In the 19th Century, the growing demand for newspapers led to the creation of wire services, cooperatives between large city-based newspapers, the most famous of these, the Associated Press (AP) adopted the use of the wireless telegraph in 1899, initiated a wire service for photographs in 1935, joined YouTube in 2006, and launched AP Mobile in 2008. The AP forms part of one of our most revered public, social, and cultural institutions. Freedom of the press is written into the First Amendment. It is often referred to as the “fourth branch of government.” But its history is one of change and adaptation, both in response to advances in widely available technology, as in the example of the evolving AP illustrates. And the need to confront the cognitive dissonance built into its institutional ontology:
During the Gilded Age, newspaper circulation battles between Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World,” and William Randolph Hearst’s “New York Journal,” led to an environment in which sensationalized stories eclipsed investigative reporting with such severity and frequency, that the American press corps came to be defined as the homestead of yellow journalism. But the same media that embraced scandal, one decade, became obsessed with uncovering and examining hidden and inconvenient truths, the next. The profiteering publishers of newspaper propaganda during the Spanish-American War were confronted by businessmen who believed the media could offer as much reliability, not just sparkle, and still turn a profit. Before World War I, writers fulfilling auditing or watchdog functions were labeled “muckrakers.” Most supported the reforms ushered in by the Progressive Era, but their legacy was not establishing a means for responding tit-for-tat to the politicized rhetoric of right-wing populism that permeated sensationalist publications like Pulitzer’s, and Hearst’s, but rather a devotion to the pursuit of impartiality in reporting—the identification of fact as fact, and the labeling of opinion as opinion. The format adopted by the “New York Times” under Adolph Ochs, became the format of any newspaper seeking to establish itself as one of objective record.
On September 21, 2012, journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “exceptional multi-faceted coverage of the deadly shooting rampage at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University” in 2008, gave a speech to the Online News Association. He called on media outlets to stop using the term “illegal” to describe immigrants, be they children or adults. Vargas specifically asked the New York Times and the AP to lead the way.
The term is not a socio-politically neutral descriptive. And it does not correctly depict the complex tapestry of immigrants who are broadly categorized as undocumented, but are more precisely identified as Deferred Action, day laborers without current work permits, farmworkers without visas, sweatshop, service sector,meat packing industry, factory farm, employees without Social Security or Tax ID numbers, etc.
Vargas is neither the first nor the sole voice to shine a spotlight on the term, and explain why it fails the standard of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
In 2006, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, launched a campaign to challenge the media’s use of the terms “illegal immigrant,” and “illegal alien.” Proposing the term “undocumented immigrant.” This campaign has been widely supported by journalists of color, and universally embraced by associations of journalists of color.
In 2010, the Applied Research Center, and Colorlines launched the “Drop the I-Word” campaign aimed at getting the media and elected officials to stop using “illegal” to describe undocumented residents, regardless of race/ethnicity, age, gender identity, religion, sexual identity, etc. This campaign features an online pledge, videos, and blogs that have garnered millions of impressions, and earned the support of thousands of organizations.
And yet, in 2011, the “updated” AP Stylebook advised journalists to continue using the term despite the fact that more and more journalists and news consumers agreed that the term was dehumanizing and legally inaccurate. AP Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn says he and the other two Stylebook editors have taken people’s criticism into consideration but are still advising journalists to use it. The Stylebook says “illegal immigrant” should be used “to describe someone who has entered the country illegally,” and should also be used to describe anyone who “resides in a country in criminal or civil violation of immigration law.”
#droptheiword Campaign Director, Monica Novoa stated, “The Associated Press has to decide if they want to be known as an organization that is dictating the use of legally inaccurate, racially charged, dehumanizing language. They are not with the times right now and it damages their credibility.”
This past Tuesday, (October 2, 2012) Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor for the New York Times, published her response to the repeated request that the New York Times drop the term. She articulated it thusly:
“I see no advantage for Times readers in a move away from the paper’s use of the phrase ‘illegal immigrant.’ It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood… Just as ‘illegal tenant’ in a real estate story (another phrase you could have seen in Times articles or headlines) is brief and descriptive, so is ‘illegal immigrant’… This is not a judgment on immigration policy or on the various positions surrounding immigration reform, or those who hold those positions… It’s simply a judgment about clarity and accuracy, which readers hold so dear.”
