The News Media’s Unethical Political Word Games

Reasonable people can disagree about the prudence and fairness of the various get-tough state and local laws targeting illegal immigrants, such as the recent law passed in Alabama (I like it, by the way). They can even disagree—though I personally don’t see how—about the wisdom of state-sanctioned incentives for illegals to smuggle their children into the country, like Maryland’s batty “Dream Act.”

What reasonable people should not accept and must not accept is the increasingly routine practice among many news outlets of dropping “illegal” from the phrase “illegal immigration” and “illegal immigrants” when discussing such measures. The practice is no less than a lie, an effort to misrepresent as bigotry legitimate objections to providing the benefits of American citizenship to those who willfully violate U.S. immigration laws and procedures. The papers, reporters, columnists and bloggers who do this inevitably follow the misrepresentation by denigrating anyone who doesn’t think scofflaws should be celebrated as heroes and handed the keys to the country as “nativists.”

I resent it, because my maternal grandparents were immigrants, the legal kind, and I would no more oppose the progress and success of law-abiding immigrants in the country than I would saw off my arm. I condemn it, because the tactic—and it is a tactic— is unethical journalism, an example of intentionally muddying an issue by imprecision so that the apathetic, the lazy or the none-too-bright—a sizable group, that—are confused about what is the real issue.

For today’s example, I give you Tina Brown’s “The Daily Beast,” an increasingly left-biased news commentary website dominated by columns about how awful all Republicans are and how the fact President Obama can’t possibly fail to be re-elected. Here is how the site headlined the new Alabama law:

Second-Class: Alabama Passes Nation’s Harshest Immigration Law

Second Class! As in “the harsh law turns immigrants into second class citizens.” But the law doesn’t have anything to do with citizens, or immigrants who are citizens. It targets individuals illegally here, often using criminally forged documents, to illicitly obtain the benefits due to U.S. citizens.

Damn right illegal immigrants are “second class,” and were before Alabama passed the law. In fact, they aren’t citizens at all, of any class.

Slyly substituting “immigrant” for “illegal immigrant” is cheating, putting a journalistic thumb on the scales of a legitimate policy dispute rather than submit to fair debate.  I have come to believe that those who tolerate or defend the practice know that they have a losing argument, and can only prevail through rhetorical deception.


6 thoughts on “The News Media’s Unethical Political Word Games

  1. Let us hope that blogging and citizen journalism will rise to the task of replacing the increasingly unprofessional and unethical news sources that have evolved from trusted sources in the past.
    Unfortunately, the focus on the “none-too-bright” seems to be working.

  2. Well, Governor Bentley himself is quoted in the LA Times article as saying: “I campaigned for the toughest immigration laws and I’m proud of the Legislature for working tirelessly to create the strongest immigration bill in the country.” That would be two uses of “immigration” to mean “illegal immigration” in a single sentence by the guy who signed the bill (!). News media can hardly be condemned for using precisely the same language as the bill’s proponents.

    True, context makes it clear what Governor Bentley meant, but the same often (not always) applies to media descriptions. Reasonable people can disagree about the constitutionality of states’ adopting policies about illegal immigrants, but clearly individual states have no business regulating legal immigration, and I can’t imagine even the most right-wing legislature arguing otherwise. Ergo, any state “immigration” law that might be passed is by definition about illegal immigrants. And, of course, the Daily Beast link you provide makes it very clear what the story is about: “Its harsh provisions surpass even Arizona’s controversial bill, barring illegal immigrants from going to college, applying for work, or renting property.”

    I do agree that there’s a difference between immigration and illegal immigration, and that the terms are too often conflated. (My particular bête noire is “undocumented worker,” which is indeed the equivalent of calling a drug pusher an “unlicensed pharmacist.”) But often there really isn’t confusion: “immigration” is simply shorthand for the longer term, which is understood to have been implied. I’d say the Daily Beast blurb falls into that category.

    • Even with that “second class” heading? I don’t think so. And in the wake of the Chairwomen of the Democratic National Committee seeming to dispute whether illegal immigration was even illegal, I think you are much too forgiving.

      It’s true: Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” also used the “immigration” shorthand, and that’s lazy too.Undocumented is a euphemism, but at least its in the ballpark. Immigration is no more illegal immigration than driving is drunk driving. I have personally been accused of being “anti-immigration,” when i am in fact PRO-immigration. I’m not the only one, and I blame the confusion intentionally planted and fertilized by the media.

      • “Second class,” I’ll grant. That there sometimes is an intentionally misleading conflation of the two concepts, I already granted. “Lazy,” I’ll grant. But unless we’re going to say that the Governor who campaigned for the new law, pushed for it when elected, and signed it into law engaged in lying, misrepresentation, unethical conduct, and cheating in his representation of the legislation, then the Daily Beast gets an ethical pass, too. Or, rather, they get a pass with respect to dropping the word “illegal.” That the rest of their coverage of the issue might be slanted is another issue.

        • No disagreement, Rick. Though I do expect more precision of language from journalists, whose trade is accurate communication, than I do from Alabama governors. His sloppiness is also irresponsible, but as we all know, language mastery and leadership aren’t always present at the same time. Journalists, on the other hand, have a core duty to be accurate, fair and clear,

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