by David Kopel
Sept. 29, 2002
The media tempest over Rep. Tom Tancredo's basement offers an opportunity to distinguish liberal journalism (which is fine) from bad journalism in service of liberalism (which isn't).
The affair began on Aug. 11, when a front-page Sunday Denver Post story told the story of Jesus Apodaca, an illegal alien who can't get in-state tuition at the University of Colorado at Denver. The Post's front-page Sunday exposés are the most reliably biased news items in the paper. The Apodaca story was typical in that it used a wide variety of sources to build a story almost exclusively for one position. The notion that illegal aliens shouldn't get taxpayer subsidies was expressed by only one source, in two paragraphs out of a 42-paragraph story. Such heavily one-sided stories would be better placed in the Post's Perspective section, or at least labeled with "Point of View" or some similar disclaimer.
But suppose the Apodaca story had been better-balanced (or better-labeled) - was it legitimate for a newspaper to publicize and, in essence, plead the case for a criminal to escape punishment, and to receive a generous reward from the taxpayers? I think such a crusade is within the legitimate discretion of a newspaper.
Consider some other lawbreakers who are or might have been the subject of newspaper coverage: Jews illegally migrating to British-controlled Palestine after World War II; medical marijuana users complying with state law but violating the conflicting federal law; crime victims defying a jurisdiction's handgun ban; a mixed-race couple defying a state's miscegenation law in the 1940s; or a gay couple defying a modern sodomy law. Different people would have different sympathies for these various lawbreakers, because they believe some of the underlying laws to be unjust. If the Post's sympathies run to illegal aliens who want taxpayer subsidies, it has the right to champion that cause.
Tancredo, with a different set of sympathies, called the local head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to ask why the INS was selectively refusing to enforce the immigration laws against a family that chose to publicize its lawbreaking on the front page of one of the biggest newspapers in the U.S. The INS then apparently called the Post to complain, and both the Post and the Rocky Mountain News ran stories about Tancredo calling for the Apodacas' deportation.
The controversy was legitimate news, but the stories were quite slanted. The Post - besides quoting the parties involved (Tancredo, the Apodacas, and the INS) - offered six paragraphs reporting on the views of people who disagreed with Tancredo, and a single paragraph from one Tancredo supporter (Sept. 13). The News (Sept. 14) devoted 19 paragraphs to criticism of Tancredo by Democrats and a Libertarian, compared to four paragraphs of support from one Republican party official.
But the worst journalistic low came when the Post's front page announced that illegal aliens had worked on the late 2001 remodel of Tancredo's home. Certainly, if Tancredo had consciously employed aliens, the Post would have broken a major story of political hypocrisy. But the Post story showed nothing more than that some illegal - but hardly "undocumented" - aliens appear to have used fake identity papers to dupe a remodeling contractor.
Realistically, there is nothing Tancredo could have done to prevent the illegal aliens from working. The Post suggested that Tancredo could have demanded a certification from the contractor that all the workers were legal, but since the contractor was itself fooled by the illegals, nothing would have changed. The story was petty and mean-spirited.
This self-indulgent exercise in "gotcha" journalism illustrates why so many people detest and fear the media as if it were an abusive law enforcement agency: Even when an individual has done nothing wrong, he is vulnerable to having his reputation tarnished by a powerful organization which, by digging deep enough, can always find some accusation to toss at him.
Commendably, the Post did print a long excerpt of Tancredo's speech on the floor of the House defending himself, and also quoted him extensively in the basement-gate article.
My last column chastised the Denver dailies for insufficient coverage of Muslim extremists in the U.S., of the intolerant extremist nature of the government in Saudi Arabia, and of the anti-government, pro-American riots in Iran. The column inadvertently illustrated the wisdom of a point made by David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel in the movie This is . . . Spinal Tap: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
Nobody's disputed my complaint about the absence of background coverage of pro-terrorist Muslims in the U.S., and on the day my last column appeared (Sept. 15), the front page announced the arrest of a suspected terrorist cell in Lackawanna, N.Y. But my complaints on the other issues were overstated. Besides the stories I mentioned, the Saudi and Iran issues have been covered this summer by Thomas Friedman columns and by a few articles last fall. As I've learned the hard way, neither the Post's Web site nor Westlaw (a legal and newspaper database) contains every single article published in the Post.