the audit

Of Lepers and Lou Dobbs

Dobbs has a leprosy problem
May 30, 2007

60 Minutes couldn’t do it. Neither could NPR.

Well, hats off to The Times for running Dobbs to ground on his leprosy error.

But just to make doubly sure, The Audit does the exact same thing today. Between the two of us, the leprosy story will be good and dead. (The Audit really dislikes competition, especially when The Audit loses. Tastes like dirt.)

But maybe The Audit can add its own perspective.

In any event, here goes: Dobbs’s show on May 7 reported that there have been 7,000 new cases of leprosy in the United States in the past three years. That statement is false.

Here’s the quote:

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It’s interesting because the woman in our piece told us there were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years. Leprosy in this country.


She said, “Hansen’s disease”—that’s the other modern name, I guess, for leprosy—was so rare in America that in 40 years only 900 people were afflicted. Suddenly, in the past three years, American has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy.

Never mind who the “woman in our piece” is, or, for that matter, who’s talking; it’s not Dobbs, but that doesn’t matter. There haven’t been 7,000 new cases of leprosy in the U.S. in the past three years—or in any recent three-year period. The correct figure is 431.

Then, on May 16, in a debate with an advocate, Dobbs says: “We did not say there were new cases at any time.”


Mark, Richard, gentlemen, you know we never said they were new cases. What we said, in point of fact, was that there are 7,000 cases on the active—active leprosy register.

Forget Mark and Richard for now.

Dobbs is denying he made the error and has so far bullied his way out of admitting he ever said it. What is this, sixth grade?

In an interview with The Audit, Dobbs says he what he is standing by is the fact that there are 7,000 leprosy cases in the U.S. Dobbs says he regrets that Romans had not made that point more clearly and provided better context: namely ,there once were 900 cases and now there are 7,000. “Do I wish she had been clearer in what she said? Absolutely.”

Lou, you’re a gamer. I give you credit, and I understand the barroom-brawl aspect of televised debates these days. But the first rule of politics applies here: When in a hole, stop digging.

This isn’t about context. Dobbs & Co. based their reporting on a report that turned out to be wrong. The rest is nonsense.

Look, the first error was a mistake. A blown fact based on a report that turns out to be a piece of junk. All reporters make mistakes. Some mistakes are particularly embarrassing.

Sure, Dobbs’s mistake is aggravated by the fact that it was made in an odious attempt to link illegal immigrants and lepers. And, yes, he makes things worse by pretending the confusion is someone else’s fault, when it’s really his alone.

They actually keep a registry of cases of leprosy. And the fact that it rose was because—one assumes, because we don’t know for sure—but two basic influences—unscreened illegal immigrants coming into this country primarily from South Asia, and secondly, far better reporting.

Finally, in an attempt to fix the record he keeps the leprosy non-story going, so that makes it even worse.

Okay, first a few concessions: as the after-the-fact-critic, The Audit has every advantage here, not the least of which is my medium, the written word. Dobbs & Co. are fielding live ammo on unscripted TV, which is much harder.

Second, I have no problem with advocacy journalism of the type Dobbs practices, and am particularly sympathetic to this Dobbs sentiment:

The idea that a reporter should be disqualified because he or she actually cares, actually isn’t neutral about the wellbeing of the country and its people, that’s absurd.

Third, if true, 7,000 new leprosy cases is a story.

But it’s not. America, take it from The Audit, the leprosy situation is fine. Worry about something else—outsourcing, maybe.

This is about intellectual bullying. Nobody gets to tamper with facts. And nobody gets to say he didn’t say something when he obviously did.

And so we’re going to walk through this entire episode, and when we’re done, The Audit wants to hear no more of lepers, immigrants, Dobbs, or even Lesley Stahl.

It starts off with a mistake. In 2005, the Dobbs show does a story about “the invasion of illegal immigrants is threatening the health of many Americans,” which may be true for all I know. The piece quotes Dr. Madeline Cosman, described as a “medical lawyer,” who died last year. Never mind about her.

Chatting after the piece, the reporter, Romans, fatefully, adds this non-scripted bit:

“It’s interesting because the woman in our piece (Cosman) told us that there were 900 cases for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years. Leprosy in this country.”

That is an accurate quote from an inaccurate study. Indeed, with all respect to the late Dr. Cosman, medical lawyer, whatever that is, her study is doo doo. The paragraph is here:

Leprosy, a scourge of Biblical days and Medieval Europe so horribly destroys flesh and faces it was called the disease of the soul. (70) Lepers quarantined in leprosaria sounded noisemakers when they ventured out to warn people to stay far away. Leprosy, Hansen’s disease, was so rare in America that in 40 years only 900 people were afflicted. (71, 72) Suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than 7,000 cases. Leprosy is now endemic to northeastern states because illegal aliens and immigrants brought leprosy from India, Brazil, the Caribbean and Mexico.(53, 73, 74)

Forget footnotes 53, 73, and 74. The 7,000-new-cases-in-three-years figure is wrong. Government numbers are available from the National Hansen’s Disease Programs, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There are 6,500 cases total. The peak was 1985, at 450 new cases. In 2005, there were 166 new cases, thirty-one more than the year before. In the three most recent years of data, 2003-2005, there were 431 new cases.

(Also, by the way, leprosy is not “now endemic” to the northeast, either, as Cosman says, so we Brooklynites can relax.)

Okay, one could say, accurately, that leprosy has more than doubled in the U.S. since 2000 (from seventy-six new cases to 166). Then again, one could say it has fallen 63 percent since 1985. Or one could say nothing at all, which is really what you should say. No leprosy story here.

