In Style and Substance the Associated Press Is Getting It Wrong

By Jerry Kammer on February 7, 2018

Those of us who think the American press did an awful job of reporting on the state of the American working class during the 2016 presidential race can only shake our heads in sadness at a flagrant double-standard that has infected the immigration reporting of the Associated Press.

Let's consider the difference between the AP's decision to ban use of the term "illegal immigrant" except in a direct quotation and its January story that described Mark Krikorian as the head of "the far-right Center for Immigration Studies."

To understand the double standard that accepts the "far-right" label for CIS, we need to step back to 2013, when the AP withdrew its imprimatur for the term "illegal immigrant". Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll announced the change in the AP Stylebook, which sets usage standards not only for AP reporters and editors but also for newsrooms across the country.

"The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term 'illegal immigrant' or the use of 'illegal' to describe a person," Carroll announced. "Instead, it tells users that 'illegal' should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally." She continued: "Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant."

The AP's decision was surprising because it reversed one that it had made just a few months earlier, when it declared that "illegal immigrant" was the appropriate term for someone who was in the U.S. illegally. "Many illegal immigrants aren't 'undocumented' at all," explained Deputy Managing Editor Tom Kent. "They may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver's license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States."

In rejecting that stylistic standard, Kathleen Carroll said the move demonstrated the AP's commitment to "ridding the Stylebook of labels." She said it reflected the same concerns that produced a decision to describe someone as "diagnosed with schizophrenia" rather than "schizophrenic". "And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to illegal immigrant again."

That proclaimed reluctance to apply labels was conspicuous by its absence in a January story whose lead writer was Steve Peoples. Its description of CIS as "far right" is not just tendentious and prejudicial; it is also ignorant of the involvement of liberals in the effort to limit immigration. It is errant in style and erroneous in substance.

There are certainly far-right-wingers on the side of immigration restriction. They include white nationalists and the KKK. But they define the repugnant xenophobic, anti-immigrant extreme. This has long been the case. Lance Morrow of Time described the problem in 1980. "Ku Klux Klansmen have paraded around Florida lately, dispensing their old nativist bile and giving a bad name to an argument that has more thoughtful and respectable proponents."

I am working at CIS after my long career in journalism because I want to make thoughtful, reasonable arguments for limiting immigration. I am a contrarian liberal, pushing back against the steady drift of the Democratic Party toward open immigration.

I believe that efforts to open up our borders to all comers are misguided. As liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote, "No one wants to be a Know-Nothing. Yet uncontrolled immigration is impossibility; so the criteria of control are questions the American democracy must confront."

We at CIS have become accustomed to being smeared by the culture warriors at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Open Society Institute. We don't expect even-handed treatment from them. But we do expect more from the Associated Press, which prides itself on setting high standards for others to follow.

Here is something Steve Peoples didn't take from his education at Brown University and hasn't learned on the national politics beat: The geometry of immigration policy does not line up on a neat, right-left axis. Indeed. The restrictionist movement began among environmentalists who shared the concerns of the founder of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, a liberal senator from Wisconsin.

Nelson was alarmed at the role of immigration in the growth of the U.S. population, which numbered 205 million when the First Earth Day was held in 1970. We are now at about 325 million, with much of the difference deriving from immigration, which has grown from an annual average of 322,000 in the decade of the sixties, to 449,000 in the seventies, to 734,000 in the eighties, to 901,000 in the nineties, to about a million ever since.

That doesn't happen by accident. It happens because Congress likes to distribute green cards like candy. If we continue the course of expansive immigration, it may be politically impossible to keep our population from nearing 500 million early in the next century.

 Is that a good idea?

That is a debate that Gaylord Nelson and the presidential Commission on Population and the American Future sought to lead in the 1970s. But it became politically incorrect and has been largely ignored ever since because of pressure from immigration advocacy groups. Many liberals and their open-borders friends on the right regard immigration as such a sacred value that any suggestion of limiting it is seen as proof of xenophobia and bigotry.

 Nelson angrily rejected the accusation that restrictionism was rooted in racism. He saw such smears as an effort to stifle debate. "People have been silenced because they are scared to death of being charged with being a racist," Nelson said. "But racism has nothing to do with it. It's a question of numbers."

Like my CIS colleague David North, I identify as a liberal restrictionist. David has studied immigration policy for more than 50 years and is universally held in high regard. We have colleagues, including Mark Krikorian, who are certainly social conservatives in their concerns about the effects of mass immigration. But to call them "far right" is to engage in the simplistic bias that slants so much of the immigration reporting in our country.

One of our antagonists in the debate is the Cato Institute, whose advocacy for open borders is part of an anti-government ideology which also calls for privatizing Social Security, dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, and doing away with the public school system.

Cato is heavily funded by Charles Koch. It is about as far right as you can go without falling off the edge of the political earth. But Steve Peoples has described it merely as "libertarian-leaning".

Koch-funded Cato illustrates the fact that the immigration debate is less a matter of left versus right than it is a matter of up versus down.

Reporting on immigration is often slanted by the bias of reporters who see the fight for open immigration as part of the great progressive struggle for equality, inclusiveness, and diversity. Their ideological involvement in the story makes it difficult for them to play it straight.

Consider the 2016 story in which Peoples used the Southern Poverty Law Center's smear of the Family Research Council as a "hate group". The point of the story was that Sen. Ted Cruz was receiving support from the Republican Party's "far-right fringe."

The SPLC, whose "Intelligence Project" has also ginned up the hate group label for Center for Immigration Studies, is by any assessment a leftist group. Peoples' story however, used no adjectives or other modifiers to place the SPLC on the political spectrum. The suggestion was that the SPLC is a mainstream group of no particular ideology.

What Peoples slipped past his editors drew the disapproving attention of Bloomberg's Megan McArdle. Her opinion piece carried the online headline "Southern Poverty Law Center Gets Creative to Label 'Hate Groups'; Principled conservatives are lumped together with bigots."

Here is McArdle's assessment of the SPLC hate group list:

Some of the groups named are what anyone would think of as a hate group, like, you know, the Ku Klux Klan. But other entries are a festival of guilt-by-association innuendo about people with at best a tangential relationship to the target institution, and whose statements fall well short of blanket group-calumny or calls for violence. Or the center offers bizarrely shifting rationales that suggest that the staff started with the target they wanted to deem hateful, and worked backward to the analysis.

We got no such journalistic judgment in the Peoples story. The SPLC gave him a club and he used it. Like many other reporters, he willingly played the fool for the SPLC.

One final point: If you want to know why the SPLC is recklessly malicious and cynically mendacious in its efforts to smear restrictionists, here is a detailed report.