century by Progressive-era reformers and their journalistic allies is perhaps the greatest reason for pessimism. The assimilationist paradigm proved crucial to the successful incorporation of new immigrants then, and has largely spared us the kind of tribal and nationalist frictions that have balkanized many other multiethnic nations around the world. It also became the basis by which immigrants were extended the full "promise of American life," as Progressive-era journalist Herbert Croly described it, shucking off the foreign customs, practices, habits of thinking and values that were and still are at odds with "progressive" American ideals of democracy, economic upward mobility, and middle-class life.

The new multicultural paradigm encourages immigrants to maintain a hyphenated sense of self and culture. It tells society it must accommodate new, mostly Third World immigrants as groups or "communities" rather than individuals. It encourages divided loyalties and emotional conflicts of interest. It insists that notions of cultural "uplift" are condescending. And it suggests, as a New York Times report on "transnational immigration" did in 1998, that the concept of assimilation is "racists" ignoring the implications this stance might have for our civic culture.

Those covering the bilingual education beat have often turned a blind eye to the wider impact of these programs on society at large. Yet impartial analyses of the reasons behind white flight from the public schools often cite bilingual programs, which siphon resources away from native-born middle-class children, as a big factor. (In the heyday of bilingual instruction, California spent 65 percent more on "language needs" children than it did on English speakers.) What's more, studies suggest that Latino teens with an inadequate grasp of English are much more susceptible to the lure of criminal gangs. Employers deny dysfunctional English speakers steady work with a future, and college administrators complain that students arriving on their campuses with an inadequate grasp of English must be placed in remedial classes that bear a perverse similarity to the bilingual high school classrooms that failed the students so badly to begin with. Yet these stories, as compelling as they are, don't seem to make their way onto the media radar screen in any meaningful way.

The same orthodoxy that inhibits criticism of language policies also stunts a discussion of other issues linked to the broader subject of cultural difference. Reporting on immigration often ignores or minimizes the extent to which the cultural values, attitudes and customs of new Third World immigrants clash with mainstream American norms. Like their counterparts in academia, pro-diversity journalists tend to celebrate the theory of "difference," but don't like to look too closely at some of the social outcomes these differences cause.

Yet when journalists walk on eggshells as they get close to some of the consequences of cultural difference, they leave a significant gap in our understanding of what the new immigrant communities are all about, what kind of impact they are having on our ideals and institutions, and what we should be doing to help them adjust.

Reporting Cultural Differences

The lag experienced by Latinos, particularly Mexicans, who constitute almost two-thirds of all new immigrants, seems to be more persistent. Median household income, while on the rise for every other group of American, is going down for Latinos. Many social scientists have begun to worry that Latino residents may become trapped as a permanent sub-class of the working poor.

Typical was a piece in which Steven Holmes of the New York Times, citing a 1995 study, reported that only nine percent of Hispanics hold bachelor degrees compared with nearly twenty-five percent of non-Hispanic Americans. The problem, Holmes wrote, was a function of "endemic poverty, discrimination and lack of recruitment." The human factors that might explain this problem more deeply most notably what some anthropologists and sociologists call the "lack of a family culture that supports education" were given no attention.

The high Latino illegitimacy rate, which costs society billions in welfare benefits for families headed by unwed mothers, is just as taboo. Reporters and editorialists have preferred to emphasize the hard-working, family orientation of new Latino immigrants over the very high illegitimacy rates. Even when the latter is acknowledged, journalists still tend to write about it as if it were merely a problem of racial bias and alienation with no cultural issues involved.

A similarly romantic and highly relativistic approach is frequently taken in reporting on those immigrant cultural practices and customs ranging from animal sacrifice to voodoo to arranged marriages and female genital mutilation that contradict some of our more progressive social ideals. A case in point is the subject of folk healing and traditional folk medicine. A May 1996 New York Times piece titled "Mingling Two Worlds of Medicine Some Doctors Work with Folk Healers in Immigrants' Care," for instance, noted that some doctors who had formerly dismissed the work of these folk healers as "superstitious quackery" were now starting to condone their practices.

