IN THESE (THERAPEUTIC) TIMES: Who stands to gain in Bama?


Part 1—Shameful home Alabama: In the October 4 New York Times, the editors were thundering hard in their featured editorial.

“Alabama’s Shame,” a familiar type of headline said. The editorial concerned the state’s new immigration law, which has been facing court challenge.

The editors made it abundantly clear that they disapprove of this law. At one point, they even offered this familiar, though rather strange, assessment of peoples' motives:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (10/4/11): Officials in Alabama—some well meaning, others less so—insisted that nothing in the new law is intended to deny children an education. School districts, they noted, are supposed to collect only numbers of children without papers, not names.

“I don’t know where the misinformation’s coming from,” Alabama’s interim state school superintendent, Larry Craven, told NPR. “If you have difficulty understanding the language anyway, then who knows what they’re being told?” With comments like that, it’s not surprising that any of “them” would be frightened.
Which officials are well-meaning? Which officials are less well-meaning—and how can the editors tell them apart? Into which group does Craven fall, with his Dickensian moniker?

The editors didn’t answer such questions; that isn’t how the New York Times works. They thundered in their closing graf—which ended, somewhat weirdly, with a very basic question—a basic question they hadn't attempted to answer:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: President Obama needs to show stronger leadership in defending core American values in the face of the hostility that has overtaken Alabama and so many other states. He can start by scrapping the Secure Communities program, which encourages local immigration dragnets and reinforces the false notion that most undocumented immigrants pose a threat to this country’s security.

As for Alabama, one has to wonder at such counterproductive cruelty. Do Alabamans want children too frightened to go to school? Or pregnant women too frightened to seek care? Whom could that possibly benefit?
We couldn’t help wondering: If Obama doesn’t scrap that Secure Communities program, will he be engaged in cruelty too? Mostly, though, we were struck by that closing question—the question we have highlighted.

First, an earlier question from that last paragraph: Do Alabamans want children to be too frightened to go to school? Based on our reading, we’ll say the answer is basically no—although it’s clear that the Alabamans in question do want illegal immigrants to move out of the state.

Could someone “possibly benefit” from that? We were struck by the editors’ unanswered question, because we had already read Campbell Robertson’s news report about this same state law.

On that same day, Robertson wrote a front-page report about the effects of this new law. For the most part, his report was weirdly novelistic, in line with best New York Times practice. He offered heavily novelized scenes—scenes which lacked almost all journalistic content. In fairness, he did toss in a few statistics—statistics which sometimes seemed to undermine the points he was trying to make.

Robertson offered a type of novelized work which is commonly found in the Times. But midway through his piece, he dropped his novelization for a time. In this middle part of his piece, he quoted a state official (and a private citizen) explaining who the new state law could possibly benefit.

Here too, Robertson’s journalistic effort was notably weak. (Do you understand what he wrote about those “jobs for inmates?” We don’t.) But in this middle part of his front-page report, the editors’ key question was answered, at least as a matter of theory.

So how about it? Did that public official make a good point? Are there people in Alabama who “could possibly benefit” from this new law? Last Thursday, we watched a segment on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, in which a different state official made this same claim on behalf of this law. But was his claim accurate? Will some people benefit? We have no idea! In part, that’s because we read the New York Times, a newspaper which doesn’t really exist to answer such basic questions.

Are there people in Alabama who “could possibly benefit” from this law? No such thing was in question here! On the whole, the New York Times doesn’t exist to address basic questions like that. More routinely, the Times serves a different purpose, a purpose we’d call therapeutic.

Tomorrow—part 2: Concerning a different front-page report (to read ahead, just click here)


  1. Do you understand what he wrote about those “jobs for inmates?” We don’t.

    I think I understand it. I don't immediately see why someone would not, unless it was someone who just doesn't know what a work release program is.

    I don't mean to be snarky or condescending. I'm just trying to explain why I find the quoted statement puzzling.

    Perhaps it would be good journalistic practice to briefly explain work release, for the benefit of readers who haven't encountered the concept before. But that wouldn't include experienced media watchers.

    Am I just missing something?

  2. maybe it could help someone but I was in deep southern Alabama a few months back and the blueberry growers I was working with (all white, deeply conservative and anti-Obama) were quite worried about the law. They knew it could decrease the supply of labor to pick blueberries which are all picked by hand. So, who could benefit? I'm not sure about the labor supply in Alabama, but blueberry growers need to have their berries picked or go out of business. If labor costs were much higher due to a labor shortage, they might go out of business unless they could effectively pass those costs on to consumers, which would depend on price elasticity. American citizens willing to pick blueberries could potentially benefit from higher labor costs of course, but when there's a perishable crop involved, short-term labor supply adjustments could be severely disruptive. So, not an easy question to answer in this case.