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Lou Dobbs: The Truth Is Not Always Fair Or Balanced (10/03/05)

By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief

Lou Dobbs is a man of all media. He can be heard on The Lou Dobbs Financial Report, distributed by United Stations Radio Networks to more than 160 stations nationwide. The anchor and managing editor of Lou Dobbs Tonight on CNN, he also writes a monthly column for Money magazine, is a columnist for U.S. News and World Report, and publishes his own financial newsletter, the Lou Dobbs Money Letter.

A broadcaster at heart, Dobbs began his career some three decades ago as a police and fire reporter at 500-watt KBLU-AM in Yuma, AZ. “My days began at 3:30 in the morning,” he recalls. “I would trudge off to the police station, the fire station, and the sheriff's station, then compile my report for the 5:30 broadcast. It was the most exciting, fascinating, wonderful job - and each job since has been even more fun. Everything I learned in radio has given me the foundation to be a broadcaster.”

Fast forward a few years to 1980, when Dobbs became a founding member of CNN and was instrumental in making Moneyline one of the most lauded business news programs on television (or cable). During his tenure as executive vice president of CNN, he oversaw the launch of CNNfn, for which he served as president, as well as CNNfn.com. He left the network temporarily in 1999, when he founded Space.com, dedicated to understanding the mysteries of space and the universe. He returned to CNN full time in 2003.

At once thoughtful, intelligent, and deliberate, Dobbs is intensely intolerant of sloppy journalism - or reporters who pander to what he calls partisan, “he said, she said” reporting. “There is a non-partisan reality in every story, and it is our obligation to report that reality,” he explains. “The hell with whether the viewer is a Democrat or Republican. I'm interested in the non-partisan reality that exists for 98 percent of the population of this country - a country that is first American, and only secondarily - and ancillarily - Republican or Democrat.”

This straightforward, candid approach to the news has earned Dobbs numerous awards for his journalistic work. He received the George Foster Peabody Award for his coverage of the 1987 stock market crash, and in 1990 he was given the Luminary Award by the Business Journalism Review for his “visionary work, which changed the landscape of business journalism in the 1980s.” In 1999, he earned the Horatio Alger Association Award for Distinguished Americans; in 2000, he was given the National Space Club Media Award; and in 2004, he received The Man of the Year Award from The Organization for the Rights of American Workers. Additionally, Dobbs was named Father of the Year in 1993 by the National Father's Day Committee. He is the author of the best-selling book Exporting America and co-author of Space.

Dobbs graduated from Harvard University with a degree in economics. He serves on the boards of the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation, the Horatio Alger Association, the National Space Foundation, and Space.com, in which he retains a minority stake, as he does in Integrity Bank. He is also a member of the Planetary Society, the Overseas Press Club, the American Economic Association, and the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Despite his many ongoing endeavors, not the least of which has been to anchor coverage of Hurricane Katrina's devastation along the U.S. Gulf Coast, Dobbs recently shared his views with Radio Ink on journalistic truth, misplaced government priorities, and the real economy.

INK: As a career journalist who has reported the news through Democratic and Republican administrations, do you believe the media has a liberal bias?
DOBBS:
There's no question that there is a bias in the media, one that sometimes is perceived as liberal. But it goes well beyond that. An even worse bias has grown up - “he says, she says” journalism. Reporters are not pursuing the facts or doing diligent, rigorous newsgathering and fact-finding. I always tell my people that we're interested in the one side of the story that counts, and that is the truth. That's our obligation and that's what we work toward every day.

You don't think journalists today are as committed to finding the truth?
The idea that a reporter has to be fair and balanced is ridiculous. The fact is, the truth usually is not fair or balanced. Truth stands by itself. The idea that fair and balanced is a substitute for truth and fact is mindless nonsense that has captured much of the national media. There are two political sides to every story. Does that mean if we had three major political parties there would be three sides to the truth? If we had four, there would be four? It's utter nonsense. There is a non-partisan reality in every story, and it is our obligation to report that reality. And the hell with whether the viewer is a Democrat or Republican. I'm interested in the non-partisan reality that exists for 98 percent of the population of this country - a country that is first American, and only secondarily - and ancillarily - Republican or Democrat.

