In April, John Kerry’s campaign released a TV ad attacking President Bush for supporting the export of U.S. jobs overseas. The ad was misleading — although Gregory Mankiw, the chief White House economist, has said that, “outsourcing is just a new way of doing international trade,” Bush himself has never explicitly said he favors sending jobs abroad. But Kerry’s ad highlighted the fact that Democrats see corporate outsourcing — in which American corporations abandon the U.S. in favor of cheaper sources of foreign labor — as a potentially damaging issue for the president. During the Democratic primaries, both John Edwards and, to a lesser extent, Kerry attacked the president for policies that, they argued, encouraged job loss in the United States. The issue resonated with voters, especially in states like Ohio and Michigan, which have been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs.
Enter Lou Dobbs. The distinguished-looking host of CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight” has established a reputation this year as one of the most outspoken opponents of corporate outsourcing. Dobbs has turned his nightly news show into a one-man campaign — the head of the Business Roundtable called it a “jihad” — against the practice. Night after night, he roundly attacks government trade policies that he believes encourage American corporations to ship jobs abroad.
But it’s not just U.S. policymakers who are the targets of Dobbs’s indignation. He makes little attempt to hide his disdain for the companies that are, as he puts it, “exporting America.” And Dobbs is watched, so it’s fair to say his views sway voters.
In February, Dobbs asked a guest on his show: “The fact is that we are seeing hundreds of jobs being outsourced on the basis purely of a corporation’s interest in achieving the lowest possible price for labor. Does that make sense to you?” Later on the same show, he declared, “Corporate America and U.S. multinationals are shipping jobs for only one reason, not for greater productivity, not for efficiencies, those are purely code words for cheaper labor costs.”
Dobbs even asks viewers to send him the names of companies that outsource. He then posts the list (scroll down) on his CNN website, under the heading, “These are U.S. companies either sending American jobs overseas, or choosing to employ cheap overseas labor, instead of American workers.”
“The results of this issue are crucial to the kind of country we live in,” Dobbs told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April.
But there comes a time when Dobbs takes off his anti-outsourcing hat. That’s when he switches from financial journalist to investment advisor-for-hire, peddling a monthly newsletter containing his investment recommendations. Pony up $398 and you receive Dobbs’ investment tips for two years. You’ll recognize some of the companies that Dobbs recommends. That’s because they’re on his list of firms that are “exporting America” by shutting down U.S. operations and opening overseas facilities.
The Lou Dobbs Money Letter is published by Phillips International Inc., which is associated with Eagle Publishing, a leading publisher of conservative-themed books. In each issue, Dobbs singles out one favored company, in which he encourages subscribers to invest. He conducts an invariably softball interview with the firm’s CEO, which allows both Dobbs and his guest to tout the company’s prospects.
Unlike most investment advisors, Dobbs goes beyond talking up the earning potential of these companies. He typically goes out of his way to praise them as good corporate citizens. The newsletter keeps a running tally of the companies profiled, under the heading, “The following companies have been featured in the Lou Dobbs Money Letter as those ‘doing good business with good people.’” The appeal is alluring: You’re not just buying a smart investment choice, you’re buying a piece of good citizenship.
Dobbs devoted a column in the March issue to touting the prospects of the Minnesota-based Toro Company, which makes outdoor landscaping-maintenance equipment. He told subscribers that Toro was a “long-term wealth-builder,” and praised Toro’s “formal code of ethics, something I think is sorely needed at more of America’s companies,” and its “…exemplary corporate governance structure, which aligns the interests of shareholders, employees, and customers.” He concluded his interview with Toro CEO Kendrick Melrose by frankly telling him, “I like the way you treat your shareholders, employees, and customers.”
One wonders whether Dobbs’ admiration extends to Toro’s 2002 decision to move 15% of its workforce — about 800 jobs — to Juarez, Mexico. Indeed, CEO Kendrick Melrose might be interested to know that Toro appears on Dobbs’ own list of companies that are “exporting America.”
And Toro is not alone. Of the 14 companies Dobbs has highlighted for investors since starting his newsletter last year, eight appear on his CNN website as companies that outsource jobs.
Greenpoint Financial is another company that’s received conflicting treatment from Dobbs. CEO Tom Johnson enjoyed the Dobbs interview treatment in June 2003. Dobbs promised readers, “I think you’ll find Tom’s comments and the way he runs his business thought-provoking and insightful.”
Apparently one of the “thought-provoking and insightful” methods that Dobbs was referring to was not the 2002 decision by Greenpoint to export much of its mortgage and customer-service operations to Bangalore, India, a move that produced significant savings, but that cost 150 U.S. workers their jobs. Greenpoint Mortgage, a subsidiary of Greenpoint Financial, appears on Dobbs’ list of outsourcers.
