Transcript: 2007 Eugene Katz Award

For Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration

By Mark Krikorian, Stephen Dinan, and Ramesh Ponnuru on June 8, 2007

Read Stephen Dinan's articles

National Press Club, Washington, DC

Mark Krikorian, center for Immigration Studies

Steve Dinan, Washington Times

Keynote Speaker:
Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review

MARK KRIKORIAN: Folks? Ladies, gentlemen? (Taps glass.) Feel free to keep eating, but stop talking for a minute. Thanks for, thank you all of you for coming. This is a journalist event, so I’m not going to assume that everybody’s happy about what happened last night because some people have to be objective, but I’m very happy about what happened last night, and I know several of us are, and this makes it much more – (applause) -- makes it all the more timely to have this event on this particular day. Actually, if the wrangling in the Senate had dragged out some more, our honoree actually wouldn’t have been able to be here. He’d have to be back there working in the trenches, as he’s been doing there for some time, but so even just institutionally for the purposes of this lunch, it was good it worked out last night so that, so that our honoree could actually be here with us rather than be represented by his editor.

I’m Mark Krikorian — I think all of you know that, director of the Center for Immigration Studies — and what we’re doing today is giving our annual Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration. We’ve been doing this now, I think we’ve been doing it 10 years now, I’m not sure. We named it after a board member, now late board member, Eugene Katz, who was on the reporting side and the business side of print and broadcast media for a long time, his family owned Katz Communications, and we decided this was a good way to honor his service on our board but also fill a useful role here in trying to recognize good reporting on immigration, and unfortunately, for a long time, there just wasn’t that much of that. Even today, too much of the coverage of immigration is sappy human interest stories, fitting certain templates about what you’re supposed to think, and I’ve got to say, we’ve seen an improvement, I think, in the coverage of immigration. I don’t think we have anything to do with it, but we might as well try to take credit for it.

Our honoree today is Stephen Dinan. He is – his articles are in the booklet that’s on your tables. He’s a Congressional reporter at the Washington Times, deals with immigration now just because it’s a hot issue, but has been covering, has been working for the Times for some years now. He’s a native of Washington, DC, grew up in Northern Virginia, was actually a computer programmer before going into journalism, which, I don’t want to say anything bad about anything else, but not going to journalism school, my sense is always — my sense has been there’s always a better way to become a reporter, is not to go to journalism school. I don’t know if I’m insulting anybody other than Roy, but that’s okay. But he’s not a journalist anymore either, so there you go.

Steve Dinan started out as an intern at the Times. He was their, after working on the Metro desk, was their congressional, I guess, bureau chief, or head of their congressional team, covered the White House, and is — covers now immigration and national politics for the Times. I don’t want to make him feel bad, so I won’t mention names, but there was a story Monday in the competing newspaper here in town — (laughter) — about how the backers of the Senate immigration bill were so optimistic and they came back from the Memorial Day break all excited and energized and fired up that the immigration bill was going to pass. And it was press release, basically, is what it amounted to, and the reporter got spun. Now, it happens, I mean, it happens to everybody, there’s no shame in that, but one of the reasons it happens is if the reporter isn’t all that familiar with the substance of the issue, you can get . . . it’s harder to get spun once you’ve immersed yourself in it and sort of know when you’re being shoveled a lot of B.S. And that wasn’t the case in that particular article in my sense by the reporter of the competing newspaper covering the wrangling in the Senate on immigration.

Steve’s story on the same day was, if I remember the title correctly, something like “McConnell key to the outcome of the Senate immigration bill,” and it was like, well, yeah, that actually turned out to be insightful, if not prophetic, at least an insightful coverage of the issue. Steve had another story this week on – the punch line was that there were 15,000 amnesty applications from 1986 still pending. Well, that’s kind of interesting news that I would have thought somebody would want to know, but if you weren’t reading the Washington Times, you weren’t knowing that, if you were reading, sticking to the other major newspapers. That’s the kind of reporting that we need a lot more of on immigration, people who are able to detect the B.S. and not reproduce it on newsprint. And that’s why we picked Steve this time.

