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CNN's Lou Dobbs Defends Claim That Illegal Immigrants Are Bringing Leprosy to America

Citing a debunked study in a right-wing journal, Lou Dobbs' show claimed that leprosy has increased in America as a result of "unscreened illegal immigration primarily from Southeast Asia" -- and he's not backing down.
 
 
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During a CBS News interview with correspondent Lesley Stahl, which aired on the May 6 edition of CBS' 60 Minutes , CNN host and CBS Early Show special contributor Lou Dobbs defended CNN correspondent Christine Romans' citation -- initially made on the April 14, 2005, edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight -- of the false claims that "there were about 900 cases of leprosy [in the United States] for 40 years," and that "[t]here have been 7,000 in the past three years." The day after the 60 Minutes interview, during the May 7 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight , Dobbs and Romans again defended the claims, with Romans attributing them to the late "Dr. Madeleine Cosman" (who did not have a medical degree but, rather, a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature). In fact, according to the National Hansen's Disease Program (NHDP) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), there have been just 431 reported cases of Hansen's disease, or leprosy, over the "past three years." The NHDP reported 8,490 cases of Hansen's disease from 1966 to 2005, as compared with Cosman's claim in a 2005 article that "in 40 years ... 900 people were afflicted." Cosman appears to have derived her false claim by misinterpreting a February 18, 2003, New York Times article.

At the end of the 60 Minutes profile, Stahl noted that "[w]hile we were talking to Dobbs, unbeknownst to us, he was talking to CBS News and has now joined The Early Show as a weekly commentator." CBS announced that it was hiring Dobbs as a special contributor to CBS' The Early Show on April 3. On May 7, CBS News Public Eye editor Brian Montopoli called Stahl's disclosure the "most awkward moment by far in last night's '60 Minutes' " because "Stahl had just spent part of the segment questioning Dobbs' journalistic credentials," though Montopoli did not go into the issue of the leprosy statistics.

During the May 7 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight , Romans stated, "We don't make up numbers here," adding that she was quoting the "7,000 cases of leprosy" statistic from an article "in The Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons " by "Dr. Madeleine Cosman, a respected medical lawyer and medical historian." Romans was apparently referring to Cosman's article in the Spring 2005 issue of the Journal, headlined " Illegal Aliens and American Medicine."

Wall Street Journal columnist Carl Bialik wrote on his blog, The Numbers Guy, that Cosman cited the 2003 New York Times article in her Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons article to justify her claim about the number of leprosy cases. But the Times article appeared to be discussing existing cases of the number of people with leprosy, and not occurrences "in the last three years" as Cosman wrote. The Times article compared the "900 recorded cases in the United States 40 years ago" with "today," in which "more than 7,000 people have leprosy." Cosman's use of the phrase "in the last three years" appears to refer to the statistic of 7,000 infected with Hansen's disease three years prior to the publication of Cosman's article. Bialik added that he contacted CNN about Roman's misleading citation:

In response to my inquiry about whether Ms. Romans used the leprosy numbers improperly, Mr. Dobbs said through a CNN spokeswoman, "Christine Romans's comments reflected what Dr. Cosman had said: That the number of active and current cases of leprosy had risen to and remained at more than 7,000 for the past three years as a result of improved reporting and unscreened illegal immigration primarily from Southeast Asia."

As the weblog Think Progress noted, during the 60 Minutes segment, Stahl noted Romans' claim "that there have been 7,000 cases of leprosy in the U.S. in the past three years," then said, "We checked that [number] and found a report issued by [HHS], saying 7,000 is the number of leprosy cases over the last 30 years, not the past three." She added: "[A]nd nobody knows how many of those cases involve illegal immigrants." When Stahl asked Dobbs about the inconsistency, Dobbs responded: "Well, I can tell you this. If we reported it, it's a fact." Colorado Media Matters and the Southern Poverty Law Center have both noted that the numbers Romans cited were false.

From the May 6 edition of CBS' 60 Minutes :

STAHL: One of the issues he tackles relentlessly is illegal immigration, and on that, his critics say, his advocacy can get in the way of the facts.

DOBBS: Tuberculosis, leprosy, malaria.

STAHL: Following a report on illegals carrying diseases into the U.S., one of the correspondents on his show, Christine Romans, told Dobbs that there have been 7,000 cases of leprosy in the U.S. in the past three years.

ROMANS: Leprosy, in this country.

DOBBS: Incredible.

STAHL: We checked that and found a report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, saying 7,000 is the number of leprosy cases over the last 30 years, not the past three, and nobody knows how many of those cases involve illegal immigrants.

[end video clip]

STAHL: 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?

[...]

STAHL: While we were talking to Dobbs, unbeknownst to us, he was talking to CBS News and has now joined The Early Show as a weekly commentator.

From the May 7 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight :

DOBBS: And there was a question about some of your comments, Christine. Following one of your reports, I told Leslie 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. Madeleine 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 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.

DOBBS: It's remarkable that this -- whatever, confusion or confoundment over 7,000 cases. They actually keep a registry of cases of leprosy. And the fact that it rose was because of -- 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 the -- secondly, far better reporting.

ROMANS: That's what Dr. Cosman told us, Lou.

DOBBS: And, you know, in talking with a number of people, it's also very clear, no one knows, but nearly everyone suspects, there are far more cases of that. It is also, I think, interesting, and I think important to say, one of the reasons we screen people coming into this country is to deal with communicable diseases like leprosy, tuberculosis. The fact is, if we would just screen successfully, all of those diseases can be treated effectively, efficiently, and relatively quickly.

ROMANS: And that's why we raised the question in the first place, asking some tough questions about this. And, you know, 7,000 cases -- active cases of leprosy -- by no means is 11 million, as [Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project director] Mark Potok suggested.

DOBBS: But you can't say that to people so interested in the truth, as Mr. Potok obviously isn't.

Brian J. Levy is a member of the Research Department at Media Matters for America.

 
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