Transcript: 2006 Eugene Katz Award

For Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration

By Mark Krikorian, Sara Carter, and John O'Sullivan on June 9, 2006

Read Sarah Carter's articles

JW Marriott Hotel, Washington, DC

Mark Krikorian, Center For Immigration Studies

Sarah Carter, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Keynote Speaker:
John O'Sullivan, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, and Editor at Large, National Review

MARK KRIKORIAN: Good afternoon, folks. Thanks for coming.

I am Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies – I trust most of you know that, but a few of you may not. So I’ll introduce myself. I actually – believe it or not, I went to my brother’s wedding a week and a half ago in California, and there was this sign there: Krikorian-Creamer (sp) wedding – his fiancé’s name, and so some complete stranger comes up to me and says, I was at a collector’s convention next door, and I’ve been a member of FAIR (?) since 1979, and I love your stuff, too – (applause) – and are you the Mark Krikorian who is on TV on immigration? So I said, yes, I am. So I mean, I have – I’ve got fans. (Laughter.) I was really amazed; it’s surprising. Nobody – she didn’t ask for the autograph yet, though. And I also haven’t had a pie thrown in my face yet which is really the mark of being famous.

Well, we have a couple of people much more famous than I am to talk today. One we’re going to honor, but first we are going to have, as a keynote speaker, John O’Sullivan, who will sort of introduce the topic for us of the journalism award of the coverage of immigration by the media. And we’ll get to the honoree in a minute, but I’ll have – I’ll introduce John first.

And he is – we imported him to do a job Americans won’t do, apparently – (laughter) – which is editing a whole variety of publications. John now is not an editor; he’s a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, a think tank here in town. But he’s editor – at-large – of National Review and had been editor in chief for a number of years, was editor of UPI, ran UPI, editor of The National Interest, had been editor of one sort or another at a variety of publications in Britain and Canada as well as being an advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

There’s really nobody I can think of who has more experience and more expertise on talking about the way the media deals with the immigration issue than John. And he was kind enough to grace us with some of his thoughts, and so he’ll – I invite John up to the podium. (Applause.)

JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Thank you very much. Well, Mark, thank you very much indeed, and it’s a great pleasure to be invited to give a talk to the Center for Immigration Studies.

Obviously, I’m speaking to friends and supporters of it, but I can tell you that its role is absolutely crucial in ensuring that accurate, up-to-date, and, above all, I would say in a sense, controversial information about immigration reaches policymakers in Washington, people in journalism, and of course the general public when that information manages to make its way through the minefield of journalism, as it is certainly a minefield in relation to immigration. And I don’t think one can value this work too highly; I think it’s absolutely essential.

Now why, given the importance of – I should say it’s a great pleasure also to be present on the same platform as one of those rare journalists who have taken the trouble to inform herself on immigration and to break some very important stories, and who is very deservedly winning this very important award. It’s a great pleasure to be with you.

Now why is immigration an issue which the press and the media, by and large, cover very badly? And the answer, I think, comes under several headings. First of all, when you ask journalists this question, until quite recently they would tell you that it wasn’t a big issue; people weren’t concerned about it. They had come to accept it. And of course, although the polling evidence consistently, over thirty to forty years, has shown that there is strong concern about immigration on the part of the voters, and that roughly speaking two-thirds of the voters would like less immigration; between ten and fifteen percent would like more; and the rest would like it about the same. Although this evidence was clear, it almost never permeated journalistic coverage or influenced the opinions of journalists.

And that was almost as true of politicians, though I think for a somewhat different reason. I once spoke to Frank Luntz, the pollster, at a time when he was conducting research for – I think it was for the RNC or the campaign committee. And he asked a whole series of interesting questions about the importance of issues and about where people stood on them. And obviously this was for the benefit of candidates who would know exactly what to stress and what to avoid.

But immigration wasn’t on the list. And I said to him, this is very interesting, but there are a lot of questions here which by any standards are secondary, why isn’t immigration on the list? And he said, oh, well, they know what the answer will be, and they don’t think they’ll like it. So they don’t ask the question.