I don’t mean to embarrass him too much, but I figure that’s kind of part of the deal, and what I want to do is award him, give him the award, he’s going to say a few words after he takes the award, he’ll say a few words, and then I’ll introduce our keynote speaker as well, but Steve, if you could come on up. I want to award you the 2007 Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration. This is the nice little chotchky; it’s a paperweight clock with the engraving on it. So anyway, thank you, Steve, and if you could —


STEPHEN DINAN: I appreciate the award very much. My first experience working with the Center was probably five years ago or so, Steve would know exactly when. One of the earliest articles actually sort of gave me an explanation for how, five years later, this debate would play out. There was a Chicago Council on Foreign Relations today — I guess every two years does a study looking at attitudes, comparing the attitudes of the elite to the attitudes of, I guess, I don’t know if they called them the average folks but average people. And the issue, it’s on national security issues, I guess, or foreign policy and national security issues, and the issue where there was the largest disconnect between those, the elites who thought it was an important issues and the average folks who thought it was an important issue was immigration. It was, I think, somewhere in the 60s for the average folks and somewhere only 14 percent or so of the elites thought that immigration was a major national security issue.

You know, over the last five years, we’ve seen exactly that play out as the public was a lot further along in calling for some sort of solution on this issue and driving the issue and putting it on the Congressional radar, putting in on the president’s radar, and we saw that play out this week again. What Mark was talking about earlier, the coverage of immigration and the Monday example, I’m glad you brought up. I’ve been in a little bit of a feud with my editors over not putting that McConnell story on our front page, (laughter) so you don’t know how happy I am to have heard you, to have heard you —

MR. KRIKORIAN: This was not arranged.

MR. DINAN: — to have heard you raise that.

MR. KRIKORIAN: This was not arranged.

MR. DINAN: But you raised something else that’s very interesting about this issue, which is that there is a lot of coverage of the human interest side of it, and now there’s a lot of coverage, certainly of the political side of this debate, but the one thing that didn’t get a lot of coverage which really surprised me, and it’s one of the reasons why I was happy to put that article about the 15,000 applications still pending from 1986. You can have all the debates you want about the policy of immigration, whether it’s right to offer legal status, but the one thing you have to face up to is at some point, the program actually has to work. And there simply isn’t enough coverage out there of the workability of whatever program they put out there. I hear a lot of, a lot of reporters now beating themselves over not having done enough work to question the Bush administration before it went to war in Iraq and all these post-mortems about why were we not there? To those reporters who cover immigration, I think we should ask ourselves the same thing. Should we not be covering the workability of this program and looking at that and seeing how it’s going to happen, what the potentials for fraud are, what the potentials for handling these applications are.


It’s a complex issue, and I’ve had the benefit of my editors allowing me to put a lot of time into it. I’ve had the benefit of Jerry Seper, a past award winner who’s over there by the pillar right now, sitting about five feet away from me and telling me most of what I know on the issue, and so it’s . . . thank you all for the award, and thank you for your time.


MR. KRIKORIAN: Our keynote speaker today also has some experience in covering immigration, from a slightly different angle, from a magazine of opinion, but nonetheless, a similar experience. Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review. He is originally from Kansas City, went to Princeton, and not only writes for National Review and is an editor there but is published widely in all kinds of the places you would imagine you’d be published in, appears on television as a commentator, in fact, tonight will be on Hannity and Colmes debating immigration with a professor, Raul Hinojosa, and you sort of — (laughter) — it’ll be interesting, I want to say. I’d love to see that, actually, so I may tune in. I seldom watch stuff when the kids have to go to bed, but I may tune in just to see how that goes. Ramesh has actually, he can talk about it a little more, but he’s actually had a kind of a migration of his views, moved from much more kind of expansionist view of immigration toward a more skeptical or critical view of immigration. I don’t want to ascribe any specific positions, but his views on this have changed as he’s seen how the issue works and how it’s covered, and I thought it would be interesting to hear from him some of his thoughts on what he thinks the quality and the nature and the reasons are for the way immigration is covered. Ramesh?


RAMESH PONNURU: Well, the sea change was when I realized that I actually had enough relatives in the country and —


— and was having too much trouble keeping track of birthday cards as it was, so that was my sort of Damascene moment. Well thank you very much, Mark, thanks for having me here. I just heard just the other day a story that I wanted to share with you, which is . . . it was on a recent Sunday, and there was a Republican Congressman who was a critic of the immigration bill, and he wasn’t in the studio but he could hear through his earpiece the host and the other Congressman who he was debating chatting before they went live, and the host was asking the guest who supported the bill who could possibly oppose it since it seemed so completely sensible, and the supportive Senator said, well right now we just have to face down the extremists, the extremes of left and right, and apparently both of these folks were unaware that one of those extremes was listening in, or more to the point, that one of those extremes is called the American public.

It’s stories like that that remind us, first, why we need the Center for Immigration Studies, and second, why it’s wise for the Center to give an award to journalists who cover immigration stories fairly and even-handedly. And I think one of the reasons it’s wise is that you never have to worry that you’re going to bankrupt yourself giving out those awards.