While noting some of the problems associated with encouraging folk treatments an asthmatic patient who suffered an acute reaction after seeing a Chinese herbalist; a diabetic who was given chicken gall bladder twice a day the piece implied that on the whole, the trend was positive. It was a conclusion contradicted by much other evidence that folk beliefs run profoundly against the grain of Western science and the welfare of patients an omission that upset some of the doctors interviewed for the report.

According to Dr. Michael Diaz of Mt. Sinai Medical Center, the trend toward sanctioning folk healing represents "politically correct" pandering on the part of administrators and makes little medical sense. "If folk healing practices work so well," Diaz insisted to me, "then why are the morbidity and mortality rates in the countries where they are used so high?" Journalists who write positively about the trend are doing a disservice, he said. "The journalists I've spoken to usually have their minds made up already. They don't allow objective data to override their prejudices."

Consider as well the Miami Herald's treatment of animal sacrifice associated with the Afro-Cuban practice of Santeria.

Most egregious was a Miami Herald account that described the ritual slaughter of fifteen animals in a Santeria celebration. The celebration, organized by a Santeria priest named Rigoberto Zamora, was an effort to dispel the notion that such sacrifices were cruel to animals. By all other accounts, the ritual did not have the desired effect. Gory with blood and guts and the bleating of goats and chickens as they died slow, cruel deaths, the scene was ghastly. At one point a goat was stabbed with a rusty knife and decapitated, spraying blood all over.

Yet in its account, the Herald conspicuously ignored these details, purging the more nauseating sounds and smells. Forgetting the butchered goat, Herald reporter Aminda Marques Gonzalez wrote about how reverently "a white rooster was offered to Elequa, its blood squeezed into the basins." The only hint that the event was at all strange came in a description of the arrival of the building owner, who had been alerted by angry neighbors and said he would start eviction proceedings the next day.

Reluctance to discuss the more embarrassing aspects of Third World supersition could also be seen in coverage of revelations in August 1994 that $12,000 in state funds were used to perform an exorcism on a Haitian psychiatric patient at King's County Hospital in New York City. The patient, Alphonse Pecou, had hacked his girlfirnd to death and then set her on fire in front of her children. The exorcism was done off premises by the Most Reverend Prophet Alpha Omega Bondu, and was authorized by the hospital's business manager, a member of Bondu's church. According to reports, several high-ranking officials at the hospital were in attendance when Bondu performed his ceremony, which, he claimed, successfully routed four of the seven demons that had gained control of the patient.

Yet the New York Times ignored the exorcism story altogether for three months, and then only acknowledged it in the course of a larger piece detailing a raft of problems afflicting the facility. Buried in a section of expenses run up by the director was a brief and classically euphemistic nod to the $12,000 that officials at the hospital had used to "give religious counseling to a patient who had killed his girlfriend."

Ironically, many times "cultural sensitivity" even trumps feminism in journalism's politically correct hierarchy. The South Asian custom of arranged marriages, for instance, was dealt with in the 1998 New York Times series on the new "transnational" immigrants who straddled their new world and the old one they came from. According to the Times, many of these new Americans regard assimilation to "a single American norm" as a "dated, even racist concept."

The same thing is true about reporting on the African Islamic practice of female circumcision among immigrants to the United States.

Impact on Wages

It is not surprising that many journalists, skittish about acknowledging or addressing the realities of cultural difference, have also been reluctant to explore the impact that high rates of immigration have had on America's general quality of life, which early in the previous century was at the center of the Progressive journalistic agenda.