And, you may recall, there was a vivid example of this a few years ago when the Republican National Committee put on their website a question about what do you consider to be the most important issue, and what should be done about it? And there was an overwhelming response from presumably rank and file Republicans that immigration was the most important issue and they would like to take a somewhat more restrictionist approach to it; whereupon, of course, the question was removed from the site.

So there is in aversion on the part of the – I would say the political and cultural elite – to dealing with this problem. And the aversion takes – the first form it takes is that they deny it’s a problem; they deny there’s a great deal of interest in it, and they don’t want it dealt with.

Now, that influences journalism, it seems to me, in a very straightforward way – and also in a slightly less one. The very straightforward way is, well, if the politicians don’t think it’s an issue, then it probably isn’t an issue. After all, the reason why an awful lot of news gets covered is because Mr. Bush is saying “A” and Harry Reid is saying “B.” There’s a clash here; that’s a story. And of course, which of them triumphs and gets to determine public policy on that issue will be important for the American people. So there’s no real quarrel about whether or not a clash between the two leading parties is a story; it’s a story.

When the two leading parties agree, it isn’t a story. What you then have is a kind of bipartisan smothering of the news. My story of bipartisanship you may know: some years ago, the Russians were visiting the – a Russian delegation was visiting the Congress. A congressman had to cancel out a talk to them. He sent along his young aide, and his young aide was asked to describe the difference between the two parties. And he said, well, here we have a two-party system. We have the Republican Party, that’s the stupid party, to which I am proud to belong. And then we have the Democratic Party, that’s the evil party. And then, every now and then, you get bipartisanship, and that’s when the two parties get together to do something that is both stupid and evil. (Laughter.)

And of course, that in my view, by the way, is what is happening at the minute – but on this rare occasion that the news, in a sense, has escaped the control both of the party machines on the one hand, and the journalistic establishment on the other. So the, as I said, the first, most straightforward way in which, in which journalism is effected is that, if the parties really don’t want to discuss it they can, most of the time, smother an issue. And when an issue gets smothered, and it’s a real issue, and it’s an issue which is, so to speak, about something that is getting worse and worse, it will eventually break free of people’s control, and that’s a sense what’s happened here. Although, I have to say, as someone who shares the general outlook of Mark on the immigration issue, I think those of us who want a serious look at it, and perhaps serious reform, ought to be extremely grateful to President Bush for raising it in the way he has done because, quite frankly, he’s radicalized Americans on this issue by attempting to persuade them of things they know are not true about immigration, and now they’re angry and trying to do something about it.

Now, what is the second influence in journalism? Well, I think it foolish to deny – and I’m someone who’s worked as a journalist on both sides of the Atlantic for the last thirty years – I think it’s foolish to deny that there are such things as media consensus. And in a way this is almost directly related to the previous question, namely bipartisanship. You see, a bipartisan issue normally doesn’t just mean that the parties are united. It generally means that they are united against a significant section of the voters and the American people. The voters believe something; they would like something done about it. The parties differ, so they quietly exclude the issue.

Now I could give you a dozen issues. In Britain I would say, what the issue that is most – true of immigration as well in Britain – but the issue which is most true is Britain’s membership of the European Community. There the two party establishments agree that this is something they value and favor and want to continue with only minor changes. The people are much more restive. And so, by and large, the parties don’t discuss it. And, if you think I’m exaggerating, I should tell you that the leader of the Conservative Party who’s just been elected has actually told members of Parliament he doesn’t want them raising the question of Europe, even though Europe is taking more and more powers from the British Parliament. It would be rather like your Congress being told that they didn’t want . . . rather like state governments telling their people that we don’t want any discussion of the drift of power, centralization of power in Washington. It’s an absurd, but it works.

So immigration, as I say, has been something which has been an issue on which the elites have been on one side and a significant section – two-thirds of the American people, maybe more – on the other. Now in almost all these occasions, the journalistic elites are probably more influenced by the fact that they are members of national elites than they are as journalists. It’s – this is not true, obviously, all the way down the food chain. It’s obviously the case that there are journalists, at every level really, who dissent.