MR. PONNURU: In recent weeks, the Washington Post has run a series of puff pieces about various players on the open border side of the ongoing debate. I’m sure if it had just gone on a little longer, Mark and Roy Beck would have gotten their profiles too, it’s just — (laughter) — just one of those scheduling things. So I thought I’d talk a little bit about some 10 ways that I think the media has misshaped our debate and continues to misshape our debate over immigration policy.

And the first is just a simple question: why is it that only one side of this argument gets to own the word reform? By any neutral reckoning, the people at CIS want a lot more comprehensive changes to our immigration policy than, say, the White House does, but somehow in much of the media, the word reform has come to mean doing pretty much the same things we’ve been doing for the last two decades.

Second, the same people who get to call themselves reformers, with however little justification, don’t have to take any responsibility for the word amnesty. When the press favors an unpopular cause, it lets the advocates of that cause change the terminology around as many times as they need to, and in news stories over the immigration debate, the word amnesty appears, but it’s always put in distancing quotes. It doesn’t matter, say, that the Bush administration itself used to define what it now calls a path to citizenship as amnesty before it decided that it favored such a path. The media’s working definition of amnesty is whatever the open boarders lobby isn’t openly advocating today.

Third, as everyone here, I assume, knows, amnesty isn’t the only word in this debate that journalists handle with tongs. Illegal immigrants are thick on the ground in the real world, but in the media, they are quickly being displaced by undocumented workers. As though what we were talking about was simply a matter of paperwork not being filled out. On NBC, one reporter referred to, quote, “those who critics call illegals.”


Well, yes, the critics do call them that because they’ve broken the law. It’s funny how that works. Fourth, the media favors sources who support unrestricted immigration. The Media Research Center did a study last year on the way the press covered the illegal immigrant rallies in the spring of ’06. They found that advocates of opening a wider path to citizenship were almost twice as likely to speak in news stories as advocates of stricter immigration control. Advocates for amnesty and guest worker programs do 504 sound bites in the study period, compared to just 257 for tighter boarder control. 69 sound bites were neutral. On the days of pro-illegal alien rallies, their critics nearly disappeared from the screen. For instance, on the night of April 10th, the sound bite count on three evening newscasts and ABC’s Nightline was 43 to two in favor of the protesters.

Fifth, the media have largely let the advocates of amnesty — or sorry, the reformers — define the alternatives in the debate. If you don’t go along with amnesty — or, I mean, a path to citizenship — you must be for instantaneously deporting 12 to 20 million undocumented workers. The alternative of attrition has never gotten serious attention.

And sixth, and related to this, the media has consistently distorted public opinion. Polls that seem to suggest public support for the kind of ideas that were included in that Senate bill are always played up. The methodological weaknesses of those polls are almost never mentioned. Amnesty is never tested against alternatives such as attrition. And you would never guess from the news stories that polls have for years found that most people want less legal immigration, a view that the media treats as a fringes phenomenon. (Laughter.)

Seventh, the media’s accounts of the political prospects for what it considers to be immigration reform sometimes seems as though they have a rooting interest. To put it another way, the Washington Post was going to report that this deal had momentum until the moment it died. (Laughter.) And in fact, I half expect tomorrow to see a story about the renewed momentum behind this bill, which has just faced a spot of unpleasantness.

Eighth . . . you know, and this is actually sort of related, because why shouldn’t this bill have momentum — on some occasions, the press doesn’t make it clear that there are two sides to the argument. I remember reading one write-up of the Capitol Hill politics of immigration a few years ago, and the reporter said, both Republicans and Democrats are nervous about promoting immigration reform. But you could never tell why they were nervous, because the article never actually got around to explaining that there were actual real-life people who didn’t think this was such a wonderful idea.

Ninth, the media has spent a fair amount of time during this debate on entirely bogus issues concocted for the benefit of the open border side. Take, for example, the alleged desire of House Republicans to make all illegal immigrants into felons, a story where straight reporting would have ruined a storyline that was too good for reporters to resist. Or the alleged House Republican plot to throw church leaders in jail if they run soup kitchens without asking the people they’re serving for proof of their legal status; that was a story created from a strained implausible reading of one proposed legal provision, and yet it was presented as though this were the undisputed goal of the House Republicans’ legislation.

And there are also the semi-bogus issues. Take, for example, the threat that enforcement first would unconscionably split families apart. It never seems to occur to any reporter who covers this story in print or on the airwaves that it might just be possible to arrange for family reunion on the other side of the border.

