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The Secret Life of Lou Dobbs

From the Magazine: Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Why did the influential CNN business anchor undergo an abrupt metamorphosis from corporate sycophant to fire-breathing populist? LUKE MULLINS found the surprising answer in Rupert, the hardscrabble Idaho town where Dobbs grew up.


Frank McCall certainly didn’t need any more problems, not this year. But as he looked out over his vast fields of brilliant green row crop, he could feel the walls closing in around him. Fuel costs are just outrageous, and seem to get worse every day. Potato prices, on the other hand, dropped so low that McCall had to quit growing them altogether. Then there’s the new Clean Air Act requirements, which will add thousands of dollars to the cost of new tractors—not that McCall can afford one. And Congress? “They’re a bunch of arrogant, overpaid fools,” he grumbles. “They have no right telling me what the minimum wage is.”

And now this, McCall thinks.

This summer, when it came time to prepare for the harvest, a funny thing happened: the workers never showed up.

McCall, 74, is a Korean War veteran. With graying stubble and leather-tough skin, he wears blue denim overalls and a soiled baseball cap as he leans against his gigantic Hesston 8400 tractor. McCall’s father bought the farm in the 1950s, and today production includes sugar beets, malt, barley, and alfalfa. Much of the exhausting labor is still done by his two sons and their children. But planting and harvesting a 1,300-acre farm are too much for one family. So, like farmers all across the country, McCall relies on migrant workers for help.

The workers, mostly Mexican, arrive each year. They track McCall down on his farm, show him their paperwork, negotiate a wage—maybe $7.50 an hour, more than most could earn back home in a full day—and get to work. But this summer, when it came time to prepare for the harvest, a funny thing happened: the workers never showed up. McCall couldn’t figure it out.

Without the workers, “We just couldn’t get done what we needed to be doing,” McCall says. As a result, weeds snaked their way into his fields, grew tall and thick, and now prevent his harvesting equipment from scraping up all of the crops. Fewer crops, of course, mean less profit. “I’m about as worried as I’ve been for many years.”

Frank McCall’s farm disappears into the tall skies and deep horizons of southern Idaho’s dramatic panorama. The landscape is a checkerboard of rich green farmland and golden pastures, with automobile-size hunks of hay neatly stacked in the fields and a crop-dusting airplane buzzing overhead. Seven miles down the road from McCall’s farm is the town of Rupert, Idaho.

Farm 3With 5,225 residents, Rupert is the seat of Minidoka County and a prominent outpost in the Magic Valley—a region that earned its nickname many years ago, when farmers put water to its volcanic soil and found that nearly anything could grow. Shops, lodged in sturdy brick buildings, outline the perimeter of Rupert’s old-fashioned town square, as park benches and shade-bearing trees fill out the interior. Homemade signs reading “Happy Birthday Rupert!” are still visible in windows—leftovers from the town’s centennial celebration, which was held four months earlier. Trains pull in and out of town along the Eastern Idaho Railroad tracks, taking seeds to farmers and crops to the market, and folks smile and chat on their way to church.

Surrounded by such small-town charm, you find it easy to think that nothing has changed in the 43 years since Rupert’s most famous resident, Lou Dobbs, boarded a passenger train and departed for the East Coast. But the square’s empty storefronts and newest tenants—Video Mexico and the D. Campas Market—reflect the less-heartwarming reality of Rupert’s awkward struggle with modernity.


Lou Dobbs has come a long way from Rupert. After nearly two decades heading CNN’s financial news unit, he now hosts the “Lou Dobbs Tonight” show, which tackles everything from bird flu to Mideast policy. With his ferocious rants on issues such as outsourcing, trade with China, and immigration, Dobbs, once a relatively obscure business reporter, has launched himself into the pantheon of television news celebrities—and, unlike most of the others, he has real influence.

Members of Congress say that Dobbs’s acerbic positions on his latest fascination, illegal immigration, have become increasingly influential on Capitol Hill.

Ratings dictate TV’s winners and losers, and for the past few years, as his programs have turned more populist—and, to some critics, even nativist—Dobbs’s numbers have steadily risen. In December 2003, the show was reaching an average of 463,000 households a night; by August 2006, it was reaching 646,000 families, according to Nielsen Media Research. Dobbs’s audience share is only one-tenth as large as the average nightly news show on ABC, NBC, and CBS, and less than two-thirds’ the size of the competing Fox News program at 6 p.m. eastern time, “Special Report with Brit Hume.” Still, Dobbs reaches nearly twice as many homes as Chris Matthews, and Dobbs—unlike Hume and Matthews—has an audience that’s powerfully growing.