But there is often in a newsroom a fundamental set of assumptions about a series of issues. And this has become worse in recent years because as William McGowan pointed out in his very important book Coloring the News – and I have to say, of all the books of media criticism that have come out in recent years, Coloring the News is probably the single most important book. What that book describes is, among other things, that there are now pressure groups in newsrooms for particular policies. And that’s particularly true for any questions involving race or ethnicity or gender. There are groups – groups of Asian journalists, groups of Hispanic journalists, and so on, and very often they – and they are official organizations, they have annual conferences, they send out guidelines, and those guidelines are then received by associations of editors. And the National Association – I forget the group now, the American Editorial, the Association of American Editors – that has in fact laid down a series of rules which, generally speaking, the major chains like Gannett then try to implement in the newsroom. For example, you are promoted if you use the correct number of photographs of minorities, and your career runs into difficulties if you don’t. I mean, that is the level of detail which is often observed here.

Now I actually think this whole approach is terribly mistaken. It’s the exact opposite of the approach that journalism used to have. There was a time when, if an issue came up, and you were felt to have an interest – let’s say, in my case an issue might come up involving relations between America and Britain – the Editor would say to you, well, O’Sullivan, obviously, you can’t deal with this because, you know, you might be biased. Nowadays, they would presumably say – though perhaps not in this particular case – well, you’re the chap who knows about this, so you should do it. And, but if for example – if the question of AIDS is being discussed, the question of whether or not the reporter is gay will come up, and it will generally be felt desirable that the gay reporter should cover the topic of AIDS. If the topic is immigration, someone will say, well, this is something that particularly affects Hispanic reporters, do we have a – is one of our – is our immigration reporter Hispanic and the usual, and so on and so forth.

Now this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and I’m not suggesting it is. It’s a mindset. It’s the way people immediately think about something. And the result of that has been to ensure that, that first of all, there hasn’t been much coverage of immigration as a political issue. But there’s been an enormous amount of coverage about immigration as a kind of set of feel-good success stories: young man swims over river, enrolls in school, and becomes a nuclear scientist – isn’t that marvelous? Now of course, no one’s going to deny that there are wonderful human success stories of this kind. There are, as we also know, wonderful – not wonderful, but tragic stories of criminal behavior, murder, rape, and so on, by immigrants – illegal immigrants who have been arrested, detained, released, and then gone out to murder or rape again.

Now I’m not suggesting that either – I don’t believe that either the success story or the horror story should dictate the coverage. Obviously, the coverage should take both into account, but attempt a balance; attempt to make sure that both sides of the argument are heard.

But, quite frankly, it’s only very recently that that has begun to happen. And even today it is absurdly, badly happened in the major newsrooms. I will give you an example of that. The coverage of the result of the Bilbray election in San Diego has been a series of attempts to deny the obvious: that illegal immigration was the factor that ensured that a Republican, who was a lobbyist, running in a seat where the congressman had been convicted and sent to prison for eight years, against a candidate who is making the culture of corruption in Washington the main line of her campaign – that he came from thirty points behind to win an election in which he also had to fend off a drain of votes to the Minuteman and the Libertarian candidates. He was running against the president’s policy; his Democratic opponent was running for it. It was as plain as anything that this was an election which, had it not been for his stress on the issue of immigration and his opposition to the Senate bill, that he would have lost. Because he took those positions, he won. An awful lot of the coverage has been designed to obscure that simple, central fact.

So I think that we are still in a position in which the mindset is that somehow or other reform of immigration in a more generous direction is seen by most newsrooms as being the virtuous and proper position to take, and it tends to dictate the coverage. It doesn’t always dictate it, and it doesn’t dictate it often very intelligently. But it does – it’s the mindset which shapes the coverage.

Now, as a result of this, immigration has become one of those issues on which other forms of journalistic endeavor have become extremely important. The obvious ones you will know about are talk radio. If it hadn’t been for talk radio, I think we would have not been able to both arouse the strong sentiment against the Senate bill and, furthermore, sharpen that sentiment, make it known and obvious to the political elite in Washington. And I think we owe an enormous debt to people for that.

