ABC Sets Up Sting Operation to Find Racism in AZ Immigration Law, Hires Actor to Play a Bigot

ABC and reporter John Quinones on Thursday stretched the bounds of journalism, hiring an actor to play a racist security guard as a way of testing how the people of Arizona would react to the state's "anti-immigration law."

Previewing the network's "What Would You Do?" segment for Friday's Primetime Live, Quinones explained the undercover concept: "So, I go undercover, pretending to be someone who is about to be arrested and deported, simply by the way I look."

The piece featured a cartoonish "security guard" harassing Mexican actors in Tucson, Arizona. Presumably, ABC chose a security guard because impersonating a police officer is illegal. The actor walked into a restaurant and spewed, "I'm just looking to make sure these guys are legal citizens. And if they're not legal citizens, they shouldn't be here. They should be deported. They look Mexican."

Of course, having this man pretend to be a security guard really makes no sense. (A security guard is going to deport people?) Secondly, for journalists that often attack conservative sting operations, it's rather odd to see ABC manipulate such a scenario.

[See video below. MP3 audio here.]

The Radio, Television and Digital News Association ethics guide states: "Use surreptitious newsgathering techniques, including hidden cameras or microphones, only if there is no other way to obtain stories of significant public importance and only if the technique is explained to the audience." Was this the only way ABC could do such a story?

Previewing the segment, Quinones misstated what Arizona's law actually is. He asserted, "So, we took our cameras down to Arizona, where a controversial, new law would give police the authority to question and perhaps deport anyone who, in their eyes, appears to be in the U.S. illegally."

This is false. Byron York of the Washington Examiner explained in an April 26, 2010 column:

Critics have focused on the term "reasonable suspicion" to suggest that the law would give police the power to pick anyone out of a crowd for any reason and force them to prove they are in the U.S. legally. Some foresee mass civil rights violations targeting Hispanics.

What fewer people have noticed is the phrase "lawful contact," which defines what must be going on before police even think about checking immigration status. "That means the officer is already engaged in some detention of an individual because he's violated some other law," says Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri Kansas City Law School professor who helped draft the measure. "The most likely context where this law would come into play is a traffic stop."

After playing clips of the "security guard" arguing with patrons as he harassed Mexicans, Quinones lectured, "And what we kept hearing over and over from folks was that they all knew about the anti-immigration law. What they didn't realize until we staged our scenario was how it might affect innocent people, Latinos, George who are in this country legally."

Notice the use of "anti-immigration" rather than anti-illegal immigration.

A previous "What Would You Do?" segment featured "ugly Americans" in Paris. In January of 2009, overweight and wearing George W. Bush t-shirts, these actors showcased obnoxious behavior in Europe.

Quinones smeared, "They're the ugly Americans. And for more than a century, they've been fixtures in American literature and film."

A transcript of the February 3 segment, which aired at 7:44am EST, follows:


7:30am tease

ROBIN ROBERTS: Also this morning, imagine being threatened with deportation, even though you haven't committed a crime and it's all because of how you look. John Quinones goes undercover to Arizona's controversial immigration law.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: His ultimate, "What would you do?"

7:44

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: We're going to turn now to our undercover report from the front lines of the border wars. Arizona's immigration law passed last year. It stirred up a lot of controversy. So, John Quinones went to Tucson to put people's attitudes to an unusual test. And as I said earlier, this is sort of an ultimate, "What would you do?"

JOHN QUINONES: Yes. We took it all the way to Arizona. You know, what does, George, an illegal immigrant look like? What does he sound like? So, we took our cameras down to Arizona, where a controversial, new law would give police the authority to question and perhaps deport anyone who, in their eyes, appears to be in the U.S. illegally. So, I go undercover, pretending to be someone who is about to be arrested and deported, simply by the way I look. These people are protesting for and against Arizona's new immigration law. We travel 70 miles north, to Tucson, Arizona and install our hidden cameras at this popular restaurant. BK. Carne Asada and Hot Dogs. This security guard is an actor hired by What Would You Do? And so are the people he's harassing.

WHITE "SECURITY GUARD": Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt. If I could see some identification. You don't belong here.

QUINONES: How will patrons react to the guard asking for identification from a Latino man, a Latino family or even me?

WHITE "SECURITY GUARD": I just want to see some ID and make sure everything's okay. Everybody's like, "Oooh!" It's no big deal. I'm just looking to make sure these guys are legal citizens. And if they're not legal citizens, they shouldn't be here. They should be deported. They look Mexican.

QUINONES: The wheels in this woman's head are turning. But, wait until you hear her plan.

WHITE WOMAN: He just called for a ride. He's going to try and get him deported because he doesn't have any papers. You gotta get those two guys out of here.

WHITE "SECURITY GUARD": All I'm doing is I'm just looking out for everyone's safety.

WHITE WOMAN: You're racial profiling. You totally racial profiled!

WHITE "SECURITY GUARD": Looks like a duck, smells like a duck.

WHITE WOMAN: Looks like [bleeped] is [bleeped].

QUINONES: She then unveils her incredible plot to help me escape.

WHITE WOMAN: You guys have to get out of here. Do they need to go out the back door, do you think? Where's your car? Where's your car? Where's your car? I can drive over there and meet you right there.

QUINONES: Did she really say what we think she said?

WHITE WOMAN: You run out that door. And I'll bring your car right over there.

QUINONES: I'm a reporter. I'm with ABC News. I'm John Quinones.

WHITE WOMAN: Oh. I know who you are.

QUINONES: You jumped right in. You were going to take us in your car.

WHITE WOMAN: I was actually going to get your car and bring it around and meet you over there.

QUINONES: Why get involved?

WHITE WOMAN: Maybe you have family, mothers, children. And I would feel bad if you got separated from them and shipped across the other direction.

QUINONES: It's amazing how people responded. And what we kept hearing over and over from folks was that they all knew about the anti-immigration law. What they didn't realize until we staged our scenario was how it might affect innocent people, Latinos, George who are in this country legally.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Boy, it looks like a fascinating report. Okay, thanks, John. You can see it tomorrow night on Primetime. What Would You Do?"at 9/8 central.

— Scott Whitlock is a news analyst for the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org