Walter Lippmann, the late political journalist and philosopher, observed that we humans try to understand our complex social world by forming "systems of stereotypes". I thought of Lippmann over the weekend as I pondered two recent Julia Preston stories in the New York Times that encapsulate the stereotypical view of immigration that prevails in her work as national immigration reporter.
This blog has already reported on the September 22 story in which Preston ignored the acknowledgement in a new National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report that low-skill immigrants have a negative effect on the wages of workers who "share [similar] job qualifications".
Preston's second story, published September 30, reported on the frustrations that many immigrants are facing as they attempt to register in time to vote in the upcoming elections. This one was headlined "Immigrants Eager to Vote Obeyed All the Rules. It Didn't Pay".
While Preston's story on the NAS report is a glaringly defective piece of reporting, her account of the jilting of aspiring voters — which she attributes to a backup at the federal agency that reviews naturalization applications — is a solid story about a problem affecting several hundred thousand people.
The problem with Preston's reporting is the stereotypical liberal bias that — as the Times' own public editor, Daniel Okrent, wrote in 2004 — has "thoroughly saturated" the paper's editorial page. Bias on an editorial page is no surprise. Extreme bias in the news pages at the New York Times is a big problem.
Preston is so committed to telling the story of the plight of the immigrants that she is unable to recognize or understand the real problems that competition from illegal immigrants have long caused for millions of low-skill American workers with whom they compete for jobs.
The stereotype that prevails in Preston's reporting is widely shared by the immigration advocates with whom she makes common cause. They see illegal immigrants as noble strivers who deserve full acceptance into our body politic because they have been unfairly marginalized and oppressed by an unjust social order.
Lippmann wrote that stereotypes "are an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves. They may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted."
Lippmann went on to describe a process that has implications in the world of journalism, particularly at a newspaper that is a powerful shaper of public opinion. He wrote:
If the experience contradicts the stereotype, one of two things happens. If the man is no longer plastic, or if some powerful interest makes it highly inconvenient to rearrange his stereotypes, he pooh-poohs the contradiction as an exception that proves the rule, discredits the witness, finds a flaw somewhere, and manages to forget it. But if he is still curious and open-minded, the novelty is taken into the picture, and allowed to modify it."
This is where Preston and the New York Times have failed — egregiously and repeatedly — in their coverage of the national immigration story. Even the New Yorker — which tends to share the liberal-elitist cosmopolitanism of the Times, published a story by George Packer that included the time-to-smell-the coffee observation that: "The middle-aged white working class has suffered at least as much as any demographic group because of globalization, low-wage immigrant labor, and free trade."
Packer's story was about the rise of Donald Trump, a story that has sown panic at the New York Times, whose failure to see immigration backstory constitutes one of the worst failures in its history.