Secondly, the Internet, the bloggers. I mentioned a moment ago, the absurd coverage of the Bilbray election in San Diego. But somebody who is – who has illustrated and revealed and excoriated that absurd coverage is the blogger Micky Kaus – not the only one, there are others – but I turn to him now every morning to see how he – what’s the word – deconstructs the latest explanation by Bill Kristol or Fred Barnes of why the immigration reform bill in the Senate is good for the Republicans. And it’s . . . he’s often very funny.

So after a while, you know if you’re on the other side, you either have to think very carefully and censor yourself, or you decide, well, it’s safer – with Kaus on the prowl – it’s safer to deal with another issue. I mention Kaus, but I could mention names and you probably could, too.

So there’s talk radio, there’s the bloggers, and then there’s finally – and here I come to our honoree today – there is in every newsroom, I think, every newsroom I’ve been in, there are always . . . well, there’s generally only one, but sometimes there are two or three independent spirits who see that there are important stories to cover and insist on going out and covering them. Now it’s not an easy thing to do to defy the bias of a newsroom, and I’m not suggesting, by the way . . . since I don’t know the details in your particular case, I’m not suggesting you were necessarily going up against the opposition of your editor and other people. But I know many cases where that has had to happen.

I mean, when I was the editor at UPI, I actually found myself as the sole figure in the room who wanted to cover a certain story – (laughter) – because it’s not common to find a conservative editor of a major news organization. They – you know, they tend to filter us out. We become editors, we become associate editors and given a slot on the column on the editorial page on the Saturday morning. So – (laughter) – but there are people in every newsroom whose fundamental commitment is to honest coverage, simply telling people what it’s about and are fearless in pursuing that.

That used to be the tradition in American journalism; it used to be the tradition in British journalism. I would say to you that I think that tradition is at the moment stronger in British journalism than it is here for the simple reason that you have newspapers of left and right across the spectrum. So there’s always an editor who’s going to say to you, who’s going to be . . . want that story to be covered. And, of course, when you get to the tabloid Fleet Street, they are, as far as I can tell, without political attitudes except insofar as their proprietor or the opinion polls tell them to have one. But they basically will go after any story, however disgusting. (Laughter.) So . . . which is, by the way, very important occasionally.

So I would say that the third element is that there are always people who will pursue the journalistic route. Advocacy journalism it’s not; it’s reporting. Sometimes a good reporter becomes an advocacy journalist because of what he or she sees. And I think that has sometimes happened in Africa when – in places like Sudan or the great famines, where people have been so aroused that they’ve come back and become crusaders. I don’t mind – I favor advocacy journalism, but it is secondary to straight journalism. And we are the readers, we are the consumers, we want to know what is happening, and we want to feel that when we read a reporter, what is happening, that that report comes to us on the basis of the truth and not in order to advance some other cause, some cause.

As a matter of fact, in my view, the truth will advance the cause of immigration reform of a sensible kind, but that is not the journalist’s principle reason . . . or maybe . . . it may not be a reason at all, for pursuing a good story. And with the stories that the honoree today has performed, they have begun to change the climate of opinion – not in America, they’ve reinforced that climate – but they’ve begun to change the climate of opinion in the political and media elites, and we are enormously in her debt for that reason. Thank you. (Applause.)

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, John. That was – it was excellent context for the award that we are going to give now. It’s the Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration. We’ve been giving it now for ten years. And many of the recipients in the past have been from large . . . much larger news organizations.

Now large news organizations have obvious advantage: they have money, they have the personnel resources so that they can do, you know, six-part series on why I should win a Pulitzer Prize. (Laughter.) And the previous winners demonstrate that. We’ve had winners from CNN, from Dallas Morning News, from the Washington Times – last year’s honoree is here [Jerry Seper] – Washington Post, and elsewhere.

