Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ding, Dong, the Dobbs is Dead

Lou Dobbs has resigned from his anchor position at CNN, saying he wants to "go beyond the role" of a television journalist.

Good riddance, in my humble opinion. Dobbs has always been something of a boil on the butt of CNN's news reputation. I say this not because Dobbs is a conservative. In fact, I'm not sure he is a conservative, in a traditional sense, or even what a conservative is, for sure. Conservatives, increasingly, seem to be defined not by a consistent central principle, but by a cluster of dogmatically held views that don't necessarily make sense as a whole. Dobbs is most (in)famous for his opposition to immigration, for instance, which is certainly contrary to the general conservative support for the free market these days (but in the late 19th century, if I remember my history lessons, conservatives in this country favored protectionism because young American industry couldn't compete with the industrial juggernaut of the British Empire).

No, the reason I dislike Mr Dobbs so intensely is because he's been "going beyond the role" of a good journalist for years. He's more of a propagandist than a journalist. That doesn't mean that he didn't break important stories; his single-minded pursuit of the evils of immigration and NAFTA sometimes have led to some real revelations. But I couldn't trust his stories, because he wanted them to come out a certain way and he tailored the facts to suit his views. The Washington Post's story on the Dobbs resignation, for instance, noted that Dobbs had vastly exaggerated the number of young Latinos in U.S. prisons. Dobbs questioned Barack Obama's place of birth even after the birth certificate was made available to the public; he ran a series of stories about "global cooling" based on scattered and anecdotal evidence that shouldn't have convinced anyone, much less a veteran news anchor.

I firmly believe that constructive journalism must start out even-handed; it's okay to develop an opinion, but only after examining the most reliable facts available on both sides (or all sides) of the controversy. This is a very pragmatic view; it's been working ever since the time of the ancient Greeks.

We've just had a horrendous eight-year-long example of what happens when facts get bent to support preconceived opinions. We ended up fighting a war to suppress weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist, and ignoring the mounting evidence of global warming because scientists were being muzzled, and watching New Orleans disintegrate while Bush officials discussed free market methods for dealing with a disaster. Bush wasn't a bad president because he was a conservative. He was a bad president because he cherry-picked facts to fit his beliefs, instead of basing his decisions on sound logic and the preponderance of the evidence.

Likewise with Lou Dobbs, and even more so with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. They're bad not because they're conservatives, but because they're propagandists who don't give the facts a fair playing field. When Keith Olbermann does the same thing on the left, it's also bad. And when Nancy Grace prejudges defendants on national TV night after night, based on whatever sensational facts leak out of an investigation, it doesn't serve justice. All of this stuff is entertaining; it gets the emotional juices going, the same way pro wrestling and "documentaries" about Bigfoot and Noah's Ark do. But when you try to base real-life decisions on that stuff, it's disastrous. You just can't run a country on the same principles as the World Wrestling Federation.

So I applaud Lou Dobbs for resigning. If he realized that what he wanted to do didn't fit within the bounds of journalism, that's good, because it didn't. But if, as he hinted, he plans to go into politics, then the modus operandi that helped him get his CNN ratings is not going to be a good thing in that field, either. A propagandist who goes into politics is not a good politician; he's a demagogue.