Casual channel surfers aren’t the only ones tuning in. Members of Congress say that Dobbs’s acerbic positions on his latest fascination, illegal immigration, have become increasingly influential on Capitol Hill. “I’d have to give him pretty strong points for being one of the singular figures to drive this agenda item in Congress,” said a prominent free-trade Republican congressman. Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado), whose views on immigration are similar to those of Dobbs, says he regularly overhears his colleagues telling each other, “If you do this Dobbs will go after us, or if you do this it will play well on Dobbs.”

Dobbs even appears on other CNN shows as an immigration expert.

Dobbs has said that he has no plans to run for public office, but on account of his new authority, groups like the Reform Party, founded by Ross Perot in 1995, are urging him to become a candidate in 2008. The Washingtonian magazine recently reported: “Some GOP aides think that Dobbs might be gearing up to run for president as an independent in 2008, becoming a cross between Ross Perot and the angry newsman from the 1976 movie ‘Network,’ who was ‘mad as hell and...not going to take it anymore.’”

As Dobbs’s popularity has increased, so has his presence. Dobbs now hosts a nationally syndicated radio show and has regular columns in U.S. News & World Report and Money magazine. He even appears on other CNN shows as an immigration expert. And in October, Viking published Dobbs’s latest book, titled War on the Middle Class. In it, Dobbs presents himself as a bare-knuckled defender of an American working class overwhelmed by crooked politicians, spineless journalists, and switchblade-wielding corporate thugs. “He’s a populist,” says Tancredo. “There’s no two ways about that.”

But Lou Dobbs wasn’t always like this. For the first two decades of his career, he was a respected business journalist known for dispassionate reporting and deferential, almost sycophantic, treatment of American CEOs. In his new book, Dobbs calls himself a “lifelong Republican and a strong believer in free enterprise,” and in the early part of his career, those positions were apparent. His former perspective on corporate America has been preserved in CNN’s archives, in a segment that aired July 4, 2001, titled “Hail to the Chiefs.”

Dobbs began, “They are as powerful as politicians, as recognizable as celebrities and always on the line. Many of us depend upon them for our jobs, we trust them with our savings. We look to them for inspiration and innovation.”

The episode included flattering profiles of chief executives like Robert Eckert of Mattel, Inc., and Ralph Lauren of Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., both of whom had turned in good performances despite poor economic conditions. Dobbs went on to examine less successful CEOs, like former Reliance Group chief Saul Steinberg, whose huge fortune had evaporated, forcing him to sell off his $37 million apartment and his 61 Old Masters paintings. But on that day, such executives were not examples of corporate excess, but merely “fallen stars.”

The episode ended with an upbeat feature on “The CEO Academy,” a day-long seminar on corporate leadership, where Francis Scricco, then-CEO of Arrow Electronics, Inc., told the audience, “Not many people get a chance to do these kinds of jobs, and it’s worth every single minute of it.”

“You better believe it,” Dobbs responded from the studio. His remarkable
metamorphosis from a corporate champion to a fire-breathing populist has not gone unnoticed. “It’s as if whatever made Linda Blair’s head spin around in ‘The Exorcist’ had invaded the body of Lou Dobbs and left him with the brain of Dennis Kucinich,” Daniel Henninger wrote in a March 2004 column on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal.

But a more complete understanding of the transition, as well as its effects on the world of business and public policy, requires not just a look at Dobbs’s life, but also an examination of the little town in Idaho where he spent the years that shaped him.


The past two decades have not been kind to Rupert. Important employers have packed their bags and left the area. Del Monte Corp. shut down a nearby vegetable processing plant in the early 1990s. In 2003, JR Simplot Co. closed its potato processing plant in Heyburn, seven miles outside Rupert. And Kraft Foods, Inc., Rupert’s largest private employer, has announced plans to close at the end of the year, eliminating roughly 165 jobs. “For a small town, that’s huge,” said Audrey Neiwerth, the mayor.

Lou Dobbs arrived in Rupert in 1957, at the age of 12.

The Rupert Trading Post is located just a couple of doors up from the town square. There, in a room lined with the stuffed heads of water buffalo and moose, you can pick up a fishing license, choose from a selection of hunting rifles, or maybe grab a bumper sticker that reads, “I Fight Crime: I Work.” But like other stores in town, the Trading Post’s business has been slow of late. Gun sales began to slacken after the Brady Bill went into effect in 1994, and when Wal-Mart moved into a neighboring town, the store’s business fell off sharply. Mary Ann Pinther, the Trading Post’s owner, says she’s been trying to sell the store but has not found any takers. Still, she has no plans to leave Rupert: “I’d rather live in a dying town than a big city.”

The decline of local businesses has put additional pressure on the farming industry to keep the region’s economy breathing. “If they don’t do well, we don’t do well,” says Judy Moeller, a local kindergarten teacher.

Lou Dobbs arrived in Rupert in 1957, at the age of 12. He was born in Childress, Texas, a town about the size of Rupert in the Panhandle, but came to Rupert after his father took a job as the manager of a propane gas station there. Lou’s mother worked as a secretary at a furniture store, and the family, including Lou’s older brother, lived in a modest home. It was a stable, middleclass upbringing.

