Pop Culture

CNN's Lou Dobbs is a man on a mission

Lou Dobbs is a newsman on a mission. Or, as detractors would have it, he’s a “raving” trade protectionist, a ratings hound, or possibly suffering “some sort of intellectual midlife crisis.”

Every weeknight for more than a year “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on CNN has insistently covered — and condemned — sending American jobs to other countries, aka outsourcing or offshoring.

At 24-hour cable news networks, both time and opinion are in abundant supply. But exhaustive reporting on a single issue is unusual, as is Dobbs’ strong blend of journalism and advocacy.

Unapologetic, Dobbs says he’s driving a story of critical importance with “Exporting America,” the program’s catchy tag for its series of reports.

“I think if this trend continues, is allowed to continue, that the United States, without being unduly alarmist, is headed toward if not a third-world category than a second-world category as a nation,” Dobbs said in a recent interview.

Without tarring all corporate executives, Dobbs said, “There are some who simply look at this (U.S. economy) as a convenient piggy bank to loot, and the worker be damned.”

His show’s approach includes detailed coverage of stories such as IBM’s December announcement that it was shifting thousands of skilled software jobs overseas.

Calling out offending companiesThere are interviews with an array of lawmakers, labor leaders and others, including Democratic presidential contender John Kerry; Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO; and David McCurdy, president of the Electronic Industries Alliance.

And, every night, there’s an updated list of companies that have shipped jobs abroad — a kind of rogue’s gallery that viewers are invited to help keep current.

(CNN’s parent company, Time Warner Inc., was among the first to be included on the list, Dobbs says.)

Taken together, the segments add up to least several minutes and as much as 10 minutes nightly, a lifetime in television. By comparison, network evening newscast stories average slightly more than two minutes, said Andrew Tyndall, whose Tyndall Report monitors news content.

The tone of Dobbs’ reports and questioning is pointed. As his show’s introduction puts it, “Lou Dobbs Tonight” is an hour of “news, debate and opinion.”

“Senator, do you find yourself being called, because of your views on this (issue), ‘xenophobic,’ ‘protectionist,’ because you have the audacity to suggest that the United States, the most powerful economy and nation on earth, should have a manufacturing base?” Dobbs queried Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.Dakota, last month.

Dorgan later termed the loss of American jobs “very alarming,” drawing this response from Dobbs:

“And also, to me, as alarming is the fact, the United States Congress, this administration, has taken no step to reverse the course that we are embarked upon.”

Giving voice to an issueAs debate about the issue of offshoring has grown and become an increasing part of the presidential election year dialogue, so has attention to Dobbs’ crusade.

“I’m thrilled he’s giving this sort of attention to it,” said Robert Bruno, an associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois and a critic of outsourcing.

The role of politics could be more thoroughly covered, Bruno suggested, but he called Dobbs’ work overall “extremely important and helpful.”

“There is a person that is asking the right questions to the right people. ... This man is Lou Dobbs. He is the greatest voice for the American worker,” trumpets the Web site of the American Workers Coalition, identified as a small grass-roots group.

Other observers shake their heads over what they see as a baffling transformation.

One newspaper opinion piece made him the poster child for “biz pundits who hate business,” lamenting what it deemed as his shift from free-market advocate to “raving” protectionist and mulling the possibility of a midlife crisis.

James K. Glassman, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has dueled on air with Dobbs over offshoring. Glassman said he found the TV host combative in his questioning — and wrong in his analysis.

“What Lou Dobbs has been doing night after night is bad economics,” Glassman said. “His very selective list of evildoers are among America’s most innovative and dynamic companies that have contributed millions and millions of jobs to the U.S. economy.

Just part of the ‘ratings game’?“It’s foolish and typical of what he’s doing, taking a narrow and myopic view of this issue,” he said, adding that Dobbs has moved from a pro-business stance to “table-thumping” protectionism.

Glassman devotes part of his Web site to countering Dobbs on the issue.

The TV journalist shrugs off the brickbats, including implications he may be more interested in audience share than fiscal policy.

“A drive to raise ratings that ignores Scott Peterson, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson and focuses on trade and outsourcing would probably leave most programmers laughing hysterically,” Dobbs said.

CNN’s competition with Fox News Channel isn’t a factor, he said. Fox has surged ahead with its contingent of sharp-tongued hosts but Dobbs firmly denies any marching orders to ramp up the conflict.

Dobbs’ numbers are increasing, however. The program is averaging 523,000 viewers, up 7 percent compared to last year.

Characterizations of his economic stance are way off base, asserts Dobbs, who describes himself as a lifelong Republican who remains moderate in his views.

“I think every American should be offended by anyone ... who would suggest there are only two choices in trade policy, protectionism or free trade,” Dobbs said. “There are a host of choices between those polar extremes. The policy I favor is balanced trade, which is the policy pursued by all of our principal trading partners.”

His passion over the issue was stoked by the refusal of several chief executive officers to acknowledge “there was any negative impact” from offshoring jobs, he said.

Whether his message is getting through to business owners or under their skin, Dobbs maintains that viewers are hearing it — and appreciate it.

“People are literally saying, ‘Thank you for talking about an issue that we feel is important,”’ Dobbs said. “Our viewers fully understand this transcends party lines and partisan politics. There is an absolute national value in truth on these issues, and we can’t ignore them.”

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