The Miami Herald

An outside view of immigration coverage

How can even the most hardened editor not go warm and fuzzy over the Gomez brothers?

The two boys were detained to be deported to their native Colombia when student friends intervened to save them, launching an online campaign, raising money and going to Congress. They won the family's release, at least for the moment. The Gomez boys, 18 and 19, were popular students, and the younger Juan was a star. He had near-perfect grades and has just entered the honor's program at Miami Dade College.

This isn't just news, it's Hollywood.

Many readers, however, see another side. The family was, after all, here illegally. As the saga unfolded over the last seven weeks, these readers complain that The Miami Herald neglected to report views critical of allowing the Gomez boys -- and thousands of illegal-immigrant students like them across the country -- to stay.

They are a cost to taxpayers, undermine respect for the law and have jumped the line on immigrants waiting to get here legally, the critics say. "There seem to be no shortage of those with (the opposing) viewpoint on The Herald's comment boards or letter page, " wrote Josh White, 28, a graduate student in sports marketing at Barry University, "yet you have not put one person representing that view into the 'objective' hard-news article(s). Why?" Good question.

So it is that this column is born. I have been asked by the editors of The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald to make an independent assessment of the Gomez coverage and share it directly with you, the readers, as the first in an occasional series as an ombudsman. My job, in other words, is to represent you. Pretty pretentious.

So, who am I? I'll tell you up front, and I'll tell you my biases, for in the end what I write will necessarily be my own reasoned judgment. But I promise you it will be as fair as I can make it, never cynical, but sometimes irreverent. I strongly believe in good professional journalism, but I don't think it's Holy. You are welcome to agree, disagree or demand to kill the ump.

I have more than 30 years' experience as a journalist. This includes being a reporter for The New York Times and an editor for The Wall Street Journal, two supposed extremes on the ideological fever chart. I don't think I'm schizophrenic, but maybe masochistic. I launched my own chain of Spanish-language dailies in Texas four years ago, just as newspaper advertising began to drop. We cut the papers back to weeklies earlier this year, and I have returned to New York. I lost money. So I know the many issues newspapers face -- intimately.

Like the Gomez brothers, I am Hispanic, born in Colombia. I also was an illegal alien. My mother was naturalized, but I had failed to declare my own citizenship when I was 14, as the law required. I was 21 when an Army recruiter told me I had to leave the country. I went to court and was allowed to declare late. I joined the Army and went to Vietnam.

OK, so I didn't swim across the Rio Grande. But years later, I did sneak illegally across the border. It was at night near Tijuana with eight "undocumented" Mexicans and a smuggler. We ran from helicopters and crawled past the Border Patrol. I rode on a floorboard to San Diego. That was in 1977, which goes to show how long the trafficking has been going on. Three years later I went from Key West with Cuban Americans on a boat into Mariel Harbor in Cuba and returned 19 days later clinging to the gunwales with refugees persecuted under the Castro regime. We cried when we saw American soil.

No, I am not a Miamian. But I am an in-law. My wife was born in Cuba and her family lives in Miami. I was married at St. Michael's, have a daughter born at Mercy and another baptized at St. Kevin's. Still, I am mostly an outsider, which, frankly, is helpful. South Florida's politics are consuming. Everybody has an opinion about The Miami Herald.

COVERING IMMIGRANTS

If you suspect that I am sympathetic to illegal immigrants, you're right. But less for squishy reasons and more because I think the country absolutely needs the ones who are here. What I conclude about news coverage is another matter.

Reviewing the handling of the Gomez case and a related push in Congress to revive the proposed Dream Act for children like them, I find that both The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald have been too one-sided in their news columns.

The fundamental question is whether children who are culturally American, and educated in U.S. schools to be American, should pay for the sins of their parents. It is a compelling and important issue, with valid arguments on many sides. But of the 25 Miami Herald stories in the paper and online since the first one on July 27, all are written from the point of view of the Gomez boys, their classmates, other undocumented youths and supporting immigrant groups.

The first was the opening story by Kathleen McGrory. It laid out how the parents, with the boys aged 1 and 2 in tow, came 17 years ago on a six-month tourist visa and stayed. They later applied for asylum, lost their case and an appeal, and were ordered five years ago to leave. They didn't.

THE DREAM BILL

As McGrory quoted an immigration official: "It's unfortunate that parents place their children in these situations by breaking the law. But they did break the law." Subsequent stories brushed the issue by raising the Dream Act. Many were features about young people and their hopes, fears, sacrifice and the like, all newsworthy subjects. Still, 21 stories mention the bill, of which about a half dozen were primarily or substantially about the bill, but only one, again by McGrory, gives much shrift to opposition arguments. Most gave no opposing arguments at all.

The views of those who want to force out all illegal immigrants have been heavily covered in the Herald, especially in the debate leading up to the June failure of the Bush administration's comprehensive immigration bill. Dream provisions were part of the bill. Over the past month, some half dozen front-page stories on nonstudent immigration issues have run, many of which gave weight to opponents' arguments.

Editors and reporters everyday are faced with the quandary of how much to repeat in a running story. Think of Iraq coverage. You don't want to insult the intelligence of your readers, but you also don't know what they know. Moreover, editors working on deadline in the trenches often don't have the opportunity to stand back and see the trends in their coverage. That's one reason for this column.

Executive News Editor Anders Gyllenhaal, upon being presented with my findings on the specific Gomez-related coverage, said, "I think it is probably fair to say that the stories could have had more context in places."

One obstacle, he said, has been that major opposition groups and politicians have not spoken out on the Gomez case. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency charged with the case, mostly declined to comment, he said. Still, more insistent reporting could have been done.

Meanwhile, there was another fairness question peculiar to the hemispheric stew that is Miami. The attention given to two Colombians raised reader complaints that undocumented children from other nations were being ignored. A story on the front of the Metro section, however, did focus on a young woman expelled to Peru and a young man in Venezuela, and a Washington story quoted an unnamed Mexican woman. Balance doesn't mean you give equal weight to everything, and certainly not all the time. There is only so much space in the paper. But you do acknowledge legitimate arguments, using the editors' good faith and judgment, and flesh them out fully over time. It is a fallible system, but so is any human endeavor.

IN EL NUEVO HERALD

El Nuevo Herald was more one-sided. Curiously, it ran fewer stories, and shorter ones, than the English paper. Of the 13 El Nuevo stories, some original and some translated, almost no opposition position was reported after the first day. A photo box on Aug. 2 on page 3 showed Juan's classmates and went so far as to say, in Spanish: "Congratulations to these loyal friends!" El Nuevo Herald didn't run the Peruvian and Venezuelan story.

The Spanish paper is editorially independent of the English one, and it is an open question to what extent its readers disagree with El Nuevo Herald's immigration coverage. This raises separate questions about what in the profession is called "community journalism, " a subject for a future column.

Next week, the hot button of labeling: undocumented vs. illegal. Your views are welcome.




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