“They weren’t real poor, but they weren’t rich either,” Charlie Cole, who was Lou’s next-door neighbor then, told me.

Like other teenagers in the area, Dobbs spent summers baling hay in fields near Rupert. Days working in the scorching sun and dry desert heat were long, often running from three o’clock in the morning until eight at night. Gene Snapp, Dobbs’s seventh-grade teacher, remembers Lou as a bright, diligent student who excelled in English, science, and debate. “He developed a work ethic that happens in a community like this. You work hard for what you get.”

Dobbs fit in well with the other students at Minico High School. He played offensive tackle on the football team and emerged as a star debater. At the same time, he expressed an interest in the financial world, and even owned stocks at a young age, Cole recalled. But Dobbs was certainly no angel. Locals remember the time he sneaked into the Wilson Theater and tossed a live chicken off the balcony during a movie.

Dobbs - Yearbook PhotoIn his junior year, when he ran for senior class president, Dobbs was assigned to be the last of the three candidates to address the students. When the first two speakers exceeded their allotted time, the principal asked Lou to shorten his speech so the school day would remain on schedule. Dobbs ignored him, delivered the oration in its entirety, and went on to win the election. “Well, this is a good time to show [the principal] that he’s not going to tell me what to do,” Cole recalled Dobbs saying.

Dobbs was accepted at the University of Idaho, Idaho State University, and Boise Junior College. But the principal at Minico, along with Lou’s guidance counselor and a teacher, recommended that he apply to Harvard University. They would even pay the $25 application fee. Dobbs knew little about Harvard—other than that John F. Kennedy, who was then president, had gone there—but decided to take a chance. He was admitted, and Harvard offered him a full scholarship to attend.

In the summer of 1963, Dobbs arrived at the Minidoka train station, wearing Acme boots and a Stetson hat, for his first trip to the East Coast. “As we traveled east, the towns kept getting bigger. We went through Denver, Chicago, and then on into Boston,” Dobbs said later. “By the time I got there I was completely disoriented. The farthest east I’d ever been was Laramie, Wyoming.”

Dobbs played football at Harvard, but a knee injury as a sophomore ended his career. Around the same time, while watching a debate between economists Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman at MIT, he discovered a new passion. “I was absolutely mesmerized by Friedman,” Dobbs told the Horatio Alger Association. “For the first time, I had a sense of the relationship between economics and politics.”

Dobbs graduated from Harvard in 1967 with a degree in economics. He first took a job working with the unemployed for the U.S. Department of Labor, then went on to law school at the University of Idaho in Moscow. He quickly dropped out: “I didn’t take much to law. I spent so much of my time playing cards that I was called ‘Diamond Dobbs.’”

Dobbs made his way to Los Angeles, where he found a job at Union Bank. He didn’t like that either and next took a position as a copy editor at the Los Angeles Times. But Dobbs wanted to be a reporter, and eventually approached his editor about making the switch. His boss “turned and opened up a drawer of his file cabinet with applications of people wanting to be reporters, people with journalism degrees,” Dobbs said decades later in an interview with The Times-News, an Idaho newspaper. “I told him, ‘I’m going to be a reporter.’ He told me, ‘Then go to a radio or a television station; they’ll hire anybody.’ And I did.”

He first worked as a police and fire reporter for a station in Yuma, Arizona, then moved on to Phoenix, and finally landed a job as a news anchor and business reporter at JUNG-TV in Seattle. Scouts from a fledgling network, with the curious idea of airing news 24 hours a day, saw a videotape of Lou Dobbs in action in Seattle. “One look at him and I knew that he was the guy we needed,” said Reese Schonfeld, who co-founded Cable News Network with Ted Turner in 1979 and became its first president.


Back in Rupert, José, a 40-year-old migrant worker who asked to be identified only by his first name, has noticed a shortage of workers as well. “In other years, you could see people working everywhere, but not this year,” he said. And José knows why.

José has olive skin and a thin goatee. Today, he is wearing a short-sleeve collared shirt, tucked neatly into his blue jeans. After all, it’s Farm Worker Appreciation day, an August celebration of hot dogs and boiled corn held on Rupert’s town square to honor the people who, almost everyone agrees, are the lynchpin of the local economy.

But even as the crowd chats and smiles next to the grill and tubs of soda, a group of residents, including a schoolteacher and a local hairdresser, couldn’t help but complain that, once again, Rupert’s Hispanics are being treated like second-class citizens. The town’s public address system, which is always used for Fourth of July celebrations, was not made available today, and these second-rate loudspeakers are muffling the music. Plus, unlike on the Fourth, there are no merchants selling t-shirts and souvenirs. Even worse, two of the eight piñatas that had been purchased for the celebration have mysteriously disappeared.

