Michelle Cottle is a fine writer. A scribe for the Daily Beast, she writes vividly and with fervor, especially when she rips conservatives. Of the Tea Party, for example, she has written that "the movement's anarchic, bottom-up structure may give its gatherings tons of snap, crackle, and pop, but it is lousy for formulating and delivering a coherent message."
So when the Black American Leadership Alliance this week teamed up this with Tea Partiers for a rally demanding that Congress "recognize the devastating effects illegal immigration and amnesty have on low-skilled workers, particularly those in minority communities," maybe it was inevitable that Cottle would ignore the message and slash the cracklers.
Propaganda can be more fun than reporting, especially when you're a liberal ideologue with little interest in the complexities of immigration policy or the sad statistics of unemployment among blacks.
A less hidebound reporter might see that attention should be paid when a black leader draws a straight line between Monday's D.C. March for Jobs and next month's 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech. That epic address was the unforgettable centerpiece of a protest that was called "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom".
At Monday's rally, Charles Butler, who was a child in 1963 and whose mother told him Dr. King was marching so that Charles would have a better future, recalled the speech. He expressed anguish that half a century later "Native born-workers have been demolished — in terms of getting jobs — by foreign workers."
Cottle wrote not a word about Butler's concerns. Nor did she mention the speech by Frank Morris, former executive director of the Black Congressional Caucus Foundation and a member of the Center for Immigration Studies board.
Morris pointed to the Senate immigration reform bill and charged that racism is at work in Washington when "non-citizens, who have violated and benefited from the violation of our laws, are having a new bill that Congress is proposing for them, that gives them more benefits, while our own citizens are tragically suffering more."
Cottle wasn't about to dignify such grievances by reporting them. She was out to produce a snark fest. Her story was a rip-roaring romp of ridicule and contempt, directed mostly at the white folks who cheered the black leaders who opposed the Senate immigration bill. Her copy oozed condescension. It dripped disdain.
First, let's step back and take a calmer look at the events.
While Cottle estimated the marchers at 1,000 to 1,200, Julia Preston of the New York Times estimated 2,000. Preston added this:
"Kill the bill!" was the marchers' rallying cry. They wore red T-shirts saying, "Protect American Jobs, No Amnesty!" Some protesters carried big signs with black letters and one word: "Deport!" While there were many black speakers, the crowd was largely white.
Many in the crowd were animated and energetic. They had a good time. But what Cottle saw was a dreary assemblage of the defeated and deflated, pitifully slouching toward irrelevance.
She led her story with a put-down. The event "wasn't exactly a blockbuster", she wrote. And a Tea Partier from Ohio "expressed disappointment" that his bus wasn't full. Another "expressed dismay" at the turnout.
Cottle's marchers didn't actually march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. They "drifted" there. Having assembled in a park to hear the speakers, they "mopped sweat from their flushed faces and pale pates." And, of course, they were mostly "lily white".
Cottle fixed her fevered attention on the freakishly irrelevant. She wanted farce. And by God, in a gonzo tour de force of tunnel-vision reportorial misconduct, she got it.
She spotted "one guy in a Captain America costume brandishing a massive, 25-foot American flag that kept getting tangled in the trees." She gave four lines to one black protester, "a shirtless young man named Alfonso More," who "was strutting about in a golden King Tut headdress and collar."
She found a guy who "was trying to drum up support for his campaign to free his wife, currently serving prison time for having kidnapped her own child."
She dug up a Tea Party type, a father of 12 who had left his wife "pregnant with No. 13 ... back home with the younger tots."
Cottle is a Washington type, a bien pensant who relishes the opportunity to strut her sneering stuff around the rubes from the hinterlands. It makes for mirthful conversation at a party in Georgetown or Cleveland Park. There she can strike the dramatic pose of a doyenne of disdain, a contessa of contempt, a siren of snark.
Cottle actually managed to get this museum-quality non sequitur into print:
One interesting wrinkle: because the event was being put on by BALA, speakers talked a fair amount about the particular economic hardships faced by black Americans. The crowd too was less lily white than your average Tea Party shindig. (Though it was still pretty damn white.) No matter. The older white attendees seemed amenable to all the race talk, especially when the always colorful Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson opened with the quip: "It's so hot out here, I'm turning black."
Now there was method to this incoherence. Cottle trivialized the theme of the event before heaping more scorn. Still, a competent copy-editor could have salvaged the wreck. But the editor at work with Cottle was part of the prank, coming up with this inspired headline: "Black American Leadership Alliance D.C. Anti-Immigration Rally Wilts".
Now I happen to identify as a liberal, of the moderate variety. I would support an immigration bill that provided a broad path to citizenship if it seriously followed through on the Gang of Eight's other professed aim — to ensure that we have no more waves of illegal immigration. My reservations about their bill are rooted in the belief that, as currently written, it would fail miserably in that regard, replicating the mistakes of the 1986 amnesty.
But having lived near the border for many years, and having been introduced to immigration issues when I became the Arizona Republic's correspondent in Northern Mexico one month before the amnesty bill was passed, I understand the concerns and anxieties of people like those who participated in Monday's march.
I think it's malicious nonsense to say that those who want to stop illegal immigration are "anti-immigrant". I also don't think those who dislike bad reporting are "anti-journalism".
I've developed a thorough dislike for the sort of reporting that Cottle produced about the march. It is predictably, drearily reliant on the sources that Cottle used in her earlier set-up piece, which treated those involved in the march as the tools of a white racist cabal.
There Cottle's reporting recycled the garbage featured in the thuggish smear campaigns conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for New Community.
Unfortunately, Cottle has become a role model for other young Washington reporters who like the thrill of ridicule. For example, Molly Redden, who covered the march for the New Republic, sneered at the "sweaty, pink sexagenarians" who gathered "ostensibly to rally for black job creation." Ostensibly, Molly? What were they really up to?
Redden even quoted Cottle's observation that what the marchers really wanted to tell the world was: "Take all your snotty assumptions about immigration opponents being a bunch of racist white folk and shove 'em."
Lines like that from reporters like these, Beltway types who haven't spent enough time among ordinary Americans to get over their contempt, help explain why there is so much shallow reporting on immigration. Stylishly nasty, they should paste lines into their Twitter feeds.
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Now, expecting them to love Monday's marchers would be too much. But a little common decency would be nice, and less flagrant prejudice. That would also make for better journalism.