CNN's Lou Dobbs has ridden his crusade against illegal immigration to a surge in ratings and a new sideline gig at CBS News. But he's also attracted his share of critics – and among them are some of his newest colleagues.
Steve Friedman is the CBS News vice president responsible for the CBS Early Show. He hired Dobbs last month as a weekly commentator.
"What he brings to us is edge — part of what we do in the morning is we want to be provocative," Friedman says. "We don't want to just tell you, here's what's going on — take a look."
Friedman's glad his third-rated network morning show has added new viewers, but he says it could use some of Dobbs' cable magic. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Dobbs has reinvented himself, casting aside his love of the financial markets. In an interview with NPR, he describes what's animating his agenda.
"My judgment is that the middle class is getting screwed in this country," Dobbs says.
Dobbs has seen great leaps in his ratings, and while modest by network standards, they're warmly embraced at CNN.
He says that a lot of successful cable hosts are fueled by strong opinions, citing Fox News' Bill O'Reilly on the political right and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann on the left.
"I am a centrist. I'm an independent. I'm a populist," Dobbs says, adding, "I don't look at our world through any kind of ideological prism or filter."
Dobbs has drawn the criticism of liberal groups such as Media Matters for America and the Southern Poverty Law Center. And the combination of hot rhetoric and hot ratings that prompted the weekly spot on the CBS Early Show also drew the attention of the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes.
During a story Sunday, CBS' Lesley Stahl questioned whether Dobbs fit his facts to his opinions – and even whether he could still be considered a reliable reporter.
"Reporters don't take on issues; reporters report issues, and there's a big difference there," Stahl told Dobbs on the show. "Do you think you're a journalist?"
So Dobbs made Stahl an iron-clad guarantee.
"If we reported it, it's a fact," he said.
How can you guarantee that to me?" Stahl asked.
"Because I'm the managing editor and that's the way we do business," Dobbs said.
At that point, Stahl and 60 Minutes were questioning a segment involving CNN reporter Christine Romans that appeared on Dobbs' show in 2005.
Romans' story linked a rise in communicable diseases to illegal immigration. Romans then cited her source's account of a rise from 900 cases of leprosy to 7,000 cases "in the past three years."
Stahl said those figures reflected several decades of cases — not several years. And indeed, NPR found that federal health authorities cite a total of 6,500 recorded cases. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, new cases have been declining in the United States since 1988.
In addition, NPR found problems with CNN's source. The late Dr. Madeleine Cosman was a firebrand advocate against illegal immigration, a favorite of talk radio, who identified herself as a "medical lawyer."
Her doctorate, from Columbia University, was in medieval literature, a field in which she was a frequent writer and lecturer. After her retirement as a professor, she earned a law degree from Cardozo Law School in New York, though her daughter was quoted after her death in 2006 by the San Diego Union-Tribune saying she never practiced law.
But she wrote on many issues, and she told Romans she was frequently a consultant to doctors on legal medical issues.
Despite Cosman's background in academia, the article in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons that was cited by CNN's Romans had footnotes that did not readily support allegations linking a recent rise in leprosy rates to illegal immigrants. (The journal itself is not considered a leading publication, as it's put out by an advocacy group that opposes most government involvement in medical care.)
But Dobbs defended the reporting on leprosy to NPR.
"I do not make up numbers," Dobbs says. "It is a fact."
The day after the 60 Minutes report, Dobbs reiterated his defense on the air. He also said the sharp rise in leprosy cases was explained by an improvement in reporting standards – and presumably by a rise in illegal immigration from South Asia, where leprosy is more common. (Legal immigrants are screened for communicable diseases.)
Romans tells NPR she wishes she'd provided more of that context in the 2005 broadcast on CNN, but says she didn't shape her reporting to fit Dobbs' beliefs. And Romans says 60 Minutes is harping on a relatively brief exchange to make an unfair broader point.
CBS News executive Steve Friedman says he's getting exactly zero heartache from the 60 Minutes report about his newest star.
Friedman sought Dobbs out as soon as he saw that ABC's rival Good Morning America had landed the conservative talk radio and cable host Glenn Beck as a commentator.
Friedman says he hopes Dobbs can help draw in new viewers to the CBS Early Show — including those who disagree with him.
"Lou is provocative. And the 60 Minutes report on Lou is also provocative," Friedman says. "Morning television is a warehouse of ideas and rants — and we are looking for people's ideas and what's going on and let people talk and think about them."