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The Ombudsman Column

A Tale of Two Titles

"A Nation of Immigrants" is a phrase that has been used many times to describe America's history; most notably, perhaps, as the title of a book by then Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1958. We are, indeed, a nation of immigrants.

"To The Contrary" is the title of a lively, long-running and all-female news analysis program that has run on many PBS stations for 21 years and is still hosted and run by its creator, Bonnie Erbe. The half-hour program — featuring a live panel and occasional taped interviews — has more than a million viewers each week, according to its website.

So what's the link between these two titles? In May, a viewer in Texas, Mary Donley, wrote to the ombudsman at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her letter was passed along to me. She makes some strong charges. She said that she had been watching TTC "for several years now. Ms. Erbe is neutral on most topics but she is very anti-immigrant in the 4 immigration programs I have seen in the last couple of years." She listed some of those programs, linking to video recordings of a TTC "Immigration Special" in June of last year and a segment of a more recent program in April.

Erbe and TTC President and Executive Producer Cari W. Stein disagree with Donley's accusations and they point out, correctly, that what Donley did not do in her letter is identify herself as a member of the education committee of "Reforma," The National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking. They also pointed out that Donley had written before and said that they had answered her.

The email from Donley and the response from TTC are reproduced at the bottom of this column, along with an additional response from Erbe about my assessment of the programs Donley complained about.

Donley's characterization of Erbe's views on immigration are hers, not mine. Donley also requested in her email that PBS "replace Ms. Erbe with someone who is more sympathetic to Latino issues." Having a program host who is "sympathetic" to one side of any big, contentious issue is not a good solution. And Donley should, indeed, have made her own affiliation known.

But I very often get lots of email from many self-interest groups and, while it can by annoyingly repetitious and clog up your inbox at times, it often is the case that the special-interest has a legitimate editorial point to make that is worth looking into.

Is 'To the Contrary' Contrary?

The question for me was: Was there any real "contrary" in "To The Contrary" in these cases?

Immigration, especially by those of Hispanic origin — who represent 80 percent of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. — is obviously a huge and divisive topic these days. The stakes in human, political, social and economic terms are enormous. America has, throughout its history, benefitted greatly from waves of immigrants, and it still does. But dealing with this era's numbers poses unprecedented problems as well, especially for states and local communities — and individuals, of course — where its impact is felt much more than the nation at large. It is a real issue with powerful arguments and emotions on all sides.

My Thoughts

So I watched the videos, and I must say that as a layman and, I hope, a fair-minded viewer, I did come away feeling that the dominant tone of these programs — set by Erbe — clearly was one of anti-immigration; that immigration was presented as a negative factor in every area discussed on the programs.

There was not much of another side. The guests and the taped sound-bites from others were too narrowly focused, in my opinion, for a "special edition" that "examines the impact immigration and population growth have on healthcare, poverty and our natural resources," as Erbe introduced the June 10, 2011 program. The same holds for the segment titled "Behind the headlines: immigration and America's public schools," which was part of the April 27, 2012 program.

Some of the organizations represented on taped segments of the programs — such as the big Hispanic organization La Raza — seemed to me to be used to suggest to viewers that there was more diversity and balance of opinion in the program than there really was. The main substantive themes of the programs were reinforced by spokespersons for groups favoring immigration reduction, and there were no experts in education and health care, for example, or economists who have studied these issues. At times, there seemed to be mixing of legal and illegal immigrant numbers, and discussions of the environment left it unclear to me to what degree illegal immigration was responsible for water, farmland and food production issues.

I'm not challenging the facts presented because I don't have that expertise or data. And I'm not challenging the views presented because this is a crucial topic with strong views on all sides. Rather, I do challenge the overall tone and context in which these programs were presented to a viewer, which seemed to me more advocacy than analysis; more one-sided than balanced.

In defense of the 2011 special, and in contrast to Donley's view of these programs from a strictly Latina perspective, I thought that the appearance and comments of Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), an Asian-American, added at least some valuable balance. And at one point well into the program Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies cautions that "it would be a mistake to somehow say that the depletion of any natural resource in the United States is, quote, 'due' to immigrants."

But such moments didn't make much of a dent in the steady, rather obvious and overall anti-immigration thrust of the program, as I listened and watched.

It is impossible to reproduce entire transcripts here, but they are available on the show's website. I would encourage readers of this column to watch the two videos linked to above to form their own judgments.

Laying Out the Message

Here are just a few quotes from the beginning of the "special" that reflect my sense of the message this program was meant to convey:

In discussing President Obama's vision of health care access for all Americans, Erbe notes that "the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants are covered regardless of the parents' status. Cost to ensure them, approximately $4.6 billion per year."

