Networks Focus on Victims as They Paint 'Severe' Alabama Law as 'Arizona on Steroids'
Matching the pattern set in coverage of Arizona's immigration enforcement law, the broadcast network evening newscasts on Thursday night all framed their stories on Alabama's 'severe' new law around its victims, with ABC anchor Diane Sawyer and NBC anchor Brian Williams both describing it as 'Arizona on steroids.' They didn't mean it as a compliment. Sawyer mischaracterized it as an 'anti-immigration law.'
ABC was the most one-sided, with reporter Steve Osunsami not mentioning a reason for the new law until his very last sentence. Instead, Osunsami intoned, 'Across Alabama today, demonstrators were furious, calling this the Arizona law with an Alabama twist,' before showing a man who charged that 'it says that our government promotes racism.'
Osunsami proceeded to empathize and tout some high school students: 'Some of them are student athletes and class officers and, yes, some are undocumented. They told me they now come to school in fear.' He highlighted a parent who is moving to California because of the law, but the mother despaired 'we're people, we're humans.'
Brian Williams set up NBC's story by citing 'a law that goes so far as to tell elementary schools to investigate their kids. One commentator today called this 'Arizona on steroids.''
Reporter Kerry Sanders connected the new law to Alabama's racist/segregationist history. Over black and white video of police attacking a crowd Sanders asserted: 'This Mexican-American, Duce Lavera, says in this Southern state with its ugly history she sees something else in the law.' The woman charged: 'I think it's just hate. It's not really about jobs.'
CBS provided the only story approaching balance, but reporter Mark Strassmann still found a farmer upset about losing his workers who hyperbolically claimed: 'You want to get rid of illegal immigrants, quit eating. And that's for everybody nationwide. If you want to get rid of them, quit eating. That will solve the problem.'
Sawyer's introduction on World News conveyed quite an ominous picture:
And now, we turn to the toughest anti-immigration law in America that went into effect today in Alabama, a crackdown so severe it's been described as the Arizona law on steroids. Police have broad new powers to stop and detain anyone they deem suspicious and even use their children in classrooms to track them down.
The stories on the Thursday, September 29 newscasts, transcripts provided by the MRC's Brad Wilmouth who corrected the closed-captioning against the video:
ABC's World News:
DIANE SAWYER: And now, we turn to the toughest anti-immigration law in America that went into effect today in Alabama, a crackdown so severe it's been described as the Arizona law on steroids. Police have broad new powers to stop and detain anyone they deem suspicious and even use their children in classrooms to track them down. ABC's Steve Osunsami
is in Birmingham tonight.
CLIP OF PROTESTERS: This is what democracy looks like!
STEVE OSUNSAMI: Across Alabama today, demonstrators were furious, calling this the Arizona law with an Alabama twist.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: To me, it says that our government promotes racism.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We have to move. We have to leave everything.
OSUNSAMI: It was approved by the state legislature and widely backed by voters here. The police can check for papers, detain undocumented residents without bail, and the public schools are now forced to share with authorities the citizenship status of all newly enrolled students.
GOVERNOR ROBERT BENTLEY (R-AL): We have the strongest immigration law in this country.
OSUNSAMI: At Center Point High in Birmingham, principal Van Phillips says several students came to him this morning, worried he was going to kick them out.
VAN PHILLIPS, PRINCIPAL OF CENTER POINT HIGH SCHOOL: I'm not INS. It's not my job to police who's legal, who's illegal.
OSUNSAMI: Some of them are student athletes and class officers and, yes, some are undocumented. They told me they now come to school in fear.
UNIDENTIFIED TEENAGE GIRL: I came to school thinking, are they going to pull me out of class? Are they going to ask me questions?
UNIDENTIFIED TEENAGE BOY: They're saying we can't have the same rights as citizens because they're not citizens, but I really want to know what's the real definition of citizen?
OSUNSAMI: Educators here say they've been put in a tough spot, and that under the law, all they plan to do is report information.
PHIL HAMMONDS, SUPERINTENDENT OF JEFFERSON COUNTY SCHOOLS: We are turning no one away. No one is being asked to withdraw.
OSUNSAMI: We talked with one parent who pulled her nephew out of school today anyway. She's undocumented and didn't want to be identified. Tomorrow, they're moving to California.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We don't want to move, but this thing is, we can do nothing about it. We're people, we're humans, I don't know.
OSUNSAMI: These new rules for the schools are just one part of this law, and this law didn't just come out of thin air. There are many people across this state who believe, for example, that jobs are being lost to people who are here illegally.
CBS Evening News:
SCOTT PELLEY, IN OPENING TEASER: Tonight, the toughest immigration law in the country. It went into effect in Alabama today. The governor says the state can't live with illegal immigrants. Farmers worry they can't live without them.
PELLEY: Good evening. Alabama's tough new immigration law went into effect today, surviving for now a challenge from the Obama administration and others. The law will allow officials to check the immigration status of students in public schools and give the police new powers to determine whether someone is in the country illegally. A federal judge yesterday upheld those key provisions of the law. Mark Strassmann is in Alabama with more about this new law and its impact.
