Cross-posted from PoliBlog:

While there are very important and legitimate issues that need debating and resolution in the immigration arena, one of the major problems that has stymied such debate is the clear presence of xenophobia (meaning the irrational fear of foreign persons or foreign things in general) that infuses the discussion.

A case in point is Lou Dobbs and his anti-immigrant stance which has become a staple of his CNN program. There are numerous examples one could cite in regards to Dobbs and xenophobia, whether from Dobbs’ own lips or from his guests, however let’s focus on leprosy (yes, leprosy).

A few weeks ago my family and I were grabbing dinner out and I noted Dobb’s show on one of the TV’s in the restaurant where we were eating (Moe’s, an excellent fast-foodish Mexican food place, in fact–ah, the irony…). I only caught part of the discussion, but it was about some claims that Dobbs had made about leprosy cases in the US and the inference that the disease had spiked in the US because of illegal immigrants.

The whole story is fully discussed in a piece in today’s NYT: Truth, Fiction and Lou Dobbs:

In the report, one of Mr. Dobbs’s correspondents said there had been 7,000 cases of leprosy in this country over the previous three years, far more than in the past.

When Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” sat down to interview Mr. Dobbs on camera, she mentioned the report and told him that there didn’t seem to be much evidence for it.

“Well, I can tell you this,” he replied. “If we reported it, it’s a fact.”

However, the bottom line is, it isn’t:

To sort through all this, I called James L. Krahenbuhl, the director of the National Hansen’s Disease Program, an arm of the federal government. Leprosy in the United States is indeed largely a disease of immigrants who have come from Asia and Latin America. And the official leprosy statistics do show about 7,000 diagnosed cases — but that’s over the last 30 years, not the last three.

The peak year was 1983, when there were 456 cases. After that, reported cases dropped steadily, falling to just 76 in 2000. Last year, there were 137.

Three, thirty: who’s counting anyway?

Here’s an example of Dobbs defending his numbers on May 9, 2007, and this was after he had been directly challenged on the figures by more than one source:

A couple of things, according to the NYT piece, Dobbs did back off the original report, but downplayed the timeframe question, but focused on the 7,000 number–and has not corrected the original report on air:

Of course, he has never acknowledged on the air that his program presented false information twice. Instead, he lambasted the officials from the law center for saying he had. Even yesterday, he spent much of our conversation emphasizing that there really were 7,000 cases in the leprosy registry, the government’s 30-year database. Mr. Dobbs is trying to have it both ways.

There are two amazing things about the video clip above. First, the facts in question could have been checked by Dobbs’ reporter, as the NYT reporter did. Instead, the reporter for Lou Dobbs stuck with the original source. Indeed, Dobbs was confronted with the right numbers by Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes on May 6.

Second, the source for the video clip was the late Madeleine Cosman, a lawyer whose Ph.D. was in English and comparative literature. As such, presenting her as an expert on a medical issue and referring to her as “Dr.” is misleading. Further, a medical journal presented as a authoritative source yet that takes articles from lawyers/English Ph.D.s is a questionable authority at best.

Ms. Cosman appears to have been somewhat obsessed with Mexican immigrants. Here’s some video:

Cosman’s article in question can be found here [PDF]. The leprosy reference is one paragraph, quoted about in its entirety in the video clip above. If one bothered to look at the piece, one would find out that the source for Cosman’s leprosy data (and therefore the source for Dobbs’ program) was a Village Voice piece called “Living with Leprosy” and a NYT piece-neither of which are especially definitive sources for such numbers.

In terms of journalism and sources, I found the Village Voice piece via Google after one search and I looked in the NYT archive and after two searches could not find the February 20, 2003 article that Cosman cited, but did find a February 18, 2003 piece that noted:

While there were some 900 recorded cases in the United States 40 years ago, today more than 7,000 people have leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, as it is now called.

I assume that is what she was referring to.

The VV piece had these numbers:

Yet leprosy is emerging—burgeoning, even—as a modern problem. While there were some 900 cases of leprosy in the U.S. 35 years ago, today 10,000 are on record, 500 of them in the tristate area.

Neither of the stories stated that the numbers had ballooned in the last three years, as Cosman and Dobbs insisted was the case.

Indeed, in terms of research, the fact that the two news stories had differing numbers and timeframes should have meant that Cosman should have done more research–and certainly the Dobbs’ reporters should have looked into this. If I, your humble blogger, could have found all this whilst eating lunch, surely paid reporters could have looked it all up.

So, what we have with this leprosy stuff is nothing more than fear begetting more fear, and hence the xenophobia reference that started this post.

Further, the NYT piece that I cited at the start of the post notes more “facts” from Dobbs that underscores the fact that he is selling fear to his audience:

He has said, for example, that one-third of the inmates in the federal prison system are illegal immigrants. That’s wrong, too. According to the Justice Department, 6 percent of prisoners in this country are noncitizens (compared with 7 percent of the population). For a variety of reasons, the crime rate is actually lower among immigrants than natives.


Mr. Dobbs is fond of darkly hinting that this country is under attack. He suggested last week that the new immigration bill in Congress could be the first step toward a new nation — a “North American union” — that combines the United States, Canada and Mexico.

I wrote about the “North American Union” canard a while back in the following post from just over a year ago: PoliBlog â„¢: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » When Swift Boaters Come Home to Roost (Immigration Edition)–with a follow-up here.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Congress, , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Triumph says:

    This guy has no business being on a “news” network. Its funny that everyone got up in arms about Imus’ racist joke, but no one is demanding that Dobbs be fired for deliberately misleading viewers.

  2. SJ Reidhead says:

    Thank you for picking up on this. I have a troll who is constantly going at because of my dislike of anti-immigration sources and organizations. The above you have cited is my primary reason. If the opponants of immigration would fight with legit. facts and figures I don’t think things would be as testy as they are today. You tell a lie long enough and people begin to believe it.

    The Pink Flamingo

  3. floyd says:

    How about the xenophiles who constantly misrepresent the facts? I.E. Only 12,000,000 criminal immigrants in the U.S., or the the new bill before congress is not amnesty?