When Dobbs features a company in his newsletter, he tends to stand by them, no matter what information subsequently comes to light. In December 2003, Boeing CEO Phil Condit was forced to resign amidst an ethics scandal. Dobbs had interviewed Condit for the newsletter back in June, and wrote at the time: “Boeing ranks Number 35 on Fortune’s list of most admired companies. I think Phil has a lot to do with that.”
After Condit’s resignation, Dobbs ran a “Special Boeing Update” in the December edition of the newsletter, in which he told subscribers: “In the face of adversity, the company is being up-front and honest abut its problems…Boeing has just proven that its priorities are in the right place.”
But according to the Communications Workers of America (CWA), Boeing has sent 5000 U.S. jobs overseas in recent years. And Dobbs’ assurances that Boeing’s priorities are in the right place don’t seem to square with his inclusion of the company on the “exporting America” list.
Similarly, in November 2003, Dobbs called Bank One chief Jamie Dimon “a conscientious CEO,” who “runs a tight ship with solid corporate values.”
Late last year, Bank One announced plans to merge with JP Morgan-Chase and Co., which has a reputation for shipping jobs overseas. In another special update, Dobbs reassured his readers that, “[Dimon’s] ability to orchestrate this merger and have it viewed as a positive move by investors…is a testament to the fact that Jamie did it for all the right reasons. As a numbers guy, Jamie knows what works and what doesn’t. And I’m confident he’s going to do some remarkable work in the coming months.”
Again, Dobbs neglected to tell readers that Bank One is on his “exporting America” list. According to a company spokesman, Bank One has outsourced two to three hundred jobs — mostly in software development — to India in the last few years.
The list goes on. In May 2003 Dobbs talked up Washington Mutual to investors. According to the CWA, the banking services giant has sent 30 jobs overseas. Washington Mutual appears on Dobbs’ CNN list of outsourcers.
In August 2003, Dobbs promoted Office Depot, telling investors that, “[T]he company and CEO Bruce Nelson believe strongly in making Office Depot a ‘compelling place to work, shop, and invest.’” Sure enough, Office Depot is on Dobb’s list of companies that are “outsourcing America.”
The following month, Dobbs featured ITT Industries, an engineering and manufacturing firm. One of the things he liked about ITT, he told readers, was that CEO Louis Giuliano “puts such a high premium on his employees, and their involvement in ‘value creation.’ A lot of CEOs view employees simply as fat to be cut in service to the bottom line or in pursuit of a better stock price. Louis is one CEO who knows better than that…” Is ITT on Dobbs’ list of companies moving jobs overseas? By now, you know the answer.
And in February of this year, Dobbs focused on energy company Pinnacle West. After touting the company’s “rapid growth,” he told readers, “The second reason I like Pinnacle West is its model corporate governance.” He went on to ask CEO William Post: “Last year, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council awarded you the Outstanding Regional Contribution award, recognizing a lasting contribution to regional economic development efforts. How important is it to you, as a corporate leader, to contribute to your region’s economic development?”
Pinnacle West — like Toro, Greenpoint, Boeing, Bank One, Washington Mutual, ITT Industries and Office Depot — appears on Dobbs’ list of companies that are “exporting America.”
Dobbs is careful in his televised comments for CNN not to attack individual companies directly by name, and he’s never called for viewers to boycott companies that outsource. But by posting their names on a website titled “Exporting America,” and by making on-air declarations like, “U.S. multi-nationals are shipping jobs for only one reason…cheaper labor costs,” Dobbs leave little doubt about how he wants his attitude toward the companies to be perceived by viewers.
Dobbs says the website was set up merely to fill a vacuum. In an email to Campaign Desk, he wrote: “We began compiling our list of companies outsourcing jobs overseas because the information was not available anywhere, and we wanted to know how widespread the practice is, and report it to our viewers. The Labor and Commerce departments, the Business Roundtable, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have never kept records of jobs lost to outsourcing. Our list of corporations now exceeds 800, and grows daily.”
And he sees no contradiction in fingering outsourcers with one hand, while recommending the same companies as investment opportunities with the other: “[Y]ou seem to be suggesting that one cannot criticize corporate America without calling for its destruction,” he told us. “Or because one believes a company to be well-managed that’s its beyond criticism…Surely, you don’t believe that your readers or my viewers are incapable of abhorring a business practice, and at the same time acknowledging the success of a corporation?” He makes a distinction, he said, between bad practices and those who practice them.
But Dobbs’ newsletter doesn’t just “acknowledge” successful corporation. He goes further, painting his featured companies as good corporate citizens — and encourages readers to invest in them partly on that basis — without mentioning that they conduct business practices that, by his own admission, he “detests.”
Most of Dobbs’s CNN viewers don’t have access to the information in “Money Letter,” his investment guide. So the larger public sees only one Lou Dobbs: the outspoken anti-outsourcing crusader. The other Lou Dobbs is available only for that $398 fee. And that’s the Lou Dobbs who doesn’t appear to be putting his money where his mouth is.
Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.
Chase Behringer and Hali Felt of the Columbia Journalism Review contributed additional reporting to this story.