Macarena Hernandez on Immigration, Bill O’Reilly and No Child Left Behind

The Dallas Morning News columnist discusses dealing with hate mail, the need for better education reporting and butting heads with Bill O'Reilly.


Macarena Hernandez joined the Dallas Morning News as an editorial columnist in August 2005. Prior to that, she was the Rio Grande Valley Bureau Chief for the San Antonio Express-News. She has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Latina, and reported and co-produced a documentary, The Ballad of Juan Quezada, that ran on PBS/Frontline World last May.

Liz Cox Barrett: Last October — just a few months into your current job — you wrote a column about the brutal murders of six Mexican farm workers in rural Georgia and about how “horrors like these demand that a nation descended from immigrants take a hard look at the ways we think and speak about these most recent arrivals.” In the column you picked a fight with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly — you described how some people were upset that the mayor of one Georgia town flew the Mexican flag at city hall in remembrance of the men murdered, and you wondered if the upset people “watch Fox’s O’Reilly Factor, where the anchor and the callers constantly point to the southern border as the birth of all America’s ills? (Sample comment: ‘Each one of those people is a biological weapon.’) It is one thing to want to secure the borders and another to preach hate, to talk of human beings as ailments. Taken literally, such rhetoric gives criminals like those in southern Georgia license to kill …”

O’Reilly came back swinging (you were the subject of more than one of his show’s “Talking Points Memo” monologues) calling you a “liar” and a “left-wing ideologue … running wild with hateful invectives …” You wrote a second column soon thereafter reacting to all the reactions your first column received.

What do you make of this, with hindsight? What have you learned from it all?

Macarena Hernandez: What did I learn? Not to be afraid of hate mail. As a reporter you’re kind of anonymous, but as a columnist you really put yourself out there, so you better believe what you write. I am tired of “journalists” like Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs at CNN who don’t report on immigration in a responsible manner and instead just add more fuel to the fire. Man, if I wasn’t Mexican-American and if I only watched Mr. O’Reilly or Mr. Dobbs, I’d be afraid of Mexicans, too. They dedicate entire shows to villanizing Latino immigrants, as if they’re all criminals. I do think Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Dobbs preach intolerance. This kind of venom just fuels people and gives them permission to be dismissive and treat these immigrants as disposables.

The problem is most folks talking about the border and the problems along the Rio Grande have never spent time down there. I’m a child of Mexican immigrants. I was born two miles from the Rio Grande and grew up three miles north of it. I don’t expect Mr. O’Reilly to share my perspective. But I do believe you can have intelligent and informative debates about immigration. But when you reduce it to demonizing migrants, you aren’t having discussions that move this conversation forward, toward solutions. All you’re doing is creating fear.

LCB: You’ve made a documentary, you’ve been a newspaper reporter on assorted beats, you now write editorials on behalf of the Dallas Morning News editorial board as well as editorial columns under your own byline, and you contribute to the Morning News’ blog MorningNewsViews. Which gig has been the most challenging to date, and what’s next — cable TV punditry? Perhaps, The Hernandez Factor?

MH: I’m still trying to figure out my new job. I’ve only been at the Dallas Morning News for about seven months and writing opinions is a whole other world. I’ve always considered myself a storyteller, so it’s a leap to go from telling stories about regular people to building arguments around current events. I definitely want the kind of career where I can do a little bit of everything. I am attracted to challenging jobs, where I can stretch my writing muscles and experience some growing pains — uncomfortable, but always good for the soul and perspective. I’m experiencing some major growing pains here. It’s all good.

LCB: Speaking of blogging, I notice you’ve dabbled in media criticism in a couple of your blog posts. A few weeks ago you wrote as “a side note” that you’ve “been amused by the way newspapers are covering polls showing Mexican Americans are not all clamoring for leniency when it comes to illegal immigration — which only implies that we’d all feel the same way — a little more complicated than that.” And in February, you blogged, based on a journalism conference you attended:

“Seems like newsrooms all over are grappling with ways to write about Latino immigration, especially Mexican, a recent phenomenon in many states like Wisconsin, Iowa and North Carolina. … Immigration is a huge story, one that newspapers too often reduce to the American Dream thread.”

Can you elaborate on these two bits of criticism?

MH: Too often diversity for the media means covering Cinco de Mayo or sending the Latino reporter into the barrio. When I was growing up the only stories I read about Latinos involved a guy in an orange suit standing before a judge or the census numbers.

We do a horrible job of covering the Muslim community, which we had ignored until 9/11. Too many times, when we write about minority communities we write about them as anthropological studies. That’s why I think storytelling is a powerful way to braid all the universal threads together. We also have to mainstream all voices, in all sections — business, lifestyles, metro.

A few newspapers do a good job. But it’s tough if you don’t have bilingual, bicultural people on staff. And I’m not talking just reporters. All the layers of a newsroom need to be diversified, starting with management, who ultimately directs coverage.

LCB: You’ve written columns on topics ranging from Crash winning Best Picture at this year’s Oscars to the plight of Iraq war veterans. If you knew your next column would be in front of a national audience — say, carried in every paper in the country — what would it be about?

MH: No Child Left Behind. I spent a year teaching English literature at my old high school and my time in the classroom made me realize how we, the media, don’t pay enough attention to education issues.

LCB: Finally, on a lighter note — and because no interview with you is complete until Jayson Blair is mentioned (the former New York Times reporter who plagiarized several stories, including some of your work), let’s say you are stranded on a desert island with just two books, Jayson Blair’s Burning Down My Master’s House: My Life at the New York Times and Bill O’Reilly’s Who’s Looking Out For You. Which do you read first?

MH: I’d pray. I’d also ask for forgiveness for whatever brought this on.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.