More on Roy Beck and What Was Not Reported in the NYT

By Jerry Kammer on December 16, 2014

Yesterday I expressed dismay at the New York Times story that used the Southern Poverty Law Center's Heidi Beirich to cast a moral shadow on Roy Beck, the head of NunmbersUSA. Now, writing as a former reporter, I need to flesh out the journalistic indictment.

Heidi Beirich is not a credible source on Roy Beck. To understand why, just do a word search here for "Beck" or "Beirich". Much of what she has said about those who want to limit immigration is intellectually bankrupt, morally negligent, and ethically reckless. When it is invoked by an important newspaper like the New York Times, it has a chilling effect on a national discussion that should be civil, well informed, and intellectually vibrant. That discussion should not be strangled by the SPLC's McCarthyite tactics of smear and character assassination.

Julie Hirschfeld Davis's story in the Times illustrates a problem described by Daniel Okrent in 2004, when he was public editor at the paper. Okrent wrote that when it comes to coverage of social issues, "if you think the Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed." He castigated the paper's reporting for its tendency to "tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear."

The problem I want to describe today concerns something Hirschfeld Davis apparently did not want her readers to know. Having noted Beck's invocation of the late Barbara Jordan to disinvite racists from his website, she failed to report what is most important about Jordan for a profile of Beck.

As head of the presidential Commission on Immigration Reform during the Clinton administration, Jordan recommended that legal immigration be reduced and that laws against illegal immigration be enforced. With those recommendations, Jordan, a civil rights leader and a towering moral authority in American culture and politics, exerted a powerful influence on Roy Beck.

As a matter of fact, as Beck told me when I asked him about the article — and as he said he told Hirschfeld Davis — he formed NumbersUSA shortly after Jordan died in 1996 because he wanted to be an advocate for her policies.

That is a fact that should leap from any profile of Roy Beck. Unfortunately, the hole in Hirschfeld Beck's story has plenty of journalistic company. To paraphrase a line from Waiting for Godot, there has been no lack of journalistic void.

Beck said he explains Barbara Jordan's influence every time he has a substantial conversation with a reporter. The full context of his remarks is important, so here is a transcript:

I explain to them that I started NumbersUSA specifically to carry out the recommendations of the Jordan Commission, that I formed the organization a few months after she died. I always explain that the Jordan Commission is central to what NumbersUSA is, that what we are advocating is not on some ideological fringe.

I don't believe any reporter has ever reported that. I've thought about it. I've wondered: Why is that? It's not as if the reporters are part of a conspiracy, where they meet and decide what not to report. But I think it's interesting. As a former reporter, I think it's interesting that a group that is primarily working with conservative Republicans started off with someone like Barbara Jordan. And I've wondered why it doesn't get reported.

I came to the conclusion that it creates a cognitive disconnect and that most reporters, almost regardless of their own ideology, want to compartmentalize everything. They see immigration as a story of liberals who want more immigration and conservatives who want less. So when you see an organization like ours, you think it's a conservative organization. And when you hear that a black civil rights leader had a tremendous influence on us, there is some kind of disconnect, especially when you compare that with what comes out of the SPLC. Maybe it's some unconscious thing in reporters' minds where they just don't hear it, or they slough it off. I think that's unfortunate.

Here's a thought I will add to Beck's: Maybe the reporters were talking to Roy Beck with their minds closed. Why go for complexity and nuance when you can quote Heidi Beirich, the Church Lady of the SPLC, about evil and hatred.