Although José lives in Guanajuato, Mexico, he spends six months a year working on a farm outside Rupert. José works legally on an H2 visa, earning $8.47 an hour and sending $500 to his family every three weeks. But there are countless others in Mexico, José says, who are not so lucky. In years past, many such workers would have simply crossed the border illegally, obtained false documents, and arrived in Rupert looking for work. But the increased border security and scrutiny of illegal immigrants have changed all that. “It’s much more difficult to cross the border,” José said.

The increased risks associated with illegal border crossings have led to a spike in fees for immigrant smugglers.

Responding to pressure from lawmakers—who, themselves, were undoubtedly influenced by Dobbs’s nightly tirades on America’s “Broken Borders”—President Bush gave a prime-time address in May calling for up to 6,000 troops from the Army National Guard to bolster security along the U.S.-Mexico border. During the speech, Bush also called for security fences, high-tech surveillance equipment, and increased funding for local law enforcement to choke off the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S.

Such measures have had a chilling effect on the psyche of Mexican migrant workers, José said. Many would-be undocumented laborers now fear they will be arrested by the beefed-up border force, so they simply stay put. The increased risks associated with illegal border crossings, moreover, have led to a spike in fees for immigrant smugglers. Fees, which some say are now as high as $4,000, have proven too high for workers who only cross the border to make money in the first place. Meanwhile, many Mexican immigrants whose papers are in order are choosing to work in less grueling and more rewarding occupations, especially construction, hotels, and restaurants.

Migrant workers certainly aren’t new to Rupert. In the early 1940s, nearly 1,000 Minidoka County residents left to serve in World War II, creating a dangerous labor shortage in a farming community, Gary Schorzman, the former president of the Rupert Historical Society, told me. To fill the void, German and Italian prisoners of war from a prison camp in nearby Paul, and Japanese-Americans from an internment camp in Eden, 31 miles from Rupert, were put to work on the farms.

But after the Allies won the war, POWs and Japanese-Americans were released. There weren’t enough returning GIs, so a second labor shortage resulted. This time, farmers became increasingly dependent on workers from Mexico. By 1946, more than 100 Mexicans were living at a government-run labor camp in Paul, where they made $1.50 a day working in the surrounding farms, Schorzman said.

Most Rupert residents respect Hispanic immigrants for their blue-collar work ethic.

What began as a trickle of Mexican-born farm laborers turned into a steady stream, and eventually a permanent population of Hispanics. Today, they make up 35 percent of Rupert’s population, according to the U.S. Census. Some local residents estimate the proportion of illegal immigrants to be as high as two-fifths of the Hispanic population. It is difficult to determine just how much exposure Dobbs had to illegal immigrants when he was in high school. His high school yearbook shows that fewer than 2 percent of his fellow classmates had Hispanic surnames. But Steve Mitton, a conservative radio host in Rupert, says illegal immigration “would have been a problem when he was growing up.”

In this proud American town of conservative politics and family-farm values, racial tensions run hot. “I have been all over the world, but I have never seen so much racism and so much hatred as I have right now with what’s going on with the Hispanics,” says Benjamin Reed, a Spanish-language radio host in Rupert.

Reed is an Anglo, but because of his association with Rupert’s Hispanic population, he has become a target of racially charged animosity. One day, Reed returned to his car to find that the front door had been smashed and the word “SPIC” written in the dust above the window. In a separate incident, “BEANER LOVER” was squirted onto his car in shaving cream. Reed has been phoned several times, he says, by callers claiming to be members of the Ku Klux Klan. They have told him that “they’re watching me and to be very careful because I’m a spic lover.”

The relationship between Rupert’s Hispanic and Anglo populations is paradoxical. I came to the conclusion during my visit that most Rupert residents respect Hispanic immigrants for their blue-collar work ethic. “Everybody realizes that they’re the backbone of the community,” says Rod Jentzsch, who runs a 10,000-acre farm just outside town. But at the same time, people here express an animosity toward Hispanics that stems from the widely held perception that Mexicans come to Rupert simply to freeload off public services. For example, a new maternity ward opened in Rupert about ten years ago, but because of “all the free Mexican babies being born there, they made no profit and had to close,” Schorzman says. “What the hell is that all about?”

“It’s possible to graduate from high school here and not speak a word of English.”

Of the 4,200 students in Minidoka County public schools, between 35 percent and 40 percent are Hispanic, says Scott Rogers, superintendent of the school system. At certain schools in the county, Hispanics make up between half and three-quarters of the enrollment. As a result, schools are hiring more Spanish-speaking teachers, distributing handouts to parents in Spanish and English, and even making announcements over the public address system in both languages. “It’s possible to graduate from high school here and not speak a word of English—and that’s really got a lot of people upset,” says Mitton. Even more infuriating to some native-born residents is the school system’s refusal to check the legal status of its Spanish-speaking students. “We don’t feel that school is the proper platform to argue a political position on immigration,” Rogers told me.

