Editor’s note: After Wednesday’s abrupt on-air resignation of veteran CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, many Latino advocacy and immigrant rights groups felt vindicated. They had long criticized the anchor’s coverage of illegal immigration as obsessive, prejudiced, and sometimes wildly inaccurate. When CNN aired its “Latino in America” series last month, Dobbs’ critics said the network couldn’t have it both ways, offering nuanced portrayals of immigration while also offering Dobbs a platform to air his hardline views. Roberto Lovato, co-founder of Presente.org and former NAM contributor, recently emerged as the most visible figure in the anti-Dobbs groundswell. Lovato spoke with NAM contributing editor Marcelo Ballvé about Dobbs’ sudden resignation and what it means in the context of Latino and immigration politics.
Presente.org is a relatively new organization, yet it played a prominent role in the campaign against Lou Dobbs. What can you tells us about Presente’s origins and purpose?
Presente.org is born of the need to help the Latino community use media and technology to advance its agenda, and to build its power. One of the key ways to do that is to amass a list of people, much like Moveon.org did previously. You build that list by organizing campaigns. Presente.org was born earlier this year, actually. Its first campaigns were around the hate killing of Luis Ramirez in Pennsylvania and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. Those were the dress rehearsals for our most ambitious campaign, which was the “Basta Dobbs” campaign [Basta means “enough” in Spanish].
As your campaign accumulated momentum, Lou Dobbs invoked the First Amendment and accused his enemies of trying to silence him merely because he opposed illegal immigration. Has a legitimate voice been muzzled?
No less a figure than Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, said he would fire Lou Dobbs at the drop of a hat for what he has done to hurt Latinos and immigrants. There are precedents for this — people who have been taken off the local and national airwaves for what they said in just a brief moment of airtime. It happened to Don Imus, for example. But Lou Dobbs has had a free ride on the rollercoaster of hate at CNN for many years. This has nothing to do with the First Amendment. This is about hatred, and the business of profiting from hatred against Latinos and other immigrant groups versus profiting from legitimate journalism like “Latino in America.”
Lou Dobbs framed the resignation as his own decision, motivated by his desire to have a freer hand in engaging in political activity and advocacy around issues that matter to him, including illegal immigration.What do you think of that explanation?
It’s hard to know what lurks in the dark heart of Lou Dobbs. We need to look at his record of prevarication, myth-making, and outright lies. That may be his modus operandi until his last days. What’s certain is that his exit was abrupt. The great anchors of our time, like Walter Cronkite, don’t depart from one day to the next, unexpectedly. In any case, in the same way that it would not be entirely true for the “Basta Dobbs” campaign to claim total credit, nor would it make any sense to think that this is something that Dobbs only did of his own volition, or to think that CNN didn’t feel external pressure. They did.
The figure of Lou Dobbs and his exit from CNN raises the question of what the parameters should be for a legitimate stance against illegal immigration. What do you think they are?
To begin with, Lou Dobbs’ problem wasn’t just with undocumented immigrants. His vision took in legal immigrants as a whole and Latinos as a whole. Dobbs knows we don’t live in the Jim Crow era of naked racism. You don’t use tools like the “N” word anymore. Instead you use the “I” word. You call people “illegals” or “invaders” and variations of the “illegal” term. Lou Dobbs, in using these words, tarnished an entire community, and he did so for years. So in the end, he got what anyone’s going to get when they attack an entire community: people standing up and saying “basta ya” … enough. We need a more sane and rational debate around immigration. We don’t need name-calling, and nonsense, and lies that are a total bore, and a great concern to many of us.
How important a role did technology and online media play in gathering over 100,000 signatures for the “Basta Dobbs” campaign? Can the immigrant rights movement make better use of this organizing tool?
The deployment of technology and media is already a part of the immigrant rights movement. We focused the strategy a little bit more with Basta Dobbs. This is a case study for the possibilities of online and offline organizing for immigrant rights. Because we didn’t just stay online, we went offline as well. We went to the 25 top Latino markets in the United States to organize people and hold rallies, knowing CNN wanted to get into those cities, which represent 75 percent of the U.S. Latino market. And we weren’t building a list of 100,000 or 200,000 people for nothing. It’s a measure of the economic power of an organized Latino viewing audience, which has now taken on historic proportions in the United States. We are hopeful that the victory over Lou Dobbs and CNN represents a new day in U.S. media. It’s not going to be so easy to profit from hatred against Latinos and immigrants. Because we have an organized populace that is willing to defend itself when it has to, when it is under attack, we’re going to see lots of media companies thinking twice about what they say and how they report about Latinos in the U.S. Latinos are joining African Americans and Jews and other groups in the fight to change how they are portrayed in the media, and that’s a thrilling development.
How did you feel as you watched Lou Dobbs make his final broadcast last night?
I cried when I saw Lou Dobbs giving his actually fairly moving farewell speech. I cried in part because I saw an aging person and an aging media persona saying goodbye in an abrupt way. But the main reason I cried is that it was clear that his departure had a profound significance for so many of us who have fought against him since he first began broadcasting his message of hate against immigrants. It’s poetic justice that his beginnings and his rise had a lot to do with his attacks on immigrants and now his demise has a lot to do with immigrants. I’ve been on Spanish-language radio all this morning, immersed in the buzz, the excitement, the sense of accomplishment, and hearing people say “sí se pudo” (yes, we did it). Not yes we can, sí se puede, but yes we did it. That kind of phrase strikes a deep chord for all of us.
We were witnessing the end of an era for Lou Dobbs and the beginning of a new era for Latinos and immigrants in the United States. We were seeing the extension of the civil rights struggles to the media age. In a country where almost everyone has a cell phone and access to the Internet and where everyone’s wired, issues of social justice have everything to do with media. And Lou Dobbs has woken up Latinos to that fact. We marched with our feet as we did in 2006 for immigration reform, but we also marched with our fingers across keyboards and phone pads. I got to see the birth of the contemporary immigrant rights movement in Los Angeles when Latinos led the fight in the streets against Proposition 187 in California [in 1994]. I’ve been all over the streets of the electronic airwaves today, and I have the same feeling from all the people saying sí se pudo.
In what direction does presente.org plan to channel its energy next?
Like Lou Dobbs, Presente.org lives or dies depending on the energy of Latinos and immigrants. So the future is to be defined in consultation with members in 25 cities and groups like the National Association of Latino and Caribbean Communities. We have to consult with the over 100,000 people who gave us their signatures. We have started talking about issues like immigration reform. Some people have said: why don’t you take this energy and go after [notorious immigration hardliner in Arizona]Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Lou Dobbs’ good friend? Right now we’re just recovering from this stunning victory. Soon enough we will define a new course.