Although various news organizations have raised concerns about the effect of immigration on labor, a tendency to celebrate immigrants' economic dynamism often obscures their impact on native-born workers. A 1996 New York Times report on the network of Bangladeshi immigrant contractors that has grown up in New York over the last ten years shows such a bias. Written by Somini Sengupta, a reporter whose ethnicity presumably gave her increased access to New York's burgeoning Asian communities, the piece spotlighted the way this network has been "buoyed by a steady stream of low wage workers from back home and an exclusive network through which skills and resources are passed on." Many of the workers, Sengupta acknowledged, are undocumented, being recruited from the ranks of the thousands of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who land here every year. The piece also noted that contractors using their labor undercut competitors by half. Yet the link between illegal status, low wages and unfair competition was not made. Instead of also acknowledging the justified anger of native-born contractors and artisans driven out of business by the low-wage, illegal competition, the piece monochromatically celebrated the phenomenon as an illustration of the ways in which "immigrants create niches for themselves in the city's economy."

A more acute failure to take seriously the negative impact that illegal aliens have had on American labor could be seen in an account of the problems associated with diversity in Storm Lake, Iowa. While still relatively small, the pool of Southeast Asian and Mexican immigrants who had come to Storm Lake in recent years were not an entirely negligible presence. Crime was up, costs for educating immigrant youngsters were taxing the local school system's budget, and a general sense of alienation had begun to erode what for many residents had long been a cozy sense of homogenous isolation. Most significantly, the low wages that the town's largest employer, a meatpacking plant owned by the food conglomerate IBP, was paying its predominantly immigrant workforce had led many residents to grumble that American workers were being displaced by those who shouldn't be there in the first place.

Steven Holmes, Washington, D.C. bureau correspondent for the New York Times, heard about the cultural tensions in Storm Lake while preparing to cover the 1996 Iowa Caucuses. Writing about immigration in such a microcosm presented an opportunity for a serious, even-handed assessment of immigration's impact on heartland job markets, which then was shaping up a a key presidential campaign issue. But rather than presenting hard facts and figures in an effort to assess the validity of Buchanan's charges that IBP was using illegal labor that displaced native workers, Holmes made no effort to conduct any "independent investigation" of his own, as he told me in a subsequent interview. Instead, he simply reported that executives of the company "stress they check the relevant documents of job applicants and do not knowingly hire illegal aliens."

One wonders if Holmes would have let a company accused of brutality against blacks or a corporate executive charged with racial discrimination against minorities off the hook so easily, taking their denials at face value and accepting them as fact.

Given the prominence the Times had given Holmes' original "diversity in the heartland" report, the paper should have taken notice of the raid. It did not. Although the downside of immigration was becoming ever more apparent through the election cycle of 1996, the Times continued to report on those who questioned current policy as if they were noting more than nineteenth-century Know-Nothings, fulminating against wholly imaginary demons.

Under-reporting Immigrant Crime

Immigration and crime is an even touchier subject for journalists, even though one out of four federal prisoners is an illegal alien, and foreign felons, abetted by a dysfunctional visa system, have been able to enter and leave the country virtually at will while engaging in an ever-expanding range of organized criminal activities Nigerians in internal car-theft rings; Chinese in extortion, kidnapping, and immigrant-smuggling rackets; Dominicans in drug trafficking; and Russians in stock and credit card scams.

Once again, the New York Times seems to have even more trouble than most of the elite press with this subject. In case after case, story after story, facts that might suggest a linkage between immigration and crime are airbrushed or minimized.

Throughout most of the 1990s, for example, the Times was timid in reporting on the activities of the Dominican gangs that dominated the drug trade in Manhattan's Washington Heights.

Violence between rival drug gangs fueled a murder rate in Washington Heights that was the city's highest for years. To launder cash profits and circumvent federal currency controls, drug gangs set up their own illegal wiring facilities, sending tens of millions out of the country illicitly, a flow that beleaguered banking regulators could do little to stop. At one point, death threats by drug dealers stopped uniformed cops from patrolling certain areas, and the INS was so overwhelmed with casework that drug dealers who should have been deported after they finished serving jail time were simply released back onto the streets.

