< Journalist Jose Vargas' Illegal Immigration Revelation

Transcript

Friday, June 24, 2011

MIKE PESCA:


This is On the Media. I'm Mike Pesca. This week Jose Antonio Vargas, a young but accomplished journalist, took to the pages of The New York Times Magazine to reveal something about himself. Vargas is in the United States illegally. The story details how Vargas learned of his immigration status at the age of 16 and how he managed it for the last fourteen years. Vargas was a staff reporter for The Washington Post, where he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. But when The Post backed off plans to run his revelation, Vargas offered the story to the Times magazine which snatched it up.


 


Times magazine editor-in-chief Hugo Lindgren says since the story was compelling and held up to fact checking, the author's credibility wasn't an issue.


HUGO LINDGREN:


That's something that's come up today. You know, people say, you know, you lie about one thing and people can't stop lying if they do that. And I - I think some of that misses the point. This is not unprecedented in journalism. This is not the first person who's ever told a lie who then goes on to write about it.


MIKE PESCA:


Phil Bronstein has more ambivalent feelings. Bronstein was the editor-in-chief of The San Francisco Chronicle, where Vargas worked from 2000 through 2004. Vargas visited with Bronstein a few days ago.


PHIL BRONSTEIN:


Jose, who I really like and I consider a friend, nonetheless basically told me the day before he came out in this article, look, I did this story when I worked for The Chronicle about illegal immigrants in the Mission District of San Francisco, buying fake driver's licenses, at the same time that he had a driver's license which he obtained with phony documents. So there's a [LAUGHS] – there’s a fundamental conflict there where, you know, full disclosure would normally be required. But since no one but Jose knew about it, it wasn't required and we didn’t get it.


MIKE PESCA:


But did Jose say, at the time, that he didn't want to report on such issues, issues that there would be a conflict?


PHIL BRONSTEIN:


He said that he himself decided at the time that that was just too much of a conflict and he wasn't gonna report on it again. So I'm not sure he recused himself from covering that topic entirely. And it's a very slippery slope because what's he gonna tell his editor? I, I don't want to do immigration stories anymore? That generally is not a very popular kind of approach when you're a young journalist.


MIKE PESCA:


In the piece, Vargas is advised by one of his many mentors to compartmentalize his immigration status. Now, as an editor, is a reporter’s ability and willingness to compartmentalize that sort of, you know, huge lie, does that give you pause overall?


PHIL BRONSTEIN:


Well, of course, I think of the word “compartmentalizing” with rationalization. [LAUGHS] I mean, I – I think there may be good compartmentalization, but normally when you hear it, it's - it's associated with somebody trying to rationalize something that is a little shifty.


 


I think Jose probably could not compartmentalize. Hey, look, he's a fabulously talented journalist; anyone who’s worked with him would agree. But there's the 800-pound gorilla in the room. You know, without anybody knowing it was there, I think that we all look back on it, and wondering what we would have done differently.


MIKE PESCA:


Maybe that's why Jack Shafer of Slate says that his consistency invites further speculation. “There's something about this guy” – this is Jack Shafer writing – “something about this guy does to make a journalist’s nose itch.”  Did you have that itchy feeling?


PHIL BRONSTEIN:


I do, and my inclination is not to want to have it, ‘cause I know Jose and I've followed his career over the years and I have, you know, advised him on occasion. But I - I think that he is a consummate self-promoter. That's one of the ways that he was able to survive, you know, with this sort of big secret hanging over him.


 


You know, Phil Bennett, the former managing editor of The Washington Post, did not agree with Marcus Brauchli, the current editor of The Post.  Phil thought that it was a courageous thing to do, that, that it was very troubling that he lied to people at The Post and elsewhere but that, you know, this was the right thing for, for Jose to do and there was a greater good involved.


MIKE PESCA:


I would just submit that there are understandable or even laudable stances for individuals to take that would at the same time also disqualify them from being journalists, no?


PHIL BRONSTEIN:


Yeah, and I think that Jose has disqualified himself from being a journalist. He’s now an advocate. So at a minimum I wouldn't hire him.


[LAUGHS] I mean, I couldn't hire him because –


MIKE PESCA:


Right.


 


PHIL BRONSTEIN:


- we now know he's undocumented, But I wouldn't hire him even if he wasn’t documented, certainly not to write about immigration.


MIKE PESCA:


As editor, did you ever go through a, a Jayson Blair or Janet Cooke type situation?


PHIL BRONSTEIN:


Yes, plagiarism issues come up relatively regularly. You know, which is worse for journalism, a plagiarist or somebody like Jose who’s lying about his residency? I think probably plagiarism [LAUGHS], you know, would still be seen as the more egregious sin in our profession.


MIKE PESCA:


When Jose came to you and talked to you, did it bring up any of those issues for you, just emotionally, the personal feeling of being had and being lied to?


PHIL BRONSTEIN:


I was emotional when he told me, and I was torn between being irritated that he hadn’t told me the truth and trying to understand what his life was like. You know, he’s here at 12; he didn’t bring himself over.


 


He discovers at 16, according to his essay, that he’s illegal, and decides to try and earn his way into citizenship, which, of course, was an absurd concept, but if you're 16, you know, maybe that's what you think.


 


So I felt that there was a potential higher purpose involved here. I kind of understood that there were circumstances that I couldn't fully understand myself, given my life experience. As a journalist myself, I mean, I was trying to apply that notion that you keep an open mind about things.


 


MIKE PESCA:


There very well could be collateral damage because established journalism institutions lent him their credibility when they gave him a byline, and places like you and The Philadelphia Daily News and The Washington Post are now going to come under fire because of who he is and what he did. Do you think Jose understands that?


PHIL BRONSTEIN:


I think he does understand that. The one person who he told at The Washington Post was a  training editor there. Peter Perl knew the secret and kept it to himself. And yesterday The Post very ominously said what they thought  Peter Perl did was wrong.


 


So I think that if there's any kind of media road kill in this story at the moment, assuming Jose doesn’t get deported tomorrow, it’s gonna – it could be Peter Perl, which is a shame.


MIKE PESCA:


Thank you very much, Phil.


PHIL BRONSTEIN:


You’re welcome.


MIKE PESCA:


Phil Bronstein is the editor-at-large for The San Francisco Chronicle.


 


A post script:  After our interview was recorded, Julie Moos of the Poynter Institute reported that Vargas wrote about immigration issues for The Chronicle more often than the one instance Phil Bronstein mentioned.  After the false driver's license story, Vargas also reported on a Latino protest over a driver's license bill and the difficulties gay immigrants had in obtaining citizenship.