Then she adds, "Many worry there's nothing in the law to prevent employers from denying health insurance to illegal employees and force them onto government subsidized health care. The cost if that happens — $31 billion. Census data show immigrants, both legal and illegal, make up some 13 to 14 percent of the U.S. population. So add legal immigrants into Medicare costs and that figure roughly triples. In addition, those costs will rise geometrically if people in this country illegally are granted legal status as the Obama administration and pro-immigration groups propose."

Leading into the poverty rate issue, she says: "From health care to the poverty rate. We pose the question: could the U.S. have eradicated poverty overall and child poverty in particular but for immigration?"

The segment of the April 27 program dealing with immigration in public schools is introduced this way: "Illegal immigrant children and the U.S. born children of illegal immigrants require more school services in a time of scarce resources. First, they need to learn the English language . . . For already strapped school districts, educating non-English speaking students is challenging. More than 20 percent of the school-age population is made up of children of immigrants. That's 10.8 million children . . . Their need for additional services on top of those needed by English speaking students stress already overstressed school budgets."

Another Assessment

I contacted Richard Fry, a professional researcher at the Pew Hispanic Center who appeared in a taped interview on the April 27 segment about immigrants and public schools, for his assessment of these programs. During my experience as a reporter for many years, I always found Pew research to be fair and reliable. Fry made the following points:

About the program he appeared in, he said, "None of the taped interviewers were actual educators, principals, or school personnel actually engaged in the daily education of immigrant children . . . There was almost no discussion of the actual practice of educating immigrant children."

The taped interviews, he said, "slanted toward those whose organizations are well-known restrictionists in immigration debates. Roy Beck, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), as well as Dan Stein all publicly emphasize the cons of immigration and seek more restrictive immigration policies. I am not sure it is a question of balance. I do not think these advocates have expertise in issues regarding public schools and education. So, the remedy is not to bring in the ideas advocated by those favoring open borders, but more to eschew the big policy questions and stick to the more narrow topic at hand.

"General viewers might have easily inferred from the program that 1) most immigrant children are English language learners and 2) that most immigrant children, if they are not undocumented themselves, are the children of undocumented parents. This is problematic. The fact is that we do not have hard and fast data on either English language learner status or undocumented status. But, we do have reasonable estimates and a majority of children of immigrants in our public schools are not English language learners nor are a majority of children of immigrants in families with one or more undocumented parents. Since much of the discussion focused on the education of English language learners, the program would have been more appropriately titled as a discussion of English learners in our schools rather than immigrant children in our schools.

Among the Best, as Well

"The program," Fry continued, "pointed out that the children of immigrants include some students who tend to perform most poorly on our standard measures of educational achievement. But it failed to point out that the children of immigrants also include most likely some of our best performing students. This is a reflection of the immigrant flows coming to the United States. A large portion are significantly less-educated than the US average. But a significant portion are better educated than the US average. So it is not altogether surprising that the children of immigrants include some of our best and worst performing students. Unfortunately, the content overlooked the high achievers and concentrated on the English language learners."

He added that: "It is very difficult to estimate the costs of educating immigrant children. Again, individuals with more expertise in the actual estimation of such costs and the difficulties involved in developing such costs could have been included."

As for "statistics about school overcrowding and resource constraints," he pointed out that "there are 90,000 public schools in America. I am not sure if the public schools with growing ELL populations are the ones that are overcrowded. One does not necessarily follow from the other."

With respect to the earlier "special," Fry made a similar observation that in the segment on illegal immigration and health care, "not a single health care expert was featured." And on the segment on immigration and child poverty, which he described as "a great topic," he said "there is over 40 years of labor market research on the impact of immigration on native workers' wages. Unfortunately, there was not one labor economist featured on estimating the impact of immigration on native wages."

And Another

I also contacted Erika Beltran of the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group in the U.S. She also appeared in one of the taped interviews in the April 27 program segment. I asked for her reaction to the segment as it was aired and she responded with this statement.

"I was disheartened to see my interview used in such a way to bolster the false and inflammatory premise of the story. Among other things, the piece inaccurately conflated immigration and education concerns to suggest that ELL students are immigrants, which in fact the vast majority of them are native-born American citizens. The show simply didn't seem to give any credence to points 'to the contrary' of the extreme anti-immigrant groups interviewed in these pieces, including FAIR and Numbers USA. Technically I was not misquoted, but had I known how they would spin this, I would not have participated in the interview."