What do you think of the media's coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath?
We have had very good reporting from New Orleans. However, it's unfortunate we have not had a more rigorous examination of the days leading up to Katrina's landfall, and what has transpired since. This will all come forward as the facts become better known, but with so much focus on FEMA director Michael Brown, who performed abysmally, there was a resistance to examine the performance of Mayor Ray Nagin or Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. The reality is, those three officials performed unacceptably. Hopefully, we'll find the death toll in this disaster is far less than the original projection.

Does this go back to the “he says, she says” brand of journalism you mentioned?
Some critics chose to focus on Michael Brown because they were Democrats, while others chose to focus on Nagin or Blanco because they were Republicans. The national media too often goes along with these partisan impulses and stories rather than examining the facts.

Four years after 9/11, would you have expected to see a better governmental response to this disaster than the one we got?
That is the most important question. The Department of Homeland Security has performed shamelessly. Our borders are wide open, but 80-year-old women must take off their shoes in airport security checks. It is utterly shameful. The fact that we're not enforcing the laws at our borders, that we're not maintaining high levels of security at our ports, is an open invitation to tragedy - one that will be squarely blamed on both Republicans and Democrats. This administration has the responsibility to make certain that our response to disaster is far better than what we've witnessed in the past weeks.

What could - and should - be done to rectify this situation?
The tragedy of New Orleans and Mississippi should serve as a loud alarm that we are not putting our resources where they best serve us - with our local first responders. They have the advantage of proximity and the responsibility of being closest to the disaster. This is the exact inverse of what Homeland Security is doing; they're spending tens of billions of dollars on a national bureaucracy and far too little to prepare our communities to respond to disaster, and to prevent it.

From your perspective behind the news desk, what is the subtext of this event?
The important message we should take from this disaster is the reaction of the American public, which is: “My God, if we can't respond better to a hurricane, what would happen if terrorists were successful in striking?” The subtext of the story is why this country is spending hundreds of billions of dollars nation-building abroad, when we have so much to do here on our own infrastructure. I'm not talking simply about repairing levees, but preparing the country for the next era of what I hope will still be an “American century.” Our national highways, bridges, and dams are in dire need of repair, and we have not begun that investment. We are going to spend, by most estimates, between $200 and $300 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast. That's a tremendous amount of money, but probably less than will be spent in Iraq. I think the public is unnerved by these imbalances and priorities, which seem askew when we're confronted with our fellow Americans suffering through - and dying - in a disaster like Hurricane Katrina.

Have you seen any upside emerging from this tragedy?
Yes, the schools in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas that have taken in hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would have had their education shortchanged over the next six to 12 months. They've been taken these students in, and the school districts have responded without bureaucratic red tape. There has been no discussion about “no child left behind” or partisan bickering. The local school boards and state departments of education are doing the right thing. The response has been exemplary, and it highlights what we must invest in: our own people. We must invest in education and eliminating poverty to the extent that we possibly can. Frankly, I couldn't care less about a casino, but let's make certain - please - that we rebuild schools that are adequate in size and provide the staffing and teaching that will help our children. That is where our investment priorities must be, and it's been skewed for some time.

How would you rate radio's coverage of the events along the Gulf Coast before and after the hurricane?
Radio's role was absolutely critical, and it was wonderful. Radio is the foundation of the Emergency Broadcast System, and has been for decades. It worked in New Orleans because the broadcasters there came together and were able to stay on the air throughout the hurricane. They banded together and chose a frequency and served the public. There's a great tradition of public service in radio, and the broadcasters in New Orleans should be very proud of the way they performed.

Should radio worry about the performance of new media, such as the Internet?
The Internet is playing an important role, but it's far too early to make any grand pronouncements about its importance in terms of traditional media. Radio was critical in this disaster, and it remains so. Television was critical, to a lesser extent, by broadly informing the rest of the nation. The Internet provides a service, but to far fewer people. If one uses a conventional measure - ratings - television and radio remain absolutely dominant. As we've seen so often in history, the new media tends to be complimentary. It is not a zero-sum process. Traditional media maintain an important role in emergencies like this, and I'm reminded again just how critical radio is.