This year’s honoree, though, Sara Carter, comes from the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario, California, east of Los Angeles. A daily paper – (aside) is it a six-day a week or is it seven-day-a-week? [It’s a] Seven-day-a-week, daily paper, but a mid-sized daily. It’s not the Los Angeles Times, and it actually is pretty good that it’s not the Los Angeles Times because we haven’t found anybody at the Los Angeles Times to give an award to for honest immigration reporting. And, you know, why is that? I think because, essentially what John said is that there is a kind of unspoken assumption in the corporate culture in a lot of the elite media, large media organizations, that a lot of the questions that need to be asked are impolite; that it’s just not nice to look to closely into a lot of these issues. And Sara, and apparently the paper itself, seems to be an exception.

Sara was raised in Saudi Arabia. Her father worked there, went to school in California. Her mother is a Cuban refugee, which – we were speaking before – she grew up speaking Spanish and so has a, clearly has an appreciation for the immigrant experience. She also lived in Eastern Europe for awhile; has won a number of journalism awards, but, generally speaking, not for immigration-related news. In other words, it’s not as though she has sort of cubby-holed herself, and this is all she does. She has reported and won awards on a variety of stories, on a variety of issues.

You’ll see in the booklets a selection of some of her stories. I mean, I used to be a reporter, and a lot people would just sort of sit around and wait for the press release to be faxed over, and then they’d type it, rearrange some of the words, and that’s a news story.

Sara has actually left Ontario, California, or San Bernadino, or wherever it is exactly and gone to the Arizona border, gone to South Texas; heck, gone – she told me she even went into Nuevo Laredo, the wild west town right across the Texas border where, if you recall, two police chiefs ago, the new police chief didn’t make it to the end of his first day at work before he was machine-gunned by the various gangs that run that city. I assume she kept her head down when she was in Nuevo Laredo. And she has broken a lot of stories because, I think, of this willingness to ask questions that are considered impolite elsewhere, and that actually helped develop credibility and relationships with sources.

For instance, she’s the one who broke the story of the bounties being placed on the heads of Texas Sheriff’s Deputies in border counties. She’s the one who broke the story on the Minutemen being ratted out by the Border Patrol, or to the Mexican government – where the Border Patrol actually told the Mexican Government where the Minutemen were, the numbers, all of these kinds of things. And that actually had some impact because just a couple of days ago the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill saying that the Border Patrol was prohibited from telling the Mexican government anything about the Minutemen. Usually, you have to work for the Washington Post – (applause). Exactly. Usually you have to work for the Washington Post or the New York Times for Congress to actually pay attention to your reporting and act on it, but because of this vacuum – essentially this vacuum that John described – enterprising reporters from smaller news outlets are actually able to make an enormous difference.

And I’m actually not sure – I’d like to hear from Sara – but the sense I get from the other activity that the Daily Bulletin does – they have a blog on immigration issues – a really a pretty useful one, I get the sense there’s actually a commitment to some degree at the newspaper . . . at the newsroom to cover these issues, rather than just Sara being kind of a maverick or a lone wolf – although maybe she is, I don’t know, she can fill us in on that.

And just as a last point before I give the award, I don’t want to let this go by without pointing out that the award’s named after Eugene Katz, in his memory. He was a board member of ours for a number of years, had been a reporter and also was involved in his family business, which was the business side of newspapers and radio. He had been on our board until he turned ninety – nine years ago now – and passed away in 2000. We very much miss his counsel and his fellowship.

So Sara, if you could come up and I’ll present you with the award, and if you have a few words to say we’d love to hear them.

This is the same award we present to all winners. It’s a pewter clock with her name and the newspaper and what have you on it. Thank you, Sara. (Applause.)

And I’ll give the podium over to you.

SARA CARTER: Wow, I feel very humbled to be here today. I just do my job because I love it, and I think it’s important to get the truth to the public. And that’s why I do this.

Immigration kind of evolved a year and a half ago, two years ago for our newspaper. When they brought me on board I said, well, I don’t want to write the stories that everybody else is writing. I don’t want to write the sad story; everybody knows the story of the migrant. I want to tell that story, but I want to tell it in a different way. I want to see what’s happening between our government and the border. I want to focus on national security. And if I tell the sad story, I want that story to come with an introspective look at our policies in America, and what we’re doing about it, and how those policies affect everybody from not only the migrant on the southern side that then becomes the illegal immigrant on the inside, but the American people in general.

