Is Lou Dobbs an illegal immigration hypocrite or liberal hit piece target?
The Internets were buzzing last night about former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs' fiery confrontation on MSNBC with Isabel MacDonald, a writer for lefty magazine The Nation who wrote a piece asserting anti-illegal immigrant advocate Dobbs has benefited from the labor of illegal immigrants for years.
Titled "American Hypocrite," the story contains quotes from several immigrants who say they were not legally documented when they worked to care for show horses Dobbs owns or on his estate in West Palm Beach, Fla. For anyone else, hiring companies which employ undocumented workers might be an embarrassment; for Dobbs, who has insisted that employers who create demand for illegal immigrants deserve scorn and punishment, the transgression threatens his image as a truth-teller and advocate.
Dobbs has confronted MacDonald on several broadcast programs now, including his own radio show, Lawrence O'Donnell's MSNBC show The Last Word and Good Morning America. He insists the story is a hatchet job by a liberal magazine out to make money by tearing him down, saying neither he nor his companies have ever hired illegal immigrants.
The long, rambling debate on O'Donnell's show last night was a good example of how unsatisfying these debates have been. The core allegation at the heart of The Nation's piece is simple; Dobbs is a hypocrite for insisting that other employers should work hard to avoid hiring companies that hire illegal immigrants while doing the same thing himself.
The story's secondary point is almost as simple; the wealthiest Americans may be the people who benefit most from illegal immigration, hiring companies which use undocumented workers to care for massive estates and distant concerns, with little clue who is actually doing the labor that keeps their lawns trimmed and horses fed. And the issue is so thorny that even Dobbs can't avoid being part of it.
Unfortunately, too much of the discussion on this issue is wrapped up in whether Dobbs is a hypocrite. MacDonald, who seems to have trouble condensing her thoughts for television, has a tough time summing up her story in broadcast-friendly statements. Dobbs, an experienced TV host, insists his companies have not hired illegal immigrants and has avoided debate over the question of how to treat those who indirectly hire illegal immigrants, as even he allows he might have done.
O'Donnell got close to excavating these issues in two segments devoted to the debate on his show, trying hard to pin down Dobbs on what he thinks now about people who hire people who hire illegal immigrants. But even there, the discussion was irritatingly scattered, complicated by the political bias of the magazine, the liberal lean of MSNBC and Dobbs' own growing, tea-party friendly rhetoric.
It was interesting to see Dobbs pulled toward the right as criticism built over his anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric -- which eventually cost him his job at CNN. His defense against the Nation article, coming as buzz builds that he's speaking at Tea Party rallies to prepare his own bid for political office, has been filled with the kind of liberal-bashing code words normally employed by the Sean Hannitys of the world,
I would have preferred to see a focused discussion. What evidence does MacDonald have? What is Dobbs' position on the core questions that evidence raises? Why won't he say what he thinks about people who did what he did?
Why does MacDonald wait until the end of the story to detail how companies hired by Dobbs, and not the commentator's own corporations, may have hired the undocumented workers? That part of the story describes how the owner of the stable assured Dobbs' family the workers were legal, but then had problems when a firm hired to get their work visas went out of business. Is it fair to blame Dobbs for the period of time those workers were illegal?
These are questions that would likely make for boring television. But they are also the heart of the issues both Dobbs and MacDonald say they most want to discuss: The difficulty of maintaining business which do not depend on illegal immigration to operate.
Ironically, it's a debate we wouldn't pay attention to, if a celebrity like Dobbs hadn't been hit so hard. But it's also a case study in how the ideological focus of some media outlets and the drive for impact can distract from the larger issues which deserve greater attention.
Here's the debate on MSNBC and GMA: