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The Stupid It Burns: Media Fan Flames Of Immigration Irrationality

It isn’t exactly news in these quarters that the mainstream media have been playing a critical role in the otherworldly irrationality surrounding the immigration debate, particularly in their willingness — no, eagerness — to spread provably false information and distorted "facts" that demonize and dehumanize Latino immigrants.

Now Media Matters Action Network has done us all the public service of documenting and delineating the problem with a study titled Fear & Loathing in Prime Time: Immigration Myths and Cable News.

The study acknowledges it is in many ways only a sampling of what’s out there, considering the breadth and depth of the problem. It focuses on the three most significant offenders: CNN’s Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck, and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly:

An examination of the rhetoric on immigration on these programs reveals the subtle and not-so-subtle ways these myths find their way into mainstream discourse and are validated by figures like Dobbs, O’Reilly, and Beck. On some occasions, the hosts repeat a myth’s key elements in explicit terms; at other times, they mention some of those elements but not others; and sometimes they bring up the catchphrases associated with those myths without elaborating. Through sheer repetition, they help propagate the myths. For instance, by airing dozens and dozens of segments on individual cases in which an undocumented immigrant committed a crime, Dobbs, O’Reilly, and Beck feed the misperception that these immigrants are responsible for a disproportionate share of crime in America, even if their comments about the specific case in question don’t stray from the facts. Finally, these programs, particularly Lou Dobbs Tonight, have hosted some of the most radical immigration opponents, offering them a national platform to disseminate extremist views.

The study essentially delineates the misinformation into two categories: the most common myths, such as those about crime and undocumented immigrants, and the costs of illegal immigration in social services and taxes; and the right-wing urban legends, such as the "Reconquista!" conspiracy theory, the "NAFTA Superhighway" tale involving creation of a tax-free roadway running from Canada to Mexico, and the claim that illegal immigrants are responsible for a mass wave of election fraud.

The first category involves a sometimes-subtle distortion of facts (such as the constant association of Latino immigrants with crime) while the latter, as we all know, is just straight-out wingnuttery that in nearly every instance actually has its origins as an idea with the most racist and hateful elements of the American right.

The study explains:

During 2007, the alleged connection between illegal immigration and crime was discussed on 94 episodes of Lou Dobbs Tonight, 66 episodes of The O’Reilly Factor, and 29 episodes of Glenn Beck.

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.

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” similar to the European Union. Dobbs has discussed the fictional North American Union on 56 separate programs during the past two years. (These two myths were also given a boost by Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, who pushed the ideas on the campaign trail.)

All three programs have presented as fact the “reconquista” myth, which states that there is a movement afoot for Mexico to take over the American Southwest.

Lou Dobbs Tonight has also been the show on which viewers are told about a mythical explosion of leprosy cases due to illegal immigration, and a mythical epidemic of voter fraud due to illegal immigration.

One thing the study includes, but doesn’t particularly examine, is the inhuman and hateful quality of much of the rhetoric being employed by right-wing talkers. A lot of it, unsurprisingly, is overtly eliminationist:

“I’ve got a quick message for illegal aliens if you happen to be watching. You better start packing your bags. And to the politicians in Washington who are soft on illegal immigration, start packing up your office, because when the terrorists strike, which they will, and we find out that they’re here illegally from some other country, we will be telling all of you to get the hell out.” — Glenn Beck, May 9, 2007

“You’ve got a wholesale invasion, the greatest invasion in human history, coming across your southern border, changing the composition and character of your country.” — Pat Buchanan, Hannity & Colmes, November 26, 2007

“The never-ending criminal alien revolving door — that’s the subject of this evening’s ‘Talking Points Memo.’ Here we go again — another heinous crime, another illegal alien suspect with a mile-long rap sheet, another bloody tragedy wrought by open borders.” — Michelle Malkin, The O’Reilly Factor, August 10, 2007

“I would say, let them fast until they starve to death, then that solves the problem. Because then we won’t have a problem about giving them green cards because they’re illegal aliens; they don’t belong here to begin with.” — Michael Savage, The Savage Nation, July 5, 2007

“This person sent me an email, said when — when we defeat this illegal alien amnesty bill and when we yank out the welcome mat and they all start going back to Mexico, as a going-away gift let’s all give them a box of nuclear waste. Give ‘em all a little nuclear waste and let ‘em take it on down there to Mexico. Tell ‘em it can — it’ll heat tortillas … I love it.” — The Neal Boortz Show, June 21, 2007

Media Matters, as usual, has done superb work here. However, I will also predict that the subjects of this critique will simply dismiss it out of hand because, well, that’s what they do with their critics. MM, of course, is just a bunch of dirty Naziesque liberals funded by George Soros, right? And now, I’m sure we can expect to see "open borders crowd" added to the list of pejoratives.

For the rest of us, well, MM has a petition for you to sign.

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David Neiwert

David Neiwert

David Neiwert is the managing editor of Firedoglake. He's a freelance journalist based in Seattle and the author/editor of the blog Orcinus. He also is the author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, June 2005), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2004), and In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press). His reportage for on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000.