The Letters

Now, back to the beginning. First, here is Donley's letter. Then comes the response to it, in full, from To The Contrary. This is followed by a statement from Erbe about my assessment of this situation.

Donley's Letter

I have been watching To the Contrary for several years now. Ms. Erbe is neutral on most topics but she is very anti-immigrant in the 4 immigration programs I have seen in the last couple of years. The programs I am referring to are on the following dates:

Spring 2010
May 6, 2011
May 13, 2011 and
April 29, 2012

I have 2 issues with these programs. They do not have "diverse" perspectives" and most of the information cited in the programs is from anti-immigrant groups such as Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Center for Immigration Studies, and so-called Progressives for Immigration Reform. There was not a single Latina (neither conservative nor progressive) included on the panel of these programs but there are blurred images of Latinos in the background.

I would like to request that PBS cease having Immigration Programs on To the Contrary or to have shows including Latinas on the panel and representation from groups like MALDEF, LULAC and/or Voto Latino. If Ms. Erbe has another similar program which always seem to include anti-immigrant panel member Tara Setmayer, I will start a petition to request that PBS replace Ms. Erbe with someone who is more sympathetic to Latino issues.

Mary A. Donley, Voca, TX

'To The Contrary' Responds:

This is the second complaint from viewer, Mary Donley, who e-mailed us with similar concerns last October. She can be found on the Reforma website (National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking) complaining about the lack of Latinos on TV generally, not just on one show on PBS. We offer this background information because this is a person who is clearly an activist on this issue and quite frankly, no matter what we do, we can never make this type of person happy.

That said, we would like to point out that To the Contrary has a long list of conservative and liberal Latinas who regularly appear on the show including Leslie Sanchez, Patricia Sosa, Linda Chavez, Alicia Menendez, Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, Maria Theresa Kumar (who will appear this week [June 22] when we discuss new Census figures showing more Asians are immigrating to this country than Hispanics,) Mercedes Viana Schlapp, Cari Dominguez, etc.

Ms. Donley's specific complaints in the latest email are that:
1-To the Contrary's coverage does not offer diverse views on immigration and,
2-there were no Latinas on the panel discussions.

She cited four episodes during the past two years, during which time To the Contrary has produced almost 104 new episodes. For the sake of brevity we deal herewith with her citation of the most recent episode which aired on April 27, 2012. We produced a segment on what it costs for public schools to educate non-English speaking students.

First to her claim that there was a lack of diverse views on immigration in the piece, this piece included nine sound bites. Four of those bites are from groups she would describe as anti-immigration, FAIR, the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA. Five are from people who work for pro-immigration organizations, the Pew Hispanic Center and The National Council of La Raza. Latina Erika Beltran who works for La Raza was interviewed in the piece twice.

Second, her claim that there were no Latinas on the panel discussion is incorrect. Regular panelist Tara Setmayer's father is from Guatemala (her mother is white.) We had another woman on the panel, Amanda Terkel, who is of Asian descent. We felt since this piece was clearly not about Hispanic immigration but about all immigration that the perspective of someone of Asian descent was important, too. Unfortunately we ran out of time and Amanda was cut off at the end. But it often happens that panelists get fired up about the first two issues so we run out of time on the third issue.

Erbe Also Responds to the Ombudsman

I respect both your and Ms. Donley's opinions but completely disagree with them. What I think you are reacting to in these pieces is the fact we gave the anti- mass immigration side its fair due. That's rare among the p.c. media who generally send the message that any policy short of open borders is anti-American and anti-immigrant.

Last week we did a segment on a new Pew Research report showing Asians are now outnumbering Hispanics as new immigrants to the U.S. We had a Latina and an Asian-American on the panel. But we had no one who said mass immigration is harming the nation. Did you or Ms. Donley view that segment as too pro-immigration? Obviously not.

There are a lot of Americans who legitimately believe their way of life is being destroyed by and their quality of life ruined by mass immigration. This has nothing to do with race and everything to do with overpopulation. The country's population has almost doubled in the last 70 years and most of that rise is from immigrants and their children. The fertility rate of American women is 2.1 or replacement value. As a result of our rapidly growing numbers there's more competition to get into schools, to get good jobs and to buy housing. Just because we occasionally give that side of the argument equal time, does not make us anti-immigrant. I am the proud grand-daughter of a Cuban citizen. I do believe it is fair to give voice to people who feel there is too much of a good thing with mass immigration and that it has been going on for several decades now.

We will continue to act as a platform for women of all colors and political perspectives as we have for 20+ seasons on PBS.