Former Washington Postie Jose Antonio Vargas has granted TV interviews to ABC and CNN since he “came out” as an illegal alien and pledged to lobby for the “DREAM Act. On Sunday, Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton couldn’t understand why Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli punted on publishing the Vargas coming-out opus after careful vetting, but he found a few disturbing echoes from former co-workers:
I, too, see cautionary notes about Vargas that might have led to Brauchli’s decision. He left behind a reputation in The Post’s newsroom for being tenacious and talented but also for being a relentless self-promoter whom many colleagues didn’t trust. Editors said that he needed direction, coaching and constant watching.
It’s also disturbing that Vargas has formed a nonprofit group to advocate for immigration reform. He has crossed the line from journalist to advocate.
Pexton most received a “No comment” from his own employers on how the Vargas hiring was allowed and how the new Vargas story was handled. "Fair enough," he proclaimed, without considering that this should make it harder for the Brauchlis of the world to bray about the need for more transparency in government or lobbying or campaign financing.
But he said these disturbing notions only make it more necessary for the Post to publish its own internal machinations:
Why would The Post punt to a rival a riveting, already edited story that could provoke national discussion on immigration - an issue that sorely needs it - and that also included possibly illegal, and perhaps forgivable, conduct by a former Post reporter and current member of management?
Beats the heck out of many in The Post's newsroom and beats the heck out of me. The cardinal rule of journalism, or politics, is that if there's bad or questionable information, put it out yourself, be thorough and transparent, and don't pull any punches....
I think The Post missed an opportunity to tell a great and compelling story, and to air and take responsibility for some internal dirty laundry. It’s that kind of act that earns you the lasting respect of your readers. It keeps their trust.
You can see the contradiction in that last paragraph: Hiring (and being duped by) Vargas is an internal embarrassment for fact-checking newspapers, but it’s somehow a “great and compelling story” that Vargas is telling, with great societal import. On Vargas in particular he’s confusing: Vargas is a showy self-promoter his colleagues didn’t trust, but....what a “great and compelling story” the Post must publish?
But Pexton was a hardliner compared to Howard Kurtz, who began his CNN show Reliable Sources by promising Vargas would “he'll address his history of deception and why he's taking the risk of coming forward now.” While Kurtz addressed all the lying to editors and friends, he didn’t exactly try Jack Shafer’s hardline on Slate: even if you disagree with current immigration policy, Vargas should never lie to a media company:
What's unique about the Vargas story is not that he lied or engaged other people in his fraud but whom he told his lies to: the Washington Post and presumably the Huffington Post, where he was on staff.
I get on my high horse about Vargas' lies because reporter-editor relationships are based on trust. A news organization can't function if editors must constantly cross-examine their reporters in search of deliberate lies. I'm more disturbed with Vargas for lying to the Washington Post Co. (which—disclosure alert!—employs me) than I am about him breaking immigration law. His lies to the Post violated the compact that makes journalism possible. It also may have put the company on the hook for violating immigration law.
Kurtz let Vargas use him to promote his “great and compelling story” and his new organization. All in all, there was too much I-kinda-know-you coziness. In the second segment, it grew more theoretical:
KURTZ: Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton writes this morning -- he criticizes The Post for refusing to run your story -- but he also says that you have crossed the line from journalist to advocate. Have you?
VARGAS: You know, all I've ever done since I was 17 is tell stories. You know, I'm a storyteller. And that's what I'm going to keep on doing, especially now, kind of embracing and making sure that we tell immigration. I mean, if you look at the way immigration is covered in this country, it's not as well rounded or as holistic. Or it doesn't really kind of elevate the conversation in the way that it needs to be elevated. And that's what we're going to be doing on DefineAmerican.com.
KURTZ: But clearly, you are approaching this issue for the very same reason that you've chosen to go public about this with a very strong point of view. So you're not a "reporter" on this.
VARGAS: Well, to quote Jay Rosen -- you and I both know Jay Rosen.
KURTZ: From New York University.
VARGAS: Yes. It's not going to be a “view from nowhere.” I'll tell you that right now. [That is, it’s not unbiased, or attempting to be above the fray.]
This is going to be a view from somewhere. And when -- the view from somewhere is going to be about, again, how many principals, pastors, teachers, all of these people that have been, in many ways, stepping up where the government has failed, I mean, I think they need to be a part.
The story of undocumented immigrants in this country is not just about undocumented immigrants. It's about the country as a whole, and it's about us being able to tell the truth about where we are with this issue, because we haven't been telling the truth about where we are with this issue.
Other than the very start of the interview, this would have been the perfect place for Kurtz to discuss how Vargas could lecture others to “tell the truth about this issue.” But instead, he implied that Vargas was breaking down ethnic stereotypes with his white-collar profession:
KURTZ: You're in the media, and you were making a very nice living getting paid to write articles. In some ways, you keep making the point that you're one of millions, and, sure, that is true, but in some ways you're not typical of people who come to this country illegally.
VARGAS: Well, I mean, I think that's the point, is that we are not just mowing your lawns or baby-sitting your kids or serving you food. I mean, what's been really interesting in this experience, people have been e-mailing us on Define American. And people who have either engineering degrees or who want on go into medicine. I mean, how many people out there my age, younger than me, who haven't been able to fully live up to their potential and pay taxes and be a part of this society that has invested in them? You know, I'm a child. I grew up going to American public schools that invested in me.
VARGAS: I have been paying taxes. You know, I think this is what this is about.
KURTZ: I've got to go, but I do have to ask you before we go, are you worried at this point about the immigration authorities coming after you?
VARGAS: Of course I am. I'm worried. And I think a lot of us, millions of Americans living with this, are worried every day. But this is the point. The point is to face this, to face this issue squarely, and say, all right, what are we going to do? What are we going to do?
KURTZ: Well, you've certainly started a conversation.
That's a conversation that CNN and ABC are boosting, as they usually do when sympathetic illegal aliens "come out of the shadows" for their closeup.