Many in Rupert also blame the Hispanic population for what they see as a rise in gang activity. Mitton says that several Hispanic street gangs, including the infamous Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, have established a foothold. “All the little Hispanic gangs have branches in Rupert,” Mitton says.

Mitton’s daily talk show tackles the issues most important to Rupert, and over the past several years, he has devoted more and more time to illegal immigration. The similarity between his show and “Lou Dobbs Tonight” is not lost on Mitton. “I swear,” Mitton says, “he must listen to my program.”


When Lou Dobbs arrived at CNN in 1980 to serve as the network’s chief economics correspondent and host of “Lou Dobbs Moneyline,” he became commercial television’s first national business-news anchorman. “He had enough confidence in his talent to believe that he could make a career out of it. In fact, he did,” Schonfeld wrote in his 2001 book Me and Ted Against the World. “Wall Street traders came to love him, moguls confided in him, and Ted Turner valued him highly.”

Map - Rupert & NYCThroughout the 1980s and 1990s, Dobbs helped CNN establish a reputation for first-class financial news. At the same time, he was showered with accolades. His coverage of the 1987 stock market crash earned him the George Foster Peabody Award. The Business Journalism Review gave him its Luminary Award in 1990, and he won the Horatio Alger Association Award for Distinguished Americans in 1999. “There’s an unmistakable air of knowledgeableness permeating the project,” wrote John J. O’Connor in The New York Times about “Moneyline” in 1981. “Assembled at CNN’s New York office in the World Trade Center, the program covers the day’s business and market news with the kind of crisp efficiency that indicates the presence of an informed staff. Lou Dobbs, the anchorman, has a Harvard degree in economics. Myron Kandel, the financial editor, has been business editor for at least three newspapers.”

But from the moment he came to CNN, Dobbs emerged not only as an on-air star, but as a powerful figure in the network. After only one year at CNN, Dobbs began butting heads with Kandel and soon requested more editorial control, Schonfeld said in an interview. Kandel relented, and in 1981 Dobbs took over as the producer as well as host of “Moneyline.” In 1984, Dobbs was appointed managing editor for CNN’s entire business news unit and would later serve as an executive vice president for the network.

As Dobbs’s power within the network grew, CNN managers saw their influence over him dissipate, Schonfeld told me. “We couldn’t even get him to lose weight,” he said. “We had to have Ted call him.”

Current and former CNN employees describe Dobbs as a volatile, sometimes ruthless figure. “He rules by fear,” a current CNN employee, who would not be named, said. “He’s definitely a screamer,” said another. “He can be stubborn, vicious, cutting, and his words are very forceful.”

Some employees got it worse than others. “Dobbs had once demanded that a very short producer stand on a chair so he could yell at him, and when the young man refused, Dobbs crouched down to deliver the scolding,” wrote Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post in The Fortune Tellers, his 2001 book about business media. Dobbs’s former employees say that his actions were designed to build loyalty. “He was not indiscriminately mean-spirited, but it was more of a test,” said a former “Moneyline” employee. “Those that failed the test left, and those that passed the test stuck around.”

Staying with Dobbs came with benefits. While the network went through numerous management changes in the 1980s and 1990s, the financial unit continued to thrive under Dobbs’s stewardship. Employees also liked the fact that Dobbs ran a meritocracy, providing junior members of his team with the opportunity to work their way up. For example, Kitty Pilgrim, now a correspondent and occasional substitute as anchor for Dobbs, began as a production assistant for CNN Business News in 1986. Finally, members of Dobbs’s unit were not sent off to cover the plane crashes and hostage situations that keep 24-hour news networks running. “In an environment where everyone gets yanked around 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, we had regular hours,” said a former “Moneyline” staff member.

Dobbs was telling his Money Letter customers to buy stocks in many of the same companies that appeared on his list of corporations that were outsourcing jobs.

Dobbs’s former employees describe the financial unit as a network within a network. “There was a lot of network red tape that did not apply to us,” said one of them. “We answered to Lou.” The autonomy from the rest of the network inevitably provoked resentment at CNN. “A lot of folks in Atlanta couldn’t stand what Lou had set up in New York. He had a fiefdom. He had a direct line to Ted,” said a former “Moneyline” employee. But “he knew as long as he was bringing in the revenue, they could yell and scream all they want.”

Through his first two decades with the network, Dobbs not only won praise for his generally straight business coverage, but he also relished his cuddly relationships with high-profile figures on Wall Street. “He liked to boast about flying around with Henry Kravis, Robert Mosbacher, and other top financiers,” Kurtz wrote.

In 1992, The Wall Street Journal reported that Dobbs had made promotional videos for Shearson Lehman Brothers, Paine Webber, and the Philadelphia Stock Exchange.