John Hudson of the Atlantic Wire wrote, “Jose Antonio Vargas hit a brick wall… Sullivan… [is] the last resort for readers frustrated with the newspaper’s policies. Which means Vargas’ campaign to get the AP and The Times to jettison the term has hit a roadblock—both news agencies are sticking with the status quo.”
Undaunted, Vargas told Hudson that he would continue to push for change at the AP and New York Times, “because they’re national brands that set the news agenda.” Adding, “Openness and willingness to have a conversation about this term… should happen in newsrooms across America, especially in towns, cities and states that are deeply impacted by this issue. You cannot divorce illegal immigration from changing demographics… I am disappointed at her assessment. The headline… is most revealing: ‘Readers Won’t Benefit if Times Bans the Term’… Which readers? Readers who want and need to understand the complex and evolving nature of immigration in America, how an immigrant can be out-of-status one week and have status the next? Readers from immigrant families (Latinos and Asians, particularly) who are likely to personally know someone who is undocumented and is offended that their friends and relatives are continually marginalized and dehumanized?”
It is easy for those with racial/ethnic, socioeconomic and other privileges to characterize all of this as a debate over semantics. There’s an entire applied linguistics discussion group on LinkedIn devoted to the “illegal vs. undocumented debate.” Unfortunately, even media outlets that exist specifically to broaden the narrow discussions that result when the vast majority of those opining are white men, have adopted this frame. “Semantics Important to Immigrants’ Struggle” reads New America Media’s write up on Sergio Garcia, the aspiring attorney, fighting for a license to practice law in California despite his undocumented status, after having passed the bar exam and the character study conducted by the Committee of Bar Examiners. Latino media figures like Define American co-founder, Alicia Menendez and Roque Planas at the Huffington Post largely conform their coverage to fit this mold.
Paul Kivel writes, “Language is important not because it should or can be ‘correct,’ but because it should convey… dignity… Everyone should have the choice to name themselves… Rejecting demeaning names, or renaming oneself… challenges the presumed subordination when others have dictated your name.” As an example, the identifier “redskin” is contemptible to a vast majority of Native Americans. In fact, a poll by Indian Country Today, found that 81% of the members of the indigenous community, believe the use of Native American symbols, mascots, and identifiers by sports teams is “predominantly offensive and deeply disparaging.”
This fact didn’t prevent Scott Brown from facilitating the labeling of Elizabeth Warren as ‘Lieawatha’ and ‘Fauxcauhontas’ during a campaign rally in which his own staffers lead a crowd of white Massachusetts residents in a series of war whoops and tomahawk chops. Something Bill John Baker, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, called an “uneducated, unenlightened and racist portrayal of Native peoples.” But I digress.
Cheech Marin explains the journey of self-identification comically, “In the early days, the connotation of calling someone a Chicano was that they were poor, illiterate, destitute people living in tin shacks along the border… Hispanic is a census term that some dildo in a government office made up to include all Spanish-speaking brown people… ‘Latino’ refers to all Spanish-speaking people in the ‘New World’—South Americans, Central Americans, Mexicans, and Brazilians (even though they speak Portuguese). All those groups and their descendents living in the United States want to be called Latinos to recognize their Indian roots… Mexican-American is the politically correct middle ground between Hispanic and Chicano… All those names made it confusing for me growing up. I lived in an all-black neighborhood, followed by an all-white one, and other kids in the always called me Mexican in both neighborhoods. When I got chased down an alley… self-identification saved the day… When I got home… my Uncle Rudy was in the middle of a story: ‘So, I took the car into the dealer and he said, ‘Yeah, the repairs gonna run you about $250’… Hell, just give me a pair of pliers and some tin foil. I’ll fix it—I’m a Chicano mechanic’… And that was the defining epiphany. A Chicano was someone who could do anything. A Chicano was someone who wasn’t going to get ripped off. He was Uncle Rudy. He was industrious, inventive, and he wants another beer. So I got my Uncle Rudy another beer because, on that day, he showed me that I was a Chicano… I’ve been a Chicano ever since.”
Humor aside, the New York Times published the following in 1988, “Blacks now want to be called African-Americans… The archeology is dramatically plain to older adults who, in one lifetime, have already heard preferred usage shift from colored to Negro to black… If the new name catches on, it will challenge headline writers and disconcert citizens only recently accustomed to black. But people ought to be able to call themselves whatever they wish. The desire to choose one’s label is as American as apple pie, and as political… Consider the evolution from ladies to women or the gradual acceptance of Ms. … The term… is no mere verbal convenience; its very use connotes coalition, and thus power… For those who declared in the mid-1960s that ‘Black is beautiful,’ embracing the term black was an act of political self-assertion. They insisted on accurately describing the character of society then.”
