May 30, 2008

Special Report Documents Rhetoric and Hysteria Surrounding Illegal Immigration on Cable News

Dobbs, O’Reilly, and Beck “serve up a steady diet of fear, anger, and resentment on illegal immigration”

Media Matters Action Network released “Fear and Loathing in Prime Time: Immigration Myths and Cable News,” a special report documenting the rhetoric surrounding illegal immigration heard almost daily on influential cable news channels. The report exposes how cable news overflows not only with vitriol regarding immigration, but also with a series of myths that feed viewers’ unfounded resentments and fears. Leading the charge are CNN’s Lou Dobbs, CNN Headline News’ Glenn Beck, and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, all of whom have played major roles in creating this anti-immigrant hysteria.

“This report shows in startling detail how Dobbs, Beck, and O’Reilly serve up a steady diet of fear, anger, and resentment on the subject of illegal immigration,” said Karl Frisch, a spokesman for Media Matters Action Network. “When they aren’t demonizing undocumented immigrants with misleading claims, this trio of cable news bullies is advancing baseless urban legends and wild accusations targeting the immigrant community. CNN and Fox News need to answer for this — failure to do so would be the height of irresponsible journalism and a disservice to the American public.”

The report discusses, in detail, two types of myths regarding immigration perpetuated on cable news. The first are the largest and most common myths, such as those about crime and undocumented immigrants, and the costs of illegal immigration in social services and taxes. The second are the urban legends, such as the purported conspiracy to take back the Southwest United States for Mexico and the supposed secret plan to construct a “NAFTA Superhighway” running from Canada to Mexico.

Media Matters Action Network’s analysis focuses on Dobbs, O’Reilly, and Beck. While hosts on other cable programs regularly discuss illegal immigration (particularly on Fox News, where it is a frequent topic on Hannity & Colmes and Special Report with Brit Hume), Dobbs, O’Reilly, and Beck are the key offenders.

Among the hosts, Dobbs stands out as the most guilty of this recklessly irresponsible journalism. Fully 70 percent of the 2007 episodes of CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight included discussion of illegal immigration.


• Illegal Immigration and Crime: Although numerous studies have found that immigrants in general commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens, these programs are positively obsessed with the topic. During 2007, the alleged connection between illegal immigration and crime was discussed on 94 episodes of Lou Dobbs Tonight, 66 episodes of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, and 29 episodes of CNN Headline News’ Glenn Beck.

• Illegal Immigration and Social Services: Undocumented immigrants are barred from receiving most federally provided social services and pay a variety of taxes, including sales, property (in the form of rent), and payroll taxes. Yet during 2007, the allegation that undocumented immigrants drain social services and/or don’t pay taxes was discussed on 71 episodes of Lou Dobbs Tonight, 13 episodes of Glenn Beck, and eight episodes of The O’Reilly Factor.

• Myths and Urban Legends: Dobbs and Beck have perpetuated two related myths, that there are plans to construct a “NAFTA Superhighway” running from Mexico to Canada and that there are plans to join Mexico, Canada, and the United States in a “North American Union.” Dobbs has discussed the fictional North American Union on 52 separate programs during the past two years. All three programs, Lou Dobbs Tonight, Glenn Beck, and The O’Reilly Factor, have presented as fact the “reconquista” myth, which states that there is a movement afoot for Mexico to take over the American Southwest.

• Unsubstantiated Allegations: On Lou Dobbs Tonight, viewers were told about a mythical explosion of leprosy cases due to illegal immigration and a mythical epidemic of voter fraud due to illegal immigration.

• Dobbs Out Front: Of the three hosts examined in detail, Dobbs is the most obsessed with the topic; indeed, fully 70 percent of the 2007 episodes of Lou Dobbs Tonight contained a discussion of illegal immigration.

A copy of the report is available at

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