Friday, May 3, 2013

Vargas’ war: Making ‘illegal’ illegal in the news

ON WEDNESDAY, the Los Angeles Times announced it would move away from the use of the phrases "illegal immigrant" and "undocumented immigrant" in its reporting. Pragmatically timing the announcement to anticipate the increased coverage on the immigration issue soon to heat up on Capitol Hill, the newspaper said it would stop both those phrases in order “to provide relevance and context and to avoid labels.” The Times is exploring phrasal alternatives, including fuller descriptions of a person’s actual circumstances.

A staff memo from the Times Standards and Practices Committee explained that “‘Illegal immigrants’ is overly broad and does not accurately apply in every situation. The alternative suggested by the 1995 guidelines, ‘undocumented immigrants,’ similarly falls short of our goal of precision. It is also untrue in many cases, as with immigrants who possess passports or other documentation but lack valid visas.”

The Times follows by a month a similar edict from The Associated Press, a change made in the AP online stylebook immediately, and one heralded on the AP Web site under the title “ ‘Illegal Immigrant’ no more.”

And The Times action follows by one year, ten months and five days the published moment when the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas fired one of the biggest broadsides in the culture war on the reality and the rhetoric of “illegal.”

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Vargas’ personal narrative is thoroughly compelling, an American story that deviates from the nativist script-tropes of American identity. Vargas was born in Antipolo, the Philippines, and raised in the United States starting at the age of 12, but without obtaining the required authorization for him to stay in the country on a permanent basis. Despite that, he adapted to his surroundings. He was an American in the heart, if not according to the document.

An interest in journalism in high school led him to his first job, an internship at a California paper, then a gig at the San Francisco Chronicle, and an internship at The Washington Post. From there, Vargas exploded into the national consciousness with reporting on a variety of topics. He was one of the reporters who contributed to the Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning reporting on the Virginia Tech shootings.

His New York Times essay, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” published in June 2011, was nothing less than a game-changer. With an essay deftly written, achingly personal and quietly defiant, Vargas called the question on the nature of our national identity, and proved that a citizenship at heart, at root, is always bigger than the papers in one’s possession.

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MORE RECENTLY, he’s been the founder of Define American, a nonprofit group that, according to his Web site, “seeks to elevate the immigration conversation.” The Times and AP announcements indicate he’s doing exactly that — by going direct to the purveyors of that conversation. And getting results.

Last September, he told Mackenzie Weinger of Politico that getting The AP and The New York Times to make changes in editorial policies was a big goal. He’s halfway there.

His strategy then was simple: “I have started and will continue communicating with Margaret Sullivan, the new ombudswoman, the New York Times public editor, who is, like, amazing. I think she’s doing a really, really good job. She seems open. So getting the New York Times and the AP is kind of the first target right now.”

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Fast forward to April 25 and ... maybe things with Margaret Sullivan didn’t go as well as they did before. That may be why, according to Politic365, Vargas, accompanied by Cesar Chavez’s son, Fernando Chavez, deposited 70,000 signatures at The New York Times building on Tuesday, requesting that the paper stop using “illegal immigrant” in its reporting.

Politic365 reported that after the petition delivery, The Times, in a shift, announced it wouldn’t abandon the phrase “illegal immigrant” completely, but instead would encourage reporters and editors to “consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question.”

That essentially leaves it up to the reporter, a curiously elastic option in a stylebook not historically known for such gray areas, reflecting an editorial policy that seems oddly squishy for the preeminent voice in American news.

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REGARDLESS OF how long it takes The Times to make the series of baby steps before banning “illegal immigrant” outright — don’t forget, we’re talking about a paper that didn’t adopt color photography until the end of 1997 — it’ll be an implicit endorsement of Vargas’ bedrock philosophy: words, particularly in the hands of capable wordsmiths, can convey accuracy while, ironically enough, missing or obscuring the truth.

The modern lexicon is stuffed with other terms that similarly shade the facts, or torture the language outright. In the 2012 presidential campaign, the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney was one with the phrase “job creators,” which the Republicans resurrected after briefly using it the year before.

“This line is standard operating procedure for the GOP when discussing the Bush tax cuts, which Obama has long wanted to roll back for the wealthiest Americans,” Evan McMorris-Santoro reported in Talking Points Memo, back in July. “Congressional Republicans loved to throw “job creator” around during the budget fight of late 2011, arguing that it burdens the people doing the hiring, perpetuating a vicious cycle.”

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“Republicans seem to be operating under the backwards economic principle that only tax cuts for the richest Americans and biggest corporations are worth fighting for,” Washington Sen. Patty Murray said on the floor of the Senate in December 2011, and as reported by TPM. “In fact, they have a name for this group of people: They call them ‘job creators.’”

But that’s just for openers. We can’t forget that masterful linguistic sophistry, “the War on Terror,” an especially odious example for mainstream media to contend with, springing as it did as a fully-formed idea onto the front pages and TV news studio sets direct from desks in high places in the White House of George W. Bush, in the hair-on-fire days after 9/11.

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AND LET’S not forget that old favorite, a word that still hasn’t outlived its deceptive usefulness: “detainee.” That term, another contribution to the American idiom from the Bush #43 Unabridged Dictionary, had a ginned-up, self-serving legal rationale for its existence as a replacement for the perfectly serviceable word “prisoner.” It’s a word with no practical distinction from “prisoner.”

The mainstream media bought in, of course, began using “detainee” in stories related to that War on Terror, and ultimately revealed its uselessness by sometimes making it interchangeable with the word it was intended to replace. Read part of an AP story from Sept. 22, 2012, on the United States’ release of the names of 55 subjects at Guantanamo awaiting transfer:

“In 2009, Ambassador Daniel Fried, the Obama administration's special envoy on detainee issues, argued then that it was necessary to keep the prisoners' identities secret while the U.S. negotiated transfers to other countries.” (Italics are mine.)

These words and phrases, and the way they’ve percolated into the culture despite their fundamentally fraudulent premise, underscore Vargas’ objective: to counter the inertia of mainstream media (and its unwillingness to change longstanding editorial policies) as those who use social media, and the Internet generally, quickly adopt and replicate the shorthand of the moment, regardless of how accurate or truthful it is.

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These are skirmishes in the word wars we’ve been having in this country in recent years (and certainly since 9/11) to describe situations, and people, that don’t fit the norm. Vargas and other journalists of conscience have taken point in challenging the notion of what the norm is.

He told Politico last year that, while the big media fish are important to changing the tone and precision of the language newsgatherers use, “[t]his is also a grassroots local issue. To me, the people who read the local community newspapers, watch the local television shows and listen to local radio, how do we get them to actually think about the word that they’re using? How do we leverage the Internet and social media, and how do we ask local people to talk to their local communities?

“It has to be readers talking to their news organizations,” he said. “It can’t just be top down, you know, some guy named Jose Antonio Vargas doing this. It’s more, how do we get people in their own communities to really challenge this?”

Image credits: Vargas top: Julian Vankim, © 2011 Edge Publications LLC. Vargas ID card: Jose Antonio Vargas via The Washington Post. New York Times logo: © 2013 The New York Times Company. Romney: NBC News.

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