There are 11 million undocumented noncitizen residents, in this nation of 315 million people. That’s 3.5%. This includes persons from every part of the globe. But since the most common depiction of an undocumented immigrant is that of a late night US-Mexico border crosser in pursuit of a government check, let’s deal with that offensive stereotype head on. There are more than 50 million Latinos in the US. One in three Americans believe the majority of Latinos are undocumented. If that were true, at least 8% of the entire US population would be comprised of undocumented residents from Latin America. You can’t square this circle. The numbers don’t add up. As former President Clinton said, “It’s arithmetic.”
Half of likely Latino voters surveyed by Fox News find the term offensive. 81% of those surveyed by Univision believe all Latinos in the US, not just undocumented immigrants, presently face significant discrimination. This belief is corroborated and substantiated by National Institute of Justice, Southern Poverty Law Center, and FBI data, demonstrating disproportionate growth in anti-Latino hate crimes and hate groups.
Because of the Supreme Court’s decision not to overturn the entirety of Arizona SB 1070, “papers please” policies will remain Constitutional until their implementation unduly harms and burdens enough American citizens from communities of color to justify their modification. Every single time a law enforcement officer encounters someone he or she deems worthy of questioning, that officer will be entrusted to make a determination on that individual’s American identity. Between April 2010, the time SB 1070 was signed into law, and the June 2012 Arizona v. US decision, the American Civil Liberties Union said their Arizona hotline had already taken over 3,500 calls alleging violations of the rights guaranteed to citizens and US residents by the Constitution. This, in spite of the fact that the ninth circuit, federal court of appeals, upheld an injunction preventing the full implementation of the law until the Supreme Court had reached its verdict.
Welcome to the one Nation, under God, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All, where 96 year-old, former Arizona Governor, Mexican American, Raul Hector Castro, has already been detained three times.
NYU Professor of Journalism, Jay Rosen writes, “Getting simultaneously bashed from the left and the right is oddly comforting for journalists; it seems to suggest that they’re steering right down the middle, which is a territory they associate with balance and truth… Journalists don’t see themselves as tools of the corporation or defenders of the liberal faith. But they do regard their craft as a public service, and the way they understand this service matters. The daily rituals and peer culture of journalism advance a host of assumptions about politics, power, people, public opinion, and democracy…
As outsiders, journalists fell victim to some dangerous illusions: that they had no investment in the health of the political system, that they could continue to watch the craziness—and feed it—without substantial cost, that their intention to be in no one’s pocket meant that they were free of politics, when the reality was they were implicated in everything politics had become… Political culture, preoccupied with media ‘bias,’ made it perilous to even ask about agendas and outcomes… The journalist’s favorite self image—the professional bystander, watching politics and public life roll by… placed the press outside the action, which was a safe position, but also a weak one, in that it couldn’t account for all the ways in which journalism had been incorporated into the system… as players, people who help shape the scene they also survey. Which left hanging a question: If the press shapes the politics we have, then how can it shape the politics we need?”
Jose Antonio Vargas, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Applied Research Center, Colorlines, and millions of Americans have answered this question:
No American resident should be defined as “illegal” by the media as a result of his or her current immigration status. Every human being has an equal right to dignity regardless of immigration status. And the press is guilty of violating this right by refusing to eradicate this dehumanizing slur from public discourse.
Those who embrace a term open the door to racial profiling and violence, and prevent a truthful, informative debate on immigration policy that acknowledges push-and-pull factors on a macro level, or the diversity of undocumented individuals on a micro level.
It is not known who the undocumented are, how many lack status, or what the impacts of immigration policy have been on American families where some are citizens and some are potentially subject to deportation. The AP and New York Times have embraced the term, “illegal immigrant,” under the banner of accuracy, when the American public is misinformed about immigrants and immigration policy in every measurable way.
By abandoning responsibility to combat public misinformation, and denying culpability in engendering a climate in which the public is as socio-politically polarized, as it is ignorant of the facts, they are complicit in the lack of legislative progress on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform, and fettered to the openly racist treatment those perceived to be undocumented receive.
The AP and New York Times must follow the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express-News and Huffington Post and drop the i-word.