The problem of immigrant criminality has also been a subject draped in oversensitivity and solicitude at the Los Angeles Times. The gang capital of America, Los Angeles has nearly 1,250 identifiable street gangs and up to 150,000 gang members one-quarter of the nation's total, according to 1996 Department of Justice figures. Many of them are illegal Hispanic aliens.

With over seven thousand gang-related homicides in the last ten years, and whole areas of the city now gang-dominated or gang-controlled, the impact of gang violence on the region's quality of life and sense of public safety and order is unmistakable, and is a driving force in wholesale flight white, black and brown from the area. Involved in crimes ranging from drug dealing to extortion to contract killing, gangs pose a particular problem for police and for prosecutors due to the systematic way they intimidate or kill witnesses. Throughout the 1990s more than one thousand accused killers, most of them gang members, went free because witnesses were either dead or too scared to cooperate.

Yet despite the urgency of the problem, the Los Angeles Times' reporting has lacked the edge required to rally the public behind policy solutions. Slow to acknowledge the problem, particularly the immigrant dimension, when it was burgeoning in the 1980s, the Times' reporting has been less than searching, and tends to duck the tougher issues if they challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of diversity or might feed anti-immigrant stereotypes.

These deficits were evident in a multipart series that the paper ran in November 1996 on the 18th Street Gang, the biggest and most insidious in Los Angeles. The result of eight months of investigative work by reporters Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez, the series examined the gang's history, criminal activities, sociological complexities and impact on residents. It also detailed law enforcement's failures to come to terms with the gang.

But missing from the series was any mention of what many authorities consider to be a significant policy obstacle to fighting the gang effectively an obstacle inextricably linked to the larger problem of poor coordination between local and federal authorities. The policy, called Special Order 40, specifically prevented the Los Angeles Policy Department from asking anyone about their immigration status, checking with the INS, or turning in suspects accused of minor violations, one way of monitoring for more serious offenses.

According to those involved in the fight against gangs, it was one of the primary reasons why the region was having such a hard time coming to terms with the alien gang problem.

The problem of methamphetamine "superlabs" in the Central Valley of California is another major crime story with an immigration subtext that news organizations have had a hard time addressing, as a front-page New York Times piece in mid-May 2001 attests. Methamphetamine is highly addictive, often causing violent psychosis in abusers. It is also an environmental disaster. Many meth labs employ the severely toxic drug phosphine, which can leave the land and buildings used for lab sites permanently polluted and lab workers with disease that quickly becomes fatal.

Today's labs are run by "Mexican crime families" from south of the border who have set up shop in the north in order avoid the hassle of smuggling the drug through the border. These families, the article says, also use their sales network to sell the product nationwide, with drugs produced in California available on the street in Portland, Maine.

But when it came to examining who the lab workers in this labor-intensive industry were, the Times reporter seemed to engage in intentional obfuscation.

"You can't discuss large-scale manufacture [of methamphetamine] without mentioning undocumented illegal Mexican immigrants," said Robert Pennal, a federal agent who heads the Fresno Methamphetamine Task Force.

For touchy-feely relativism in reporting on Latino immigrant gangs, however, nothing could surpass Seth Mydans' 1995 New York Times story, "Family Ties Strong for Hispanic Gangs." Fusing a report on the ultra-violence of L.A.'s Latino street gangs with a discourse on their often overlooked sense of family values, the piece reads almost like a parody of culturally sensitive reporting. According to Mydans, the gangs could also be "remarkably warm hearted" with a gallant "respect for motherhood." Hispanic family members were very loyal, he noted, visiting incarcerated relatives in jail. And when young teenage couples bore children out of wedlock, the gang members often stayed at home to look after their offspring, proud and exultant.

The Economic Costs Are Not Debated

News organizations skirt immigration's downside in still another way by accepting the line of columnists such as Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who wrote in April 1996, "In any event, most immigrants, in the classic American story, contribute far more to this country than they cost." Reporters have generally ignored an ever-increasing body of research indicating that the opposite is true.