MARK STRASSMANN: Under Alabama's new immigration law, beginning today, police can question and detain suspected illegal immigrants and hold them without bond. The law's supporters complain the 60,000 people here illegally cost Alabama taxpayers a quarter billion dollars a year in schools and social services, and Governor Robert Bentley promises enforcement will begin right away.
GOVERNOR ROBERT BENTLEY (R-AL): We've just passed a law that conforms with federal law, and we will see what happens. We expect them to do their job now, and we'll see if they're going to do it.
STRASSMANN: But when only five pickers showed up this morning to harvest his sweet potatoes, farmer Keith Smith saw possible ruin, the loss of his half million dollar crop.
KEITH SMITH, FARMER: They're running scared because of this new law.
STRASSMANN: And you're in trouble.
SMITH: I'm in trouble, bad trouble.
STRASSMANN: Smith's 200 acres need 20 pickers, mostly Mexican nationals.
SMITH: There's not enough documented people here to supply that work force.
STRASSMANN: Most of your workers are here illegally.
SMITH: Sure, if they got documentation, they've got a better job than working for me.
STRASSMANN: Fernando Aldaman, a Mexican national, has worked Smith's farm since 1992. Everybody's just scared.
FERNANDO ALDAMAN, ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT: Yeah.
STRASSMANN: Are you here legally? No?
STRASSMANN: So are you scared?
ALDAMAN: Yeah, I'm scared. I'm scared, you know.
STRASSMANN: Smith's pickers make about $100 a day. He supports immigration laws, just not this one that threatens his third-generation family farm.
SMITH: You want to get rid of illegal immigrants, quit eating. And that's for everybody nationwide. If you want to get rid of them, quit eating. That will solve the problem.
STRASSMANN: Scott, Governor Bentley says Alabama's new law is not about racial profiling, and that only people suspected of breaking a law will be asked for their immigration papers.
PELLEY: Mark, I wonder about this provision that allows officials to check the immigration status of students in public schools. Has there been any reaction to that?
STRASSMANN: Well, put it this way, Scott, Alabama spends an estimated $160 million a year educating the children of illegal immigrants. We've had reports locally around here that some of those families today worried either kept their children home or pulled them out of school altogether.
NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS, IN OPENING TEASER: Crackdown: The toughest new immigration law in America, even questioning the status of school children. Tonight, opponents say they'll fight it.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Now we go to Alabama where a federal judge has upheld the toughest immigration law in the country, a law that goes so far as to tell elementary schools to investigate their kids. One commentator today called this "Arizona on steroids" in terms of immigration. Opponents of this law are promising a fight. NBC's Kerry Sanders in Birmingham, Alabama, for us tonight. Kerry, good evening.
KERRY SANDERS: Good evening, Brian. The state immigration law is now on the books here, but those who will have to enforce it are yet to figure out just how they'll do that. Today, police in Alabama have new power, teachers have new responsibilities - to check people's birth certificates and to enforce what, until now, was federal immigration law. Not everyone welcomes the new authority.
LANCE HYCHE, ALABAMA SCHOOL ASSOCIATION: We don't believe that teachers in Alabama public schools should be converted to immigration officers. It's not our job to police the children that come to public school every day. It's our job to teach.
SANDERS: It's estimated among Alabama's 4.7 million citizens, more than 120,000 are here illegally. The cost to taxpayers, says Alabama's Republican Governor, $290 million.
GOVERNOR ROBERT BENTLEY (R-AL): It would not have been necessary to address this problem if the federal government would have done its job and enforced the laws dealing with this problem.
SANDERS: 39-year-old Amanda says she left El Salvador and illegally entered the U.S. four years ago. In Alabama she cleans houses and babysits.
AMANDA, ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT, THROUGH TRANSLATOR: I'm afraid that I'll go to work and I don't know if I'll ever return to my house.
SANDERS: And that's the goal, in part, say Alabama lawmakers, to scare undocumented immigrants like Amanda so she effectively deports herself.
STATE SENATOR SCOTT BEASON (R-AL): And that's what it's about, trying to get the illegal work force to move out and let Alabamans plug into those jobs.
SANDERS: But Alabama's farmers fear millions of dollars in losses because Americans won't take jobs picking crops. This Mexican-American, Duce Lavera, says in this Southern state with its ugly history she sees something else in the law.
DULCE LAVERA, MEXICAN-AMERICAN: I think it's just hate. It's not really about jobs.
SANDERS: Alabama now joins four other states with similar state immigration laws.
HOWARD SIMON, ACLU: This is too delicious an issue for politicians not to exploit. And that is what's going on. Exploiting the public's fear that jobs are being taken away, the borders are being overrun.
SANDERS: Officials in Alabama say no roadblocks or round-ups are planned, but school officials say they will begin implementing this law by checking the birth certificates of new students enrolling in schools here.
- Brent Baker is Vice President for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.