And tenth, there are the missing issues. If you wanted to learn about, say, the fiscal costs of immigration, you have a few options. You can read the papers that the center publishes. You can read National Review. You can read the Washington Times. You’re not going to hear about this story or a dozen others from the New York Times, or from the Wall Street Journal, or — I need hardly add — from Katie Couric.

And you know, Mark was talking about the timing of this luncheon. Just a perfect example of good timing, today’s Washington Post: you’ve got three stories on the collapse of the immigration deal. One of them is about the treacherous, sinister tactics of these opponents of the bill. They do all these arcane things like voting on amendments. You know, it’s just a terrible, dirty trick. Nobody warned these senators that such a thing could happen.

And then, you also have a news analysis, which is always for me a red flag, by Dan Balz, who is actually — I’m sorry to say — one of the better reporters at the Post. And he is going on about how the failure of this bill is a scathing indictment of our nation’s political leaders who ought to be up — damn it — to the task of ramming through unpopular legislation, you know, that disserves the national interest. And you know, one almost senses a certain amount of frustration in the reporter that is actually sort of a scathing indictment of his colleagues, after all, that they weren’t able to — despite their best efforts — I mean, you can’t blame them for lack of trying here . . . that they just couldn’t get this thing through. And he goes on to explain how the failure of this bill creates an opening for a pro-amnesty candidate such as Michael Bloomberg to run for president, which, you know, I’m sure Bloomberg’s consultants are cutting and pasting this snippet. It’s going on his bulletin board.

But you know, if I . . . I looked at the roll call on this vote. It seemed like there were people from both parties who were against it. Why isn’t that a triumph of bipartisanship? Isn’t this actually a great triumph of the kind of negative bipartisanship this city needs more of?

The other day, President Bush urged senators to show courage by supporting the immigration bill, and the papers duly reported it. But again, it would sort of odd. Why should it take courage? After all, this version of comprehensive reform was incredibly popular. And in fact, in that Dan Balz story, he quotes this Washington Post/ABC polling that shows that the public is just clamoring, just desperate to see this amnesty legislation go through, which is why they’re going to draft Mike Bloomberg for president. And for that matter, every time — the White House was constantly sending press releases about how popular this legislation was. Why should it have taken so much courage to do the popular thing?

Well, I think what happened over the last few weeks is that the American people have come out of the shadows. (Applause.) Thank you. And they’ve made their views known. And Stephen Dinan and a very few other journalists have helped to bring them out of the shadows. Now, stopping the bill has been a worthy cause, but it wasn’t those journalists’ primary cause; giving readers and viewers an accurate picture of reality was. And that’s a task, unfortunately, at which many of their colleagues need to try harder or try for the first time. Thank you.


MR. KRIKORIAN: We’re still okay time-wise, so if anybody has a couple of questions for Ramesh, that would be fine.

MR. PONNURU: Although I reserve the right to hand them off to actual experts in the room.

Q: Thanks so much. (Inaudible, off mike.) Just talk a little bit about the inside scoop on the challenge to Bush in the Wall Street Journal — or as I have now started to call it, the Wimp Street Journal.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Explain what that is.

MR. PONNURU: Sure, well, the Wall Street Journal has for years advocated an open borders position. And for once, actually when you say that about them, they can’t complain, because they used to every year run an editorial advocating a constitutional amendment saying there shall be open borders, which is — well, it takes one’s breath away.

But they did this little video clip, which they posted online, where . . . I don’t know if it was an actual editorial meeting or some sort of fake version of the editorial meeting or maybe a parody of an editorial meeting. And they were talking about how the really interesting thing — this is what the editor of the paper, Paul Gigot, was saying — the really interesting thing is how so many conservatives, they’re not even rational on this subject anymore, i.e., they disagree with me. And they went on to specifically – his colleagues and he went on to specifically accuse National Review, the “National Review crowd,” of foaming at the mouth about this bill. They wouldn’t have minded if we had opposed the bill, if we had been really sedate and polite about it and ineffectual and had failed. That would have been a perfectly acceptable kind of opposition.

And so we said afterwards, let’s have a debate on this. These are serious important issues. You guys are all — at least most of the time — intelligent people. So let’s have a debate; and they have ducked it. They said . . . eventually Paul Gigot said, well, we invited Ramesh, and we invited my colleague Byron York to go on their Fox News show, the “Journal Editorial Report.” And that would have been a constructive debate because it would have been seven advocates of amnesty and one critic in a forum that Paul was moderating. So that’s really an accurate depiction of public opinion on this issue, after all. So yeah, they ducked it. And I guess we just — the next time they pipe up about immigration, they’ll be calling for their constitutional amendment. I think it’s that time of year again.

