Networks Fail to Distinguish Between Xenophobia and Law Enforcement

Liberal political pundits frequently remind Americans that words matter, which makes broadcast network reporters' coverage of Arizona's new crack down on illegal immigrants so appalling.  

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law on April 23 that would make it a misdemeanor for immigrants to not carry documentation proving they are in the country legally. The bill gave state law enforcement the power to determine the immigration status of any person during "any lawful contact." Amid allegations that this law would lead to "racial profiling," Brewer later amended it to allow law enforcement to only check the immigration status of those involved in a "lawful stop, detention or arrest."

Reporters on ABC, NBC and CBS misled the American people about the law by calling it "anti-immigration" twice as often as correctly identifying the law as "anti-illegal immigration" and reporting, as ABC's Bill Weir did on the April 24 "Good Morning America, "Police [in Arizona] now have the power to stop anyone and make them prove they are legal."

Between April 23, when the law was signed and May 2, reporters on ABC, CBS, and NBC correctly identified the law as an "anti-illegal immigration law" in only 4 percent (3 out of 72) of the references to the law. Nearly ten percent of the references (7 out of 72) referred to the bill as an "anti-immigration law." 

"Anti-immigration" and "anti-illegal immigration" are two distinct labels. The former is a xenophobic view. The latter makes it clear that immigrants are welcome, as long as they go through the proper channels to come to America.

But for the broadcast networks, there's no distinction between the two.

Two segments about Arizona's new measure seem to indicate that reporters don't understand illegal immigration was against the law before Brewer signed the bill.  

"The bill makes it a crime to be in Arizona illegally," reported CBS's Bill Plante during an April 24 "Early Show" segment.

Plante's colleague, Betty Nguyen, echoed him in her April 27 "Early Show" segment. "The law makes it a crime to be an illegal immigrant," she explained.

J.D. Hayworth, a Republican challenger for John McCain's Senate seat, was the only person to ask on broadcast news programs the basic question around which the immigration debate should revolve. "Do you think illegal aliens have done anything wrong by being in this country without authorization?" he asked Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez during a joint May 2 "Face the Nation" appearance on CBS.

Rather than focus on that question and recognizing that illegal immigrants are already breaking federal law by simply being in the country without authorization, CBS instead sympathetically reported on the plight of illegal immigrants under the new law.

Bill Whitaker focused on illegal immigrant Gerardo in his May 1 "Evening News" segment.

"Gerardo, who asked us to conceal his identity, crossed illegally from Mexico to Arizona four years ago. With the new law, he knows there's a greater chance he will be arrested and deported," reported Whitaker.

Gerardo told CBS, "I've got no papers, I've got different color," before Whitaker continued, "He has a daughter, a state job, a home which his American born partner Jessica is packing up fearing they might have to flee."

Jessica lamented, "He cannot stay here. It will be difficult for him to go to work, to go to the store, to even be with my daughter outside."

All three broadcast networks mischaracterized the law in reports after the bill was first signed into law on April 23. ABC's Mike Von Fremd picked up where his colleague Bill Weir left off in his April 24 "Good Morning America" report. "The new law here requires local police to stop and demand proof of citizenship from anyone suspected of being illegal immigrant," he explained. That night on "World News," Clayton Sandell toed the same line, noting, "The new law allows police to demand papers from anyone they suspect may be here legally." NBC's Lester Holt claimed on the April 24, "Saturday Today," the new law "gives police broad new power to crack down on illegal immigration." Over at CBS, Bill Plante reported the law "requires police to question people about their status if there's reason to suspect they're illegal immigrants."

However, the reports missed a key part of the law: these checks of immigration status were to be done only upon "lawful contact." That means if in the course of doing other police work - a traffic stop or the investigation of a crime - an officer has a suspicion, he or she can ask for documentation. Nothing in the bill even suggested the power to "round up" illegal immigrants.

The text of the bill states:

For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person. Any person who is arrested shall have the person's immigration status determined before the person is released.

Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, rebutted the claims of mainstream reporters during an April 26 "Today" appearance, calling them "hype." Host Matt Lauer asked him why the law wouldn't allow "law enforcement officials walking up to people on the street, questioning them simply because of their appearance, because they appear to be Hispanic?"

Arpaio replied, "Pursuant to their duties, they're not going to go on a street corner and grab people because they look like they're from another country. We haven't been doing that for the past three years and I know law enforcement officers will not do that. That's hype. Those are the critics."

No network reported on the specific changes made to the law on April 30. "Contact" was changed to the more explicit "stop, detention or arrest" and the clause "in the enforcement of any other law or ordinance of a county, city or town or this state," was added to guard against any "rounding up" of people.

ABC's David Kerley simply reported during the May 1 "Good Morning America," "Just yesterday Arizona's Governor signed some new changes to that law, which she says will prevent racial profiling." CBS's Bill Whitaker claimed the amended law  "strengthen[ed] restrictions against racial profiling while giving police more latitude to stop suspects and demand proof of citizenship." NBC did not note the changes to the law.

It seems odd that reporters wouldn't at least discuss changes made to address their concerns of police abuse of power in his law.