“With his usual stubbornness, Dobbs said it was ‘nonsensical to talk about this as a conflict of interest’ and that he made far more money giving speeches to corporate groups, a practice that also raised ethical questions,” Kurtz wrote. Dobbs was later reprimanded by CNN. An Idaho newspaper said he reportedly agreed to return the $15,000 fee earned for the videos and apologized for poor judgment.

But the ethical snags didn’t stop there. In addition to his show, Dobbs dispensed stock-market wisdom in a monthly publication called the Lou Dobbs Money Letter, which cost $199 for an annual subscription. But in early 2004, journalists reported that Dobbs was telling his Money Letter customers to buy stocks in many of the same companies that appeared on his list of corporations that were outsourcing jobs. Companies such as Boeing and Washington Mutual were at once heralded as good investments (Dobbs also called Boeing “a deeply idealistic company”) in the newsletter and vilified as un-American on the website for Dobbs’s TV show. The Lou Dobbs Money Letter is no longer in existence.

A CNN management change would lead to the end of the first Dobbs era. He abruptly left the network in 1999, after the new president, Rick Kaplan, with whom Dobbs had a stormy relationship, cut into a “Moneyline” segment to go live to an address by President Clinton that Dobbs did not deem newsworthy. After he resigned from CNN, Dobbs, with strategic partners NBC and Gannett Co., launched, a Web-based multimedia company that focused on space and astronomy. Dobbs became CEO in June 1999, less than a year before the high-tech bubble popped.


Joe Kearl, production manager for a farm outside Rupert, is also wondering how he’s going to make it through the harvest season, given the shortage of labor. Mexican migrant workers typically make up 95 percent of his team. “It’ll be a struggle,” he says. Kearl, 46, adds that he has no way of knowing for sure how many of his workers are legal or illegal. All he can do is check their paperwork. “I’m not an expert on documents. I can’t tell the difference. You see them, you hire them.” Mexican migrant workers are essential, Kearl says, because native-born Rupert residents simply won’t put in 14-hour days in the blazing sun. “We’re just like any other Americans,” Kearl says. “We don’t want to take jobs away from Americans, but the Americans won’t do the jobs.” Few in Rupert would disagree. Gary Schorzman says that people who have grown up working on farms in the area want something better for their children and encourage them to go to college. Education leads to opportunities, and that often means leaving Rupert.

“We’re just like any other Americans,” Kearl says. “We don’t want to take jobs away from Americans, but the Americans won’t do the jobs.”

The need for immigrant labor in Rupert reflects broader social and economic trends throughout the United States. As the number of low-skilled jobs in the economy has increased, Americans have become better educated and older, says Daniel Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. “We have this structural mismatch: growing demand for, and a shrinking supply of, low-skilled workers. Immigrants are filling the gap, just as they have throughout history,” Griswold said.

But, he adds, “Immigration law is fundamentally broken, totally out of sync with the U.S. economy. The vast majority of regular, hard-working guys from Mexico or Central America who want to come here to fill a job that, frankly, not enough Americans want to do have no legal way to enter the country.”

In Rupert, there seems to be general agreement on a solution to the problem. “There needs to be some program, a guest-worker program, and let these people work,” says Rod Jentzsch.


By mid-2000, a year after his departure, Dobbs’s time slot at CNN had already lost a third of its old viewers. Meanwhile, was fizzling on the launching pad, and the company ordered large-scale layoffs. Kaplan, who was widely disliked at CNN, left. It wasn’t long before the network approached Dobbs. “They just made me a terrific offer,” Dobbs said later.

It included a salary between $3 million and $5 million, according to reports at the time, but the raise was only part of the attraction. Schonfeld said that Dobbs was able to use CNN’s desperation as leverage to increase his authority within the network. “They came knocking on his door really begging him to come back, and he got enormous power,” Schonfeld said. “When they brought him back, he became totally independent. He knew they needed him more than he needed them.”

Lou Dobbs IllustrationIn the five and a half years since Dobbs’s return to CNN, his show has slowly evolved into what you see today. Starting with issues like trade with China, picking up traction with outsourcing around 2003, and moving on to illegal immigration in 2005, Dobbs finally developed a full-blown populist credo that damns both parties in its defense of what he considers an oppressed middle class. As he said in April on another CNN program, “Reliable Sources,” hosted by Howard Kurtz: “Who in the—let me turn the question, a bit, Howard, if I may: Who the hell said there were only two versions of the truth, a Republican view and a Democratic view?” Critics say that Dobbs promotes a nativist view of the world, similar to that of Ross Perot or Pat Buchanan—but, unlike them, Dobbs has a nightly bullhorn.

A good example of the new Lou Dobbs is this exchange with Kitty Pilgrim last year:

DOBBS: You know, it’s just amazing to me. This is becoming quickly, if not a nation, a government of fools, because the statistics are clear, the reality is straightforward, it’s nonpartisan. And yet, these mindless, so-called free trade policies are being pursued by both Democrats and Republicans. It’s incredible.