The costs involved in arresting, providing translators for, prosecuting, and incarcerating undocumented immigrant criminals is one subject that news organizations have been very reluctant to acknowledge.

Another facet of the immigrant social spending debate where journalists have been less than vigorous in getting to the facts is immigrant welfare dependency. In 1999, the poverty rate for immigrants and their children was eighteen percent, while it was eleven percent for native-born Americans and their children.

A walk through any social service office filled with Latino clients would be enough at least to raise questions about the link between high immigration and high rates of child poverty, as would even the most cursory conversation with a caseworker or supervisor. But the media often skirt these relationships. The cost of extending medical services to impoverished immigrants, many of them illegal, is another subject that has gotten short shrift. For most of the 1990s in Los Angeles, for instance, illegal immigrants made up one-quarter of the patients in the overburdened public hospital and clinic system and accounted for two-thirds of the births in Los Angeles County hospitals. Yet a MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour report on the L.A. County hospital system's 1995 fiscal crisis typified the willful avoidance that reporters often brought to the subject.

There seemed to be a lot of willful denial about the effects of heavy immigration on school spending too. Journalists, preferring to overlook the strains that record numbers of immigrant children were putting on public education, emphasized the bright side. "Immigrants Jam Schools, Invigorate System," read one New York Times headline. The Times has also shown a reluctance to acknowledge immigration as a factor in school overcrowding. As the 1996 school year opened, the New York City public school system discovered that enrollment rates in many of its districts had vastly exceeded estimates. Chaos resulted.

The most overcrowded districts were also the ones with the heaviest concentrations of immigrants. Many of the parents who were quoted complaining about the situation in the news media were recent arrivals from Bangladesh, Thailand, and other Third World countries. Not long before, the New York Board of Education had issued a report projecting that it would take four hundred new schools, at a cost of $10 billion, to accommodate all the new immigrants. Not long after, it released figures showing that immigrant students take longer than most students to graduate, some as much as six or seven years longer, which further contributes to the system's congestion. In its reporting on the overcrowding crisis, however, the New York Times barely mentioned the immigration factor. Instead it chose to blame policy decisions made in the 1970s.

Downplaying the Concerns of Average Americans

Were it less ideological, the journalistic establishment might acknowledge that public anxiety about the heavy immigration isn't without some foundation. The demographic transformation such immigration has set in motion is unprecedented in America, turning a majority white nation with European cultural roots into a non-white plurality with no shared cultural heritage. No other country in history has ever willingly attempted, much less accomplished, a social makeover on this scale.

According to polls, most Americans including most Hispanics feel uneasy about high rates of immigration and virtually open borders, believing that the harm resulting from such a situation outweighs the gains. Dismayed by the policy dilettantism of political elites, the majority of Americans also resent the fact that they have never been consulted about, much less allowed to debate, the merits of immigration policy with the vigor that the current situation warrants. As Nathan Glazer wrote in the New Republic, "When one considers present immigration policies, it seems we have insensibly reverted to mass immigration without ever having made a decision to do so."

Yet for most of the 1980s and early 1990s, journalists helped to chill a much-needed, vigorous debate on immigration and immigration reform. Echoing the activists who made accusations of nativism whenever calls for reform were made, the press helped establish an embargo on criticism. "A Land of Immigrants Gets Uneasy about Immigration" read one New York Times headline, repeating predictions that the country might soon be seeing the bloody ghosts of its anti-immigrant past. Dismissed in one New York Times headline as "An Accident of Geography" and in a Times op-ed piece as the equivalent of the Berlin Wall, the concept of a border itself was made to seem illegitimate, and those who were calling for beefing up its strength were regularly disparaged as "mean-spirited" chauvinists trying to hold back a human tide that was veritably a force of nature.

About the author

William McGowan, currently a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and author of Only Man is Vile The Tragedy of Sri Lanka. This material is adapted with permission of the publisher from Coloring the News How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism by William McGowan, Encounter Books, San Francisco, (c) 2001.

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