In a New York Times media column disguised as an economics column, David Leonhardt slams Lou Dobbs for refusing to forthrightly correct his whopper about immigrant-borne leprosy. As Dave Weigel noted earlier this month, Dobbs' CNN show exaggerated the number of U.S. leprosy cases by an order of magnitude, confusing 7,000 cases over 30 years with 7,000 cases over three years:
According to a woman CNN identified as a medical lawyer named Dr. Madeleine Cosman, leprosy was on the march. As [Christine] 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.
Appalling as this error was, Dobbs' attitude when confronted with it was even more galling:
When Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes" sat down to interview Mr. Dobbs on camera, she mentioned the report and told him that there didn't seem to be much evidence for it.
"Well, I can tell you this," he replied. "If we reported it, it's a fact."
With that Orwellian chestnut, Mr. Dobbs escalated the leprosy dispute into a full-scale media brouhaha. The next night, back on his own program, the same CNN correspondent who had done the earlier report, Christine Romans, repeated the 7,000 number [saying, "Suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy"], and Mr. Dobbs added that, if anything, it was probably an underestimate. A week later, the Southern Poverty Law Center—the civil rights group that has long been critical of Mr. Dobbs—took out advertisements in The New York Times and USA Today demanding that CNN run a correction.
Finally, Mr. Dobbs played host to two top officials from the law center on his program, "Lou Dobbs Tonight," where he called their accusations outrageous and they called him wrong, unfair and "one of the most popular people on the white supremacist Web sites."
Leonhardt, who pronounces himself "taken aback [by] how shameless he has been during the whole dispute," pressed Dobbs to admit he was "flat-out wrong":
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. Instead, he lambasted the officials from the law center for saying he had. Even yesterday, he spent much of our conversation emphasizing that there really were 7,000 cases in the leprosy registry, the government's 30-year database. Mr. Dobbs is trying to have it both ways.
The striking thing about Dobbs' arrogant refusal to correct a mistake is that it's just the sort of attitude that TV populists like him ascribe (not without justice) to media "elites" like Leonhardt's employer.
Update: As Dave Weigel points out, Dobbs today apologized for using Madeleine Cosman as a source.