Lou Dobbs, the Birthers and the Cable News Crack-Up

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A few years back, during the height of illegal immigration-mania, I spent a considerable amount of time for this magazine with the man who seemed to stand for the great fear that this nation was under attack from across the border, that we were losing control of our sovereignty, and that our national agenda was being determined by Mexican President Vicente Fox. That man was Lou Dobbs.

Truth to tell, I kind of liked Dobbs. During our time together—which included staff meetings and live broadcasts, after-work drinks and even a trip to a Hispanic journalists’ convention in Miami—I found Dobbs to be terribly myopic but also blunt, a man who knew he had come from little and now appreciated that he had a lot. He called me pard’ner and loved a dirty martini.

Now, with Dobbs’ border war on the brink of irrelevancy, he has returned to the limelight with another grave concern—the birth certificate of President Barack Obama. The so-called “birther” movement, which demands that Barack Obama prove that he’s really, um, an American citizen, has been debunked by every sane political journalist, as well as officials from the Hawaii Department of Health. But it’s become the centerpiece of Dobbs’ nightly news program and his daily radio broadcast.

“I’m starting to think we have a document issue,” Dobbs said on his radio program recently. While Dobbs has said that he believes Obama was born in Hawaii, he has continued to give considerable segment time to the matter, one that should have been put to rest along with the fake moon landings and the sighting of Elvis at a Burger King in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

But there seems to be no end in sight to Dobbs’ new crusade. Even though CNN president Jon Klein decreed that the story was kaput, he later seemed to backtrack, saying that Dobbs has “more than 30 years as a television journalist, and I trust him, as I trust all our reporters and anchors, to exercise their judgment as various stories evolve.”

We shouldn’t be surprised. While some might say that Dobbs is merely tapping into the fears of wacky conspiracy radicals, the truth is Dobbs represents something even more troubling: The great devolution of cable journalism during the past decade and the cult of personality that is now standard on the three networks—CNN, FOX and MSNBC—that we turn to for “news.”

In a previous generation, broadcast network anchors—best embodied by the late Walter Cronkite—acted as father figures, calm hands leading us through the news of the day. What we see today are a plethora of rogue agents, bending information in ways that traditional reporters, even ones writing with a point of view, feel repulsed by. Hannity. O’Reilly. Matthews. Beck. We don’t trust these people so much use them to reaffirm our own beliefs about what’s right and wrong. 

Sadly, it’s far too late to retreat from all of this. Getting CNN to stop Dobbs from his quixotic quest to find the document that would really, really show that our president is legally our president would be akin to providing ten tons of ammunition to those who believe we were duped in the last election, or that we are secretly ruled from Kenya.  No. Dobbs and the rest of his ilk are here to stay, victors in a war that will very soon deliver the final destruction of the standards of real reportage. From where Dobbs and his peers sit, the grand marketplace of ideas has been replaced by feudal kingdoms in which we only we see and hear what our cable lords want us to.

Dobbs, with his fiefdom secure, will continue his crusade. And with each day, the stones surrounding him grow thicker, more permanent in their foundation. It’s his world now, with the echoes of what’s really important bouncing off them, dying whispers growing ever so faint, unheard, unheeded. 


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Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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