Deconstructing the New York Times

When I read last Sunday’s New York Times cover piece on pioneering and polemical immigration restrictionist John Tanton, I thought immediately of John Higham, the eminent historian and author of the classic study of nativism, Strangers in the Land.

Higham, who died in 2003, had long observed writers like Jason DeParle, who wrote the Times’ piece. In his case, they were fellow liberal academics, historians and social scientists, who had what Higham called “a tendency to fix upon ideology as the critical factor in many a social problem, in the perhaps tenuous hope that the problem will yield to a reasonable solution once the ideological magic is exorcised.”

The ideology that most interested Higham was nativism, which he said loomed so large in many scholars’ view of immigration discussions that it eclipsed other, more important considerations, “Nativism displays all the terrors that beset their own sensibility,” he wrote.

Higham believed there are legitimate, non-nativist reasons for concern about immigration. He was concerned himself at the wave of unskilled, poorly-educated immigrants that has surged into the United States over the past four decades. And he was alarmed that partisans often sought to stifle discussion with cries of “Nativist!” or “Racist!”

DeParle’s piece is a textbook example of the problem Higham lamented. Driven by the ideology that Higham found so lacking, it tracks Tanton’s descent “from apostle of centrist restraint to ally of angry populists and a man who increasingly saw immigration through a racial lens.”

The take-home message is that the three major organizations that seek to reduce immigration--the Federation for American Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA, and the Center for Immigration Studies--are tainted by their association with nativist John Tanton.

DeParle describes Tanton’s mounting frustration with the failure of 1986 immigration reform legislation. Congressional sponsors had touted the Immigration Reform and Control Act as a compromise that would impose order on the immigration chaos by combining amnesty for illegal immigrants with firm measures to stop future waves. It made the hiring of unauthorized workers a crime.

But, as DeParle notes, “the penalties proved ineffective and the amnesty was marred by fraud.”

His story spills pools of ink detailing Tanton statements--most of them decades old--that demonstrate a shrill and tone-deaf dismay at the effects of uninterrupted mass immigration. Some are unfortunate. Some are disgraceful.

DeParle quotes a CIS report that criticized Tanton’s “tin ear for the sensitivities of immigration.” The report’s next sentence, which DeParle does not quote, laments Tanton’s “tendency to be unnecessarily provocative, a tendency that some have seized upon to change the topic from immigration to Tanton himself.”

Therein lies the fundamental, journalistically fatal flaw of DeParle’s story. His focus is so constricted that he produces a lopsided examination of extremism in the immigration debate.

It is one thing for DeParle to highlight Tanton’s politically poisonous indiscretions. Tanton, who did more than anyone else to establish the modern movement to restrict immigration, has indeed done more than anyone else to undermine that movement.

But it is quite another thing for DeParle to fail to broaden his field of vision to observe the politically poisonous evolution on the other side of the immigration policy divide. DeParle’s story is willfully blind.

Over the past several years, advocates of illegal immigration and ethnic organizations like the National Council of La Raza have taken as their battle cry the Southern Poverty Law Center’s kangaroo-court, made-to-order 2007 designation of FAIR as a “hate group.”

We at CIS issued a report that exposed the SPLC’s multi-layered fraud and the “stop the hate” campaign it spawned. It is a vehement campaign of smear and character assassination directed against FAIR, NumbersUSA, and the Center for Immigration Studies.

As our report noted, the campaign sought to have all three organizations “shunned by the press, civil society, and elected officials. It is an effort to destroy the reputations of its targets. It also seeks to intimidate and coerce others into silence. It undermines basic principles of civil society and democratic discussion.”

But who is DeParle’s go-to guy for his only quote about the campaign? It’s the campaign’s principal spokesman, Frank Sharry.

Sharry’s organization, America’s Voice, is funded with millions of dollars from the Carnegie Corporation, the liberal, New York-based philanthropic foundation that righteously--and in this case ironically--touts its mission to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.”

During DeParle’s visit to the CIS office, I provided him with our report. We spoke about it at length. It describes the Carnegie network and its own brand of extremism, which grew out of frustration at the 2007 collapse of “comprehensive" reform legislation.

In addition to America’s Voice, the Carnegie funded participants include the Center for American Progress, Center for New Community, Center for Community Change, and the National Council of La Raza.

Last Saturday, in an email notifying me that the story was about to run, DeParle wrote this: “I used the Carnegie stuff, but it got cut. Maybe I can come back to it.”

To that I can only respond with the new, 2.0 version of the skepticism I have long harbored about coverage of immigration at the New York Times, where John Higham should be required remedial reading.

I think I can expect to see the Times’ report on the Carnegie network about the time I see Porky Pig flying down Pennsylvania Avenue.

No reporter should allow his byline to sit atop a 2,900 word story about a highly controversial topic if that story has no room for an essential element of balance. Not when the void results in a story that is egregiously one-sided and indifferent to ongoing excesses. Not when those excesses are at least as poisonous to the national immigration debate as 20-year-old quotes from a 77-year-old man who has Parkinson’s disease and is quietly fading from the scene.

After my conversation with DeParle, I had the clear impression that he recognized the smear campaign’s significance for his story. Last Sunday evening, after reading the story, I sent him a note asking if he thought the story should have noted “millions of dollars Carnegie has been handing out to the network of organizations that have mounted the ongoing campaign of smear and character assassination.”

Several hours later he wrote back: “I’ll drop you a note tomorrow.”

I haven’t heard from him since.

Here are three more criticisms of the Times’ story:

1) Shabby treatment of Roy Beck

DeParle feigns fair treatment by giving Beck the chance to deny that he’s racist. He should have gone to the ample record that establishes his integrity. For example, in 1996 Francis Fukuyama observed that Beck had presented his restrictionist case “in a way that fosters serious debate rather than name-calling.” He also wrote that Beck’s arguments “are presented carefully and dispassionately and deserve serious answers.” Fukuyama wrote that for the New York Times. I can’t imagine that a Times staffer would dare such heresy.

2) Fudging the Record on Barbara Jordan

DeParle notes that Beck’s website includes a picture of Barbara Jordan. He identifies Jordan only as “a black civil rights leader and politician that (Beck) considered an ally.” He fails to include the relevant contextual information that would illustrate the progressivism underlying Beck’s concerns. In the 1990s, when Jordan directed a presidential commission on immigration policy, Jordan did not see immigration as such an undiluted blessing that only a bigoted, nativist fringe would want to restrict it. Indeed, she believed that immigration must be restricted in order to provide the civic and economic space for it to be successful. Said Jordan, “If we are to preserve our immigration tradition and our ability to say yes to so many of those who seek entry, we must also have the strength to say no where we must.”

3) Fact-Free Zone

The story is stuffed with innuendo and thick with suggestions of bigotry on the part of anyone connected to any of the organizations that has ever been connected to Tanton. DeParle makes a quick pass at objectivity, acknowledging that there are “serious liberal arguments for lower immigration.” Yet, he provides none of the easily available and plentiful evidence for that fact. He could easily have noted that legal immigration has steadily expanded since the 1970s, when an average of 449,000 immigrants were admitted into the country each year, to the just-completed decade, when the annual average was nearly one million.