PILGRIM: It’s really amazing that 80 percent of all the new things that are coming in are from China, and no one is noticing.

DOBBS: And no one in Washington seems to have any interest whatsoever in representing this country’s middle class. Kitty, thank you very much.

Since Dobbs’s ratings have increased sharply with this change in approach, some critics see the transition as a cynical attempt to attract viewers. In other words, in this post-Enron era, with kid-glove treatment of corporate executives out of style, Dobbs, the erstwhile admirer of Milton Friedman and Jack Welch, becomes a foaming-at-the-mouth populist to win rating points. It is not only Dobbs’s enemies who have come to this conclusion. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the business with a better antenna for what an audience wants,” says a former “Moneyline” employee. “I think that Lou just did a basic calculus.”

But as logical as this explanation for the metamorphosis sounds, it may be 180 degrees from the truth. “I think viewers for the first time are seeing what we saw working with him,” says a current CNN staffer. “Lou comes from a blue-collar background, and he never forgot that.” He never did. Perhaps it was the anchor that some saw as a corporate sycophant who was the false Lou Dobbs, while the strident populist who appears today is the real Lou Dobbs.

Regardless of the logic behind the change, the increased ratings have come at a price. CNN employees say that Dobbs has become increasingly controversial inside the network. His power is resented, and his extreme positions are mocked. His face on network monitors inevitably provokes jokes and eye-rolling from CNN staffers. “We all start banging our heads against the wall,” one of them says.

What’s most disconcerting for CNN employees is not Dobbs’s populist stance, but rather the type of journalism that he represents. “At CNN, either you’re a journalist or you’re a commentator, and he’s a hybrid,” says a current CNN employee. “And I’m sure it’ll be discussed in journalism classes for years to come: Can you play that dual role?”

Although Jonathan Kline, CNN’s U.S. president, told The New York Times that Dobbs’sprogram is “not a harbinger of things to come at CNN,” employees there continue to express in Dobbs’s footsteps. For example, CNN has given Nancy Grace, a shrill opinionator, a home at its Headline News channel.

Dobbs’s caustic pronouncements (“We are outsourcing American jobs,” he said in a typical broadcast in 2004. “We’re killing middle-class American jobs, high-value jobs…. Isn’t it time for people to get belligerent?”) have ruined his reputation in thebusiness community, says John Endean, the president of the American BusinessConference, a group of fast-growing mid-size companies. “What angers business people more than anything is that a lot of them remember his reporting in the ’80s and think, ‘This is a fellah that knows better.’”

More offended by Dobbs’s views on trade are mainstream economists. Gene Epstein—economics editor of Barron’s, author of the book Econospinning, and a former senior economist for the New York Stock Exchange—accuses Dobbs of practicing “whacky economics” and misrepresenting government statistics. Epstein writes:

“Since consistency is not Dobbs’s strong suit, his ideas are not easy to summarize coherently. But if there is a message that runs through his railings,…it’s that foreigners are taking America’s jobs, while giving nothing in return—indeed, less than nothing, at least when those foreigners are Chinese ‘planning a massive new assault on American consumers.’

“Consumers,” Epstein continues, “are no more assaulted when they buy goods at bargain prices than when they buy Dobbs’s book or watch his television show. These are all capitalist acts between consenting adults that no one has a right to interfere with forcibly, except by force of persuasion. Dobbs has made it clear, however, that forcible interference is exactly what he would resort to if persuasion doesn’t work. What he would interfere with, he also makes clear: Whenever foreign labor is used to produce what American workers could produce, the practice should be stopped.”

Dobbsian economic theory holds that outsourcing labor is an inherently unpatriotic act, which serves only to destroy American jobs and enrich greedy CEOs. Nearly all economists, however, argue that increased efficiency from activities like outsourcing will always benefit the consumer and the economy as a whole in the end. While innovation may destroy certain jobs (the way that the automobile put blacksmiths out of work—technology, after all, being more disruptive than outsourcing), a dynamic free economy is continually creating new employment opportunities.

Between 1999 and 2003, the U.S. lost 125,000 lower-skilled programming jobs, but at the same time gained 425,000 higher-skilled jobs, such as network administrators and software engineers.

Academic research over the last several years indicates that outsourcing—that is, hiring people abroad to do work with higher quality or lower cost—is not nearly so pervasive as Dobbs would have viewers believe. A December 2005 study by Diana Farrell and Jaeson Rosenfeld, of the McKinsey Global Institute, estimated that the U.S. would lose roughly 1.4 million jobs, or 280,000 a year, to outsourcing between 2003 and 2008. “That is far fewer than the normal rate of job turnover in the economy,” the researchers said. In a typical month, about one million Americans left their jobs and slightly more started new ones. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the U.S. economy added 362,000 net new jobs in the third quarter of 2006 alone.