So I was kind of a maverick in a way – (chuckles) – like they said. I kind of went up against my editors and I said, I don’t want to sit at my desk every day and pick up the phone and call D.C. and ask questions. I want to go out to the border, and I want to find out what’s going on.

See, just prior to this I had spent all of my time in the streets with gang members. I didn’t want to write the gang story from behind my desk, so I guess they felt, okay, if she’s spent the last year with gang members in southern California, I think we can send her out to the border, and she’ll be okay; she’ll be safe. So they decided that they would take it upon themselves, and I’m so fortunate to work for a company like I’m working for; specifically our small newspaper that dedicated so much of their resources, which we don’t have a lot of – (chuckles) – to covering immigration in a new way, and trusting us, as reporters, to deliver the stories to the public.

And we’re very fortunate to have the Internet as a medium so we can get our stories out there, across the nation and create a blog site that is accessible to everyone. And it has made a difference.

Like you had said, Mark, I just returned from Nuevo Laredo not too long ago. It was horrific. It was frightening. I don’t think the story has ever really been told, accurately, because I know a lot of reporters, a lot of people don’t want to go inside the city. It’s horrific. I don’t know, myself – when I look back on those days that I spent in Nuevo Laredo the horror that people have to live with every day, innocent people that aren’t involved in the battle between some of Mexico’s deadliest and dangerous drug cartels. By the time I left Nuevo Laredo, there were more than 105 people assassinated there since January of this year. And the day that I had arrived in Nuevo Laredo, which happens to be the largest port, inland port in the United States, and this is why I went there, with six thousands trucks, NAFTA trucks crossing back and forth across our world trade bridge every day through one of the most dangerous cities along our border – and that’s kind of the reason why I selected Nuevo Laredo, not just because of the media attention that’s been drawn to that city but because of the policies that we have with Mexico, because of NAFTA, because of the area and the importance of it to our country is the real reason why.

But the first day that I arrived three people were assassinated a block and a half away from me, gunned down in the middle of the street. One was an innocent woman who was going to buy some tortillas for her husband, and the other two were involved in the cartel. She just happened to be in the way.

It is a terrorist state. The city is completely and utterly a national security problem for the United States. And yet, every day thousands of vehicles cross back and forth. A majority of them are never checked, and they come into this country. That’s a story. That’s a really important story. And that’s a story that Americans should hear about, and that everyone should hear about.

Immigration is not an easy topic. My mom was immigrant. She came in the ‘60s on the Johnson Freedom Flights from Cuba, and worked very hard. She became a citizen right away, and spent her whole life as an American first. And she never really wanted to go back to Cuba and she never did. She passed away three years ago.

I lived my whole life in the Middle East, my childhood, growing up there. I understand what it’s like to be an ex-patriot, live in another nation, and follow their rules, and there were a lot of rules to follow in Saudi Arabia.

And I’m very humbled and proud that I can do what I love the most in my life and just be a reporter, and to take these stories and give them life and allow other reporters to follow them. And I have a lot of respect for Jerry Seper, who is formerly a winner of this award, and his work along the border, which I think is fantastic. And I hope to continue to do that. And I just thank you all very much for everything, and I really am grateful to be here today. Thank you. (Applause.)

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you. Thank you very much, Sara. It was excellent. I appreciate it. Thank you very much, Sara. I appreciate it.

I think we’ve really had a good picture, from both John and Sara, of what the coverage of – or what the situation is with regard to media coverage of this issue. We started this award ten years ago precisely to try to engender and foster, by recognizing good reporting on this issue that just wasn’t happening very much. And I think actually things are actually just a good deal better than they used to be, I hope. I don’t know, maybe not. And I don’t know that we had anything to do with it, but I hope we do, I hope we did. So, thank you, John and thank you, Sara. We’ll be doing this again next year; you can put it in your calendar, hopefully it will be an easier place to find.

And I think we still have some sandwiches in the back, so those of you who were trying to be polite and holding back, please don’t hold back because I think I’ve paid for it all already. So please, dig in. Thank you very much, and hopefully we’ll see you at our next event. Thanks.