Jeffrey Toobin's Declaration of Allegiance

By Jerry Kammer on August 12, 2015

When I was a young reporter, I learned that journalists have a responsibility to two groups of people. The first group is the subjects of our stories. The second group is the readers.

That came to mind as I was thinking about Jeffrey Toobin's essay in the New Yorker, which he wrote in response to readers who disliked his decision in an earlier story to describe his central characters as "illegal immigrants".

At the beginning of his essay, "Should I Use the Term "Illegal Immigrant", Toobin indicates that he was writing, at least in part, in response to readers of his long story last month that was titled "American Limbo" because it described the plight of illegal immigrants anxiously hoping for Congress or the president to grant them legal status.

At the beginning of his essay, Toobin writes that, "Several readers chided me for using the term 'illegal immigrant,' which they felt was pejorative and inaccurate."

Toobin ends the essay by explaining that the most important consideration in his new judgment about using "illegal immigrant" is the opinion of those to whom the term is applied. "There does seem to be a consensus against the use of the term [illegal immigrant] by the people most affected by it, who happen to be a vulnerable minority seeking a better life, and that's good enough for me. Personally, I'm dropping the use of the term 'illegal immigrant.'"

What strikes me here is that Toobin is not just acknowledging a responsibility of fairness and accuracy toward his readers and his subjects; he is explicitly identifying with two groups on one side of the immigration debate: advocates for immigrants in the country illegally and the immigrants themselves.

Perhaps we should expect no more from the New Yorker, whose liberal sensibility is apparent in every issue. But I would like to think that the other side of the immigration debate, the side comprising those who want enforcement of immigration laws, should get a fair hearing. That would be conducive to the sort of rigorous, probing, nuanced analysis that best serves our national debates. But Toobin's fixation on his liberal view apparently has blinded him to the conservative view.

Toobin's essay brings to mind something he said on CNN last February, He was speaking about a federal judge's stay on President Obama's executive action to shield illegal immigrants from deportation and authorize them to work.

Said Toobin to Anderson Cooper:

Well, judging these days especially in the federal courts is a very political act. This judge was very carefully chosen by Texas. He's a known conservative judge who has been hostile to the president on immigration reform.

Taking that statement as a template, I offer this opinion of Toobin's work in his essay and in the story on which the essay was based:

Well, explanatory reporting these days, especially in the New Yorker, is a very political act. This reporter was very carefully chosen by the editors. He is a known liberal analyst who has been hostile to those who think that by focusing entirely on the concerns of illegal immigrants and their defenders, he is missing half of a very big story.