"The invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans," Mr. Dobbs said on his April 14, 2005, program. From there, he introduced his original report that mentioned leprosy, the flesh-destroying disease — technically known as Hansen's disease — that has inspired fear for centuries.
According to a woman CNN identified as a medical lawyer named Dr. Madeleine Cosman, leprosy was on the march. As Ms. Romans, the CNN correspondent, relayed: "There were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years."
"Incredible," Mr. Dobbs replied.
Mr. Dobbs and Ms. Romans engaged in a nearly identical conversation a few weeks ago, when he was defending himself the night after the "60 Minutes" segment. "Suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy," she said, again attributing the number to Ms. Cosman.
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. . . .
So Mr. Dobbs was flat-out wrong. And when I spoke to him yesterday, he admitted as much, sort of. I read him Ms. Romans's comment — the one with the word "suddenly" in it — and he replied, "I think that is wrong." He then went on to say that as far as he was concerned, he had corrected the mistake by later broadcasting another report, on the same night as his on-air confrontation with the Southern Poverty Law Center officials. This report mentioned that leprosy had peaked in 1983.
Of course, he has never acknowledged on the air that his program presented false information twice. . . .
I have been somewhat taken aback about how shameless he has been during the whole dispute, so I spent some time reading transcripts from old episodes of "Lou Dobbs Tonight." The way he handled leprosy, it turns out, is not all that unusual. . . .
The most common complaint about him, at least from other journalists, is that his program combines factual reporting with editorializing. But I think this misses the point. Americans, as a rule, are smart enough to handle a program that mixes opinion and facts. The problem with Mr. Dobbs is that he mixes opinion and untruths. He is the heir to the nativist tradition that has long used fiction and conspiracy theories as a weapon against the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Jews and, now, the Mexicans. . . .
More to the point, if Mr. Dobbs's arguments were really so good, don't you think he would be able to stick to the facts? And if CNN were serious about being "the most trusted name in news," as it claims to be, don't you think it would be big enough to issue an actual correction?
That's a very good question. What does CNN have to say?