MR. KRIKORIAN: July 4th.

MR. PONNURU: Yeah, yeah, around the time of July 4th. Their Independence Day gift to America is to advocate its abolition. And so yeah, we haven’t heard anything more from the Journal. It’s very sad; it would have been a lot of fun. I think that was one difference between us actually. I think the National Review folks were looking for this debate, because this whole fight was fun for us. And I don’t think that they approach things in quite the same way.

Q: (Inaudible, off mike.) You know, one of the interesting things about . . . (inaudible ) why the press has never picked up on this immigration bill that was entirely the national interest — (inaudible) — never a discussion of what is America’s national interest. They don’t ever raise the question of do we really need a great deal of unskilled labor. Why is that never a part of the debate?

MR. PONNURU: Well, one of the great contradictions of this push for more and more low-skilled immigration is, we’re constantly told in every other context that the country’s economic strategy has to be to increase education, have higher tech industries. And yet, we’re also told during this debate — and only this debate — that this economy cannot continue; this economy will in fact collapse; unless we have more and more low-skilled workers. I was like, look, our schools are doing a fine job of generating low-skilled workers. (Laughter.) You know? We have no need to go overseas for that.

You know, one of the real . . . I mean, even if I were still on the other side of this argument, I would want a more neutral and even-handed media, because your brain starts to atrophy if you’re not exposed to counter-arguments, and you start coming up with the kinds of, well, the kinds of stuff that we’ve seen over the last few weeks with this immigration bill. They don’t feel a need to think these issues through. They don’t feel a need to have to defend them.

You know, for two weeks — three weeks, at least — people have been pointing out all these triggers in the bill, they’re totally meaningless. You get probationary legal status instantly, and that’s never really going to be revoked. And in response, the White House and senators supporting this, they just keep coming back with, well, let me talk to you a little bit about the triggers, you know? These triggers are extremely . . . and it’s just . . . you just want to sort of shake them for awhile. But since they won’t meet us in the debate, we can’t.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Let’s just take one more.

MR. PONNURU: Sure, okay.

Q: Yeah, my question is quick. Look, telling a human interest story is the meat and potatoes of journalism. But how come I never read a compelling — and I do think the story of the immigrant struggle should be part of this debate; it is often compelling. I’m not trying to alienate anyone in this room; I’m just saying what I think.

But the bottom line is, there’s never a compelling human interest story about someone who is really harmed by it, some guy who is finding that he lost his job on the construction site because he didn’t speak Spanish. He’s out there. I get emails from him all the time. He can’t be that hard to find. I mean, I think the systematic data suggests a lot of problems for low-wage workers from immigrants, but the media isn’t very interested in statistics anyway. But how about the person who is like, I had to move; my kid was getting ignored in class, because they had to accommodate so many foreign languages. Those stores would seem to be out there.

Or how about a series of stories about all the native-born people who got the jobs after these in Georgia or Massacusetts — interesting stories. That’s the part of the thing I don’t understand. It’s human interest; it would seem to be compelling; and you never see it. Any thoughts on why?

MR. PONNURU: Well, actually, I disagree, to a certain extent. I think those stories are all over the newspapers; it’s just that the dots are never connected. If there were a study saying that the bottom quintile of workers had seen their wages drop by 2 percent over the last decade, the New York Times would do a 10-part series on the subject, right? And you know, articles one through five would be is this something wrong with capitalism? Articles six through 10 would be is this something wrong with the Bush administration? You know, and maybe a summary editorial saying, well, the answer is both — but they never connect any of these stories to immigration.

Or the health insurance crisis is something that we hear about constantly. How many people know that the proportion of native-born Americans who have health insurance has stayed flat for 15 years and that immigration accounts for the entirety of the increase in people without health insurance? For most of it, you don’t get that impression at all from reading the paper.

So yeah, it’s not I think that the downside of lax immigration policies is in its nature not suited to creating human interest stories; it’s just that the reporters and editors just don’t think that way. That’s the problem.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, thank you, Ramesh. I can’t speak for the — (applause) — I can’t speak for the other two speakers, but we’ll be around to be accosted. But I want to let people who need to get . . . it’s lunchtime after all and you may need to get back to work . . . so I want to wrap it up here. But I just want to have one last round of applause for Steve Dinan for honoring his work. (Applause.) And please eat more cookies because I paid for all of them, so whatever you want. Thank you very much. Thanks for coming.