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how to balance badly: another way that news articles can suck

Sunday, November 12th, 2006 10:11 am

Ah, a fine Sunday morning reading the paper, and trashing media bias and sloppy reporting at the NYT …

This annoying NYT article (11/12) on police witness “sanctuary” policies is a perfect example of how articles can be technically “balanced” but still really suck present an imbalanced picture.

The police witness sanctuary policies basically tell local police that, when talking with a witness (including the victim) to a crime, they shouldn’t ask about immigration status. And, yes, there is a humanitarian rationale for them that benefits immigrants in particular. But there is also a significant rationale that applies to everyone, not just immigrants: These policies protect anyone who might be the victim of a crime, not just immigrants, by encouraging everyone to come forward without fear of personal repercussions. Do you really want the one person who saw the hit-and-run, or the murder, or the burglary, or the purse-snatching, or the kidnapping … to not come forward because her immigration status is in trouble?

The article, unfortunately, never presents that very basic, fundamental argument in a clear way, and instead presents the pro-sanctuary policy arguments in only a very muddled fashion. At the same time it gives plenty of space to the well-articulated (albeit distasteful) positions of those folks willing to cut off their crimefighting noses to spite immigrants. Or something like that.

The article starts off with a crime committed against immigrants, and then segues into a discussion of the issue. The choice of this particular example is interesting, but notable; it is going to be an unsympathetic example to the hard-core anti-immigrants. I would have preferred a lede that illustrated the point for even the anti-immigrant folks who don’t care about crimes committed against immigrants. For folks who don’t see the relevance of the law to non-immigrants, they are going to miss the point. But I can’t argue too much with it, because it does present a common application of the law.

The real problem in the article comes in its attempt to be “balanced,” pulling in quotes that don’t balance each other in emotional weight, rhetoric, or even logic. The article includes four quotes that all articulate the anti-policy position with strong, emotional anti-immigrant language. (Campbell, Farrell, Sekula-Gibbs, Mehlman.) Between them, they present several nuances of their argument:

  • Government efficiency (Campbell: “To say to a law enforcement official, … if you believe that information would be of use and benefit to federal authorities, that you can’t call them, that’s just wrong.”
  • Taxpayer efficiency and anti-immigrant rhetoric from Farrell: “It’s mind-blowing for us to see taxpayer dollars spent to subsidize criminal activity … “
  • Anti-immigrant venom from Sekula-Gibbs: “Terrorists, drug runners and cartel members could be among us, and police officers are not allowed to check their identities. … This policy of appeasement must be stopped.”) (Farrell’s “subsidizing criminal activity” is quite a stretch, but Sekula-Gibbs’ quote is practically incoherent–doesn’t she want immigrants to be able to come forward about terrorists, drug runners, and cartel members? And it’s not about checking ID; it’s about asking immigration status ….
  • Hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric that characterizes the crime-fighting at issue as “issues that arise from having illegal people in your community” from Mehlman, from the Federation for American Immigration Reform: “If you want to harbor people who are in the country illegally, you can’t expect to have federal funds for issues that arise from having illegal people in your community.”) The problem with this quote is that it is almost completely out of context, and so the only take-away is the illegal / immigrant connection — which their side is only too happy to have made again. The real context should have been explaining that their organization lobbies to strip federal funding from local law enforcement that doesn’t voluntarily enforce (at their own expense) federal immigration laws.

I think it’s fair to say that these quotes present the anti-immigrant / anti-”sanctuary” policy case as strongly as possible.

The difficulty is that the quotes from the other sides of the issue — the pro-local-law-enforcement-control, and the pro-immigrants-rights-advocates — are balanced very poorly. First, and most significantly, the quotes from the anti-policy folks almost all weave together the anti-immigrant rhetoric with their anti-policy argument, thus making the strongest rhetorical case for their argument. (Well, strongest in that it ties it to a well-touted and, apparently, popular argument in the US these days.) By contrast, the quotes from the pro-policy folks never clearly articulate the basic crime-fighting rationale, which would be the argument with an equivalent rhetorical weight. The two immigrants-rights-advocates compellingly address two important points — that fighting crime against a vulnerable population (immigrants) is important (Guttentag), and that routine police inquiries into immigration status of witnesses are not necessary to deal with high-profile criminal suspects who might be immigrants (Friedland).

The pro-policy quotes run like this:

First up is SF DA Kamala Harris with a plain but not compelling take on the pro-policy argument; really this is just a wrap-up to the anecdote and a transition to explain that the policies are now the subject of debate. (Convenient to front-and-center San Francisco, which any right-winger will read as code for wacky liberal out-of-step-with-the-nation policies. Why not pick an anecdote from one of 50 other more “mainstream” cities and counties to illustrate and lead with?)