In a study last year, economist Catherine Mann of the Institute for International Economics found that between 1999 and 2003, the U.S. lost 125,000 lower-skilled programming jobs, but at the same time gained 425,000 higher-skilled jobs, such as network administrators and software engineers. Another study found that companies that outsource the most jobs also do the most hiring at home. Economists argue that the real problem with globalization is that the pay gap between workers with college educations and those without is widening. Critics of Dobbs say that the remedy is not to limit trade—in goods, services, or jobs—but to improve education and training, a subject without much ratings-building appeal.

“How many viewers want to take a technical, economic look at the pluses and minuses of globalization? About five,” Endean says. “How many viewers want to be told that they are being victimized by greedy corporate chieftains that are selling out Americans? A lot.”

More recently, Dobbs has trained his heavy artillery on illegal immigration, blasting the U.S. government for failing to secure the southern border. This failure, Dobbs tells his viewers, allows Mexican immigrants to swarm into the United States, guzzle public services, and steal American jobs. Even worse, the lack of security along the border leaves us vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, the Senate immigration bill, which provides for a guest-worker plan, is nothing more than “an amnesty bill” that rewards illegal behavior, Dobbs says.

But much like outsourcing, Dobbs’s positions on illegal immigration have been challenged by data. With an unemployment rate of just 4.7 percent, the United States would be hard to portray as a nation whose jobs are being stolen. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center in August concluded that “rapid increases in the foreign-born population at the state level are not associated with negative effects on the employment of native-born workers.”

Every one of the 9/11 terrorists entered the country with a valid student or tourist visa rather than by sneaking over from Mexico, notes Griswold, who argues that “while Lou Dobbs is obsessed with the Mexican border, he’s turning his back on the much larger barn door of legal, nonimmigrant visas, which terrorists have used in the past.” Griswold also says that the figures used to argue that illegal immigrants drain communities of their public services are often exaggerated. “Hispanic men display one of the highest labor-force participation rates of any subgroup surveyed by the Department of Labor, 80.6 percent vs. 74.7 percent for non-Hispanic white men,” he writes in a 2002 paper.

Peter Skerry, a political science professor at Boston College and author of Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority, says that legal and illegal immigrants are often unfairly grouped together in discussions of the use of American public services. “Because legal immigrants are similarly unskilled and undereducated, and because there are more of them, they put even greater demands on public services than illegal immigrants,” Skerry said. Finally, although illegal immigrants use public services, “we’re still better off having those workers than not having them,” Griswold said. “They facilitate the growth of whole sectors of the economy, which generate tax revenue and jobs for the native-born population.”

Other researchers, notably George Borjas of Harvard, conclude that, all other things being equal, immigrant labor lowers the wages of low-skilled Americans. But critics of Dobbs would say that other things aren’t equal—immigrants also raise the propensity of businesses to make capital investments, which benefit the overall standard of living in the nation. In addition, economist David Card of the University of California at Berkeley, in another study, found no wage differences among native workers in areas with lots of poorly educated immigrants and in areas with few. And then there is the harsh reality of 2006: a crackdown on immigrants has taken money from the pockets of farmers in states like California and Idaho.


In Rupert this fall, as farmers struggle to find enough workers for the harvest, folks can’t help but smile fondly when they talk with a stranger from Washington about Lou Dobbs.

“Out here in an agricultural community, he had aspirations that were a little bigger than some,” says Gene Snapp, Dobbs’s former teacher. “I guess you could only feel more proud of him if he was your own son.” The love is unconditional.

With its history of factory closings and illegal immigrants, the story of Rupert, Idaho, would appear perfectly suited for a “Lou Dobbs Tonight” segment. But the widespread support for a guest-worker plan and the complaints about a farm labor shortage run directly counter to everything Dobbs stands for. There’s a disconnect between America’s self-appointed leader of the suffering middle class and the middle-class community that raised him.

“I think he’s been in New York too long,” says Benjamin Reed, the local radio host.

Dobbs has no family in Rupert. The last time he was in the area was in 1996 when he gave a speech on business and technology in Twin Falls as a benefit for its public library. Tickets were $35 each, and Dobbs received a reported $20,000 honorarium, according to an article in The Times-News. On the other hand, Dobbs set up a scholarship to send Minidoka high school students to college.

“He hasn’t lost his values. He is still this Rupert, Minidoka County, down-home boy,” says Gary Schorzman. “You can always change how you do things, but you can’t change who you are or where you came from.”

It’s safe to say that Lou Dobbs still has a relationship—a complex, even sad relationship—with the hardscrabble town of Rupert and the lonely plains of southern Idaho. When you watch him on television, you realize that the kid who went down to the train station in his Stetson hat 43 years ago and headed for Cambridge and a life under the television lights—that kid has never really left home.

Illustrations by Mark Ulriksen

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