Talk radio shows were blistering hot in the weeks following the hurricane. What is talk radio's role in events such as these - entertainment or news?
Whether talk radio is entertainment or news is less important to me than the fact that it's informative. Even more important is that there are more voices heard on radio than otherwise we would have. Were it not for talk radio, a lot of perspectives would be ignored altogether - and that is a very important benefit to the audience. Again, one hears partisan nonsense about whether this personality or that is conservative or liberal, but these people are exploring issues, usually from a political perspective. That exchange between viewers or listeners and talk show hosts is important.

Let's talk about The Lou Dobbs Financial Report, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary.
Our Financial Report now is in just under 800 stations around the country. We've had wonderful response to it. I thoroughly enjoy doing it. I love radio - it's where I began my career, and I have managed to maintain that aspect of my broadcasting day for a very long time. It's heartwarming to have that kind of reception.

What's the primary focus of the program?
We report on the markets, finance, business news, and the economy. Katrina will be one of the largest economic stories for some time. It will influence everything from energy prices to construction, employment, and the markets. Because of this hurricane, we are witnessing the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of people in this country. They must make new lives, create new careers, and find new jobs. It's a bold story that is at once financial, economic, sociological, and even political. It is one of the most critical stories that we will cover for years to come.

Since the focus of the show is the economy, what do you think of the overall U.S. economic picture?
The so-called real economy is in great shape. The tremendous size of our federal budget deficit and our trade deficit is worrisome, and if it persists it will be more than worrisome. This country's middle class should be of great concern to all of us. Wages are not rising. Jobs are being outsourced, and the jobs that are being substituted pay far less. The real economy is strong, but there are deeply troubling fissures in its structure.

How much of our economic health hinges on oil?
There are a lot of misconceptions about our dependency on oil. We are certainly too dependent on oil, and our economy will suffer significantly if prices rise appreciably. At the same time, people are already beginning to conserve. Imports of oil actually declined last month. But our dependency is the issue economically and as a nation. We are dependent on oil, but we're also dependent on other countries for ammunition for our military. We're dependent on others for our clothing - we only provide 4 percent of our own clothing. The dependency we've created is definitely a concern that we must address.

The market rebounded much more quickly after Katrina than it did after 9/11. Recessionary events held the markets down in 2001, but why have we seen a more stable market this time?
As the old saw goes, markets hate uncertainty. From the beginning, it has been certain that Americans will take care of their fellow Americans. This country is still a super power, and it will rebuild. The economy is capable of taking enormous shocks, as 9/11 proved. We're resilient, and we're seeing that resilience now. It's an act of faith, in our economy, our culture, our society, and America as a nation. The markets speak to that strength, and I think the markets are right.

How critical is the aging of the baby boom generation? Will this large demo group bankrupt Social Security if it isn't corrected?
Let's get back to fair and balanced vs. the truth. This is one of those partisan issues that obfuscates the reality. Yes, we have 77 million baby boomers who are going to retire. But our greater concern should be people 45 years and younger who make up the greatest number of personal bankruptcies, and people under age 30 who are not educated as well as we baby boomers were. If this trend continues, baby boomers in our golden years will be supporting some of our young people, rather than vice versa. That is the real concern to me. Those young workers are not prepared to support us, irrespective of the Social Security system.

From your perspective, what is the greatest threat to the U.S.?
The greatest threat is an unresponsive and unrepresentative federal government. Our elected officials are ignoring the majority of the people - the middle class - and to the detriment of the nation. We are failing to enforce laws and invest in our young people, all of which should be part of a national program, or at least funded nationally to enable our local school districts to provide better education. Those are the critical challenges, and until we resolve those political issues, we remain under severe threat.

Can those political issues be resolved easily, or is that part of the overall challenge?
There is no easy solution. Not only is our government apathetic and unresponsive, but unfortunately, so are far too many of us, who should be demanding accountability and representation. Still, while this is our greatest threat and challenge, the good news is this nation has a great history of responding aggressively and successfully to challenges of this sort.


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