Then, without ever having articulated the full case for the policies–that it is simply a pro-public-safety, crime-fighting policy, first and foremost–the article offers three heated quotes from anti-immigration folks (Campbell, Farrell, Sekula-Gibbs), arguments which cut to their core arguments. The first (Campbell), which sets out an apparently sensible efficiency argument, and then the next two (Farrell and Sekula-Gibbs), which bring out the invective by equating immigration status with criminality.

Next up a variety of arguments from the pro-local-law-enforcement folks, not one of whom lays out the basic case that this policy assists law enforcement and crimefighting generally. Again, it is important to remember that this policy benefits everyone. To never have that made clear, and to only articulate the benefits to immigrants, is both inaccurate and bad politics on the part of the policy-makers, immigrants’ right advocates, and crime-fighters generally.

The arguments go like this:

  • Craig Ferrell: “What we’re against is the federal government mandating that local enforcement be initiated without addressing [the tangle of laws and rules affecting police conduct].” Vague and confusing and virtually contentless, and no doubt excerpted out of context.
  • Sandoval: “If [the federal government] want[s] to enforce the law, they should put troops on the ground to do that.” Sounds like city officials are whining about doing their part.
  • Vernon: “We didn’t want people to fear cooperating with police. … And the local police department’s job is not to enforce the federal immigration law.” A reasonable statement in the first sentence, albeit rather bloodless and not presenting the core anti-crime argument that applies to everyone. But diminished by the same “whining” that Sandoval implied. If you’re going to go with that argument, for gods’ sake, why not use the “unfunded federal mandate” language that conservatives deploy whenever they want to bitch about federal rules requiring state action?
  • Unnamed person at Major Cities Chiefs Association gives another comment much like Ferrell’s, hopelessly nonspecific and noncompelling. (“[R]requiring the local police to enforce immigration policy did not ‘take into full account the realities of local law enforcement dealing with this issue on the ground.’ The association said its concerns included a lack of authority, training, and resources, as well as risks of liability.”)

Fine. A bit of overkill, since none of them actually said anything memorable or articulated his own position that well. (Maybe next time they could go for a female spokesperson, instead of talking only to boys; I don’t believe in masculine/feminine communications differences, particularly, but geez, can’t you try for diversity?)

After the pathetic waffling of the pro-policy folks, and the spiteful commentary from the anti-immigrant folks, we finally get a word in edgewise from an immigrants right advocate. Lucas Guttentag, a good guy, makes a good (and articulate) case from the perspective of enforcing criminal laws against immigrants. A critical point for those of us who actually care about people, not legal status. But, to have the only really articulate quote on the pro-policy side of the ledger be a pro-immigrant quote does a disservice to those folks who have to argue for the policy with anti-immigrant people. Guttentag’s argument will only appeal to people who are not so irrationally blinded by hatred and a weird fixation on the legal fiction of nationality that they are can see the greater good in being, well, humanitarian.

And then we wrap up with two quotes from people on opposite sides of immigration issues — very “balanced”:

First, the Mehlman quote (above).

And then Joan Friedland, with the National Immigration Law Center, who points out “that the concept of sanctuary cities was often misunderstood and that it gave the impression that such cities were lawless havens for illegal immigrants. ‘It’s not like people, if they are charged with a crime, they just escape immigration… Even the cities that have ordinances limiting inquiries about immigration status cooperate and are in touch with the Department of Homeland Security when a serious crime is involved.’ Okay, I think this is a reasonable point to make, but it really fits as a response to the vicious (and incoherently inaccurate) comment from Sekula-Gibbs, above. The right comment to “balance” Mehlman would have been, perhaps, one of the federal funds / general crimefighting efficiency quotes.

Ideally one would like at least one quote setting forth, articulately, each of the four major positions I see: (a) let law enforcement agencies talk to each other as much as they want (scoff–a rambling rant for another day … and we all know the only real rationale for arguing against these policies is anti-immigrant animus, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. At any rate, this argument is represented well enough in the first of the four anti-policy quotes); (b) immigrants suck (well represented in all four quotes and particularly well represented in three of them); (c) basic crime-fighting sense says don’t discourage witnesses!; and (d) simple humanitarianism says stop crime and predation wherever it occurs. Frankly I could abandon entirely the federalism argument that I think Ferrell is alluding to, but I don’t mind an (e) fifth argument in favor of the policies.

But no. Not one fucking compelling quote setting forth the general crime-fighting rationale that will make sense to the hard-hearted anti-immigrants who can’t see the connection for themselves.

So that’s how to write an ostensibly balanced NYT article that sucks isn’t balanced at all.

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