Nothing happens until three weeks ago, May 6, when 60 Minutes does a profile of Dobbs. Lesley Stahl asks about the bogus 7,000-new-lepers figure.

STAHL: (Voiceover) We checked that and found a report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, saying: “Seven thousand is the number of leprosy cases over the last 30 years,” not the past three, and nobody knows how many of those cases involved illegal immigrants. Now we went to try and check that number, 7,000. We can’t. Just so you know…

DOBBS: Well, I can tell you this. If we reported it, it’s a fact.

STAHL: You can’t tell me that. You did report it.

DOBBS: Well, no, I just did.

STAHL: How can you guarantee that to me?

DOBBS: Because I’m the managing editor, and that’s the way we do business. We don’t make up numbers, Lesley. Do we?

Cut to an advocate, Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, disputing the figure and offering the accurate one, which I’ll get to in due course.

The next day, May 7, Dobbs and Romans, the reporter, review the matter, and she accurately reads the wrong fact again:

DOBBS: And there was a question about some of your comments, Christine. Following one of your reports, I told Lesley Stahl, we don’t make up numbers, and I will tell everybody here again tonight, I stand 100 percent behind what you said.

ROMANS: That’s right, Lou. We don’t make up numbers here. This is what we reported.
We reported, “It’s interesting, because the woman in our piece told us that there were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years. Leprosy in this country.” I was quoting Dr. Madeline Cosman, a respected medical lawyer and medical historian writing in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons.

She said, “Hansen’s disease”—that’s the other modern name, I guess, for leprosy—“Hansen’s disease was so rare in the America that in 40 years only 900 people were afflicted. Suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy”–Lou.

If you want to unwind Cosman’s wrong report, you can read the whole thing on the SPLC’s Web site.

Let’s pause for a second to say, if Lesley Stahl tells me on camera that I got a fact wrong in a Wall Street Journal or Washington Post story from a couple years before, I would say, “Lesley, I never liked you, and that haircut does nothing for you. What is more, I am sure you are wrong, but I will check.”

Who remembers facts and sourcing from two years before? All you can do is hope you were careful, and go find out. Why is this complicated?

When did reporters—even “managing editors” [1]—decide we had to be Jesus Christ?

Okay, in the weeks since the 60 Minutes piece, the Southern Poverty folks made a big deal of this, writing a public letter to CNN—Dobbs’s employer—and attracting a story from National Public Radio.

Here’s NPR’s David Folkenflik (cue trumpets):

NPR checked that out. Federal Health Authority says there are a total of 6,500 record cases and new cases are declining. In addition, NPR found problems with CNN’s sources, the late Madeline Cosman—whose research does not seem to support her allegations, there had been a recent growth in leprosy and it’s linked to illegal immigration. But Dobbs defended the story to NPR.

Dobbs: We do not make up numbers. It is a fact.

Is he still standing by the 7,000-in-three-years figure? Not clear.

That was May 11.

The problem of where Dobbs stands on his facts worsened during a May 16 “debate” between Dobbs and Potok on Dobbs’s show.

Audit Readers, we don’t debate facts. There’s nothing to debate. I’m going to make this nice and simple. “Richard” and “Cohen” is Richard Cohen, another SPLC official. [Emphasis mine]:

POTOK: The point is that the criticism that we made of you over the leprosy claim, which was certainly false. What you claim [garbled] there were 7,000 new cases of leprosy in a recent three-year period, in fact…

DOBBS: In point of fact. In point of fact, what we said was, and I think we should really go to that. We did not say there were new cases at any time… Mark, Richard, gentlemen, you know we never said they were new cases. What we said in point of fact was that there are 7,000 cases on the active—active leprosy register. You also….

COHEN: Lou, Lou, Lou—you’re letting yourself off too easy, Lou….

You really have to read the transcript to believe the sophistry, from a journalist, mind you:

DOBBS: So we did not say we quite agree that there were 7,000 new cases. We said there were 7,000 on the registry.

Cohen and Potok try gamely but fail to call him on the original error. The closest we get to a correction is:

We’re talking about 31 words uttered more than two years ago by Christine Romans in response to a question by me, just before going to a commercial break…The only person that has made anything of this has been you, gentlemen, and I can’t imagine your motivation for doing so.

The Audit says: “AFLAAAAAC!”

I hate the bully stuff; and the misuse of TV debates.

But listen, I don’t want to make too much of this. There was no real harm done in the end, even to immigrant lepers. How many of them have cable? And using lepers to attack illegal immigrants is so grotesque, so fifteenth-century Romania, that, one must admit, it’s pretty comical. It’s like beating Little Orphan Annie with Oliver Twist. Stop it! You’re killing me!

Still, this is about a respect for facts. Admit error and move on. Instead, as a lead-in to the Great Fact Debate of May 16, we get another report about leprosy, this one with the correct figures.

Here’s Dobbs’s introduction: “The number of leprosy cases in this country is rising and that isn’t the worst of it…”

Never mind. Hey, Lou. I think I found another case.

[1] While not a managing editor myself, The Audit is an assistant managing editor and so understands the burdens of leadership, the importance of saving face at all times. Uneasy lies the head, etc.

Dean Starkman , CJR’s Kingsford Capital Fellow, runs The Audit,’s business desk. Megan McGinley, a CJR intern, and Elinore Longobardi, an Audit staff writer, provided research. This story and the two following were supported with a grant from the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute, for which we are deeply grateful.