After Vargas, More Scrutiny for Latinos, Immigrants in the Newsroom?

After Vargas, More Scrutiny for Latinos, Immigrants in the Newsroom?

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WASHINGTON, D.C.—Filipino journalist Jose Antonio Vargas' confession that he has been in the United States illegally since childhood prompted a declaration from a former boss that he feels "duped" and a prediction that Latinos — the group most associated with illegal immigration — could face increased scrutiny in newsrooms.

The ombudsman for the Washington Post, which edited the story and then killed it, criticized the newspaper in his column in the print edition Sunday.

"I think The Post missed an opportunity to tell a great and compelling story, and to air and take responsibility for some internal dirty laundry. It’s that kind of act that earns you the lasting respect of your readers. It keeps their trust," wrote Patrick B. Pexton.

Vargas defended himself in an interview Friday on NPR's All Things Considered," telling host Michele Norris, ". . . if I didn't tell those lies, I couldn't have gotten work and I couldn't have survived," and he maintained that his journalistic integrity remained intact. "I have written 650 news articles" with only nine or 10 corrections, he said. "The work speaks for itself.

"Lawyers told me not to publish the story at all. One said it was like legal suicide," he added. But Vargas said he felt compelled to change the conversation about immigration. "I'm going to make sure this is not just about me."

It appeared that there would be no immediate move to deport Vargas.

Vargas shared in a Pulitzer Prize at the Post and went on to become a senior contributing editor for the Huffington Post. He disclosed in the New York Times Magazine and in an ABC News interview that he has been in the United States illegally since his Filipino mother put him on a plane for the United States in 1993, when he was 12.

In the Times and on ABC, Vargas described a life of using fraudulent documents to remain in the country and of deceiving employers. But finally, Vargas wrote, he decided to go public. "I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore," he said in the Times. Vargas has founded Define American, which seeks to "change the conversation" on immigration reform, as the Times phrased it.

"What I'm hoping to do in the next few months is looking at this issue as holistically as possible," Vargas said on NPR, with an eye toward influencing the conversation in the 2012 campaign season.

One former boss, Phil Bronstein, former editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote Thursday, "Jose lied to me and everyone else he worked for, and that's not kosher, especially in a profession where facts and, more elusively, the truth are considered valuable commodities.

". . . Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli told me 'what Jose did was wrong. It's a compelling and interesting story' and Jose is a 'talented and imaginative guy.' But Brauchli seems to feel duped.

"Not so much former Post managing editor — now managing editor at 'Frontline', Phil Bennett. 'I'm torn,' Bennett said when I spoke with him a few days ago. 'Honesty matters. But what Jose has done is courageous and I admire him for it.' "

Ultimately, Bronstein concluded, "For me, despite the subterfuge, he's done what he intended: given a surprising, articulate and human face to an important issue for at least some of those millions of people out there floating in terrifying limbo. For me, it's the face of a friend."

The progressive Media Matters for America wrote, "Predictably, it took almost no time for the right-wing slander machine to gear up its attacks on Vargas and his family."

Not only the right wing was critical. Jack Shafer, writing for Slate magazine, compared Vargas with Janet Cooke, the Washington Post reporter who in 1981 forced the newspaper to return a Pulitzer Prize when she admitted to fabricating "Jimmy's World," about an 8-year-old heroin addict.

"Like Janet Cooke, Vargas lied about who he was. Cooke would never have gotten her job at the Washington Post, would never have written 'Jimmy's World,' would never have won a Pulitzer Prize if she hadn't misrepresented herself on her résumé as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar," Shafer wrote.

"It may be unjust that Cooke, a black woman and a good writer, couldn't have made the jump to the then-Ivy-centric Post at the age of 25 if she had been honest about her humble University of Toledo undergraduate degree. But the unjustness of the world didn't give her a license to lie to the Post, where she eventually told many more. Likewise, Vargas would never have been hired by the Post had he told the paper the truth about his immigration status. I know the two lies aren't exactly analogous. Cooke told her lies to inflate her status, Vargas to normalize his."

After the Cooke case, black reporters faced increased scrutiny in newsrooms. Vargas’ admission might similarly affect Hispanics, Michele Salcedo, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, told the Poynter Institute's Julie Moos. The episode "affords anti-immigration rights activists [the opportunity] to come forward to say to news organizations around the country, 'What are you doing to ensure that you don’t have a similar situation in your newsroom?' It will be difficult for news managers to say, 'We don’t know, but we’re not gonna check,’ " Salcedo said to Moos.

Salcedo added that pressure "will likely be particularly pronounced for Spanish-language broadcasts and publications, where most of the personnel is Latino," Moos wrote.

Vargas is Filipino, not Latino. However, Doris Truong, national president of the Asian American Journalists Association, who works as a multiplatform editor at the Washington Post, said she could not comment. "I must recuse myself from any comments on Jose because I am editing Washington Post stories involving his revelation," Truong told Journal-isms. "I don't think AAJA has any official comment on this situation. . . ."

On Wednesday, the Post's Paul Farhi, reporting that Vargas' story was originally scheduled to run in the Post but that the newspaper killed it, disclosed "internal discussion about whether the newspaper was getting the full story from its former reporter." Vargas then contacted the New York Times Magazine. "The newspaper found his story so compelling after seeing a copy Wednesday, just 48 hours before the magazine’s June 26 issue was to close, that its editors decided to rush the article into print."

Pexton, the ombudsman, shed more light on the role of Peter Perl, the Post newsroom manager who kept Vargas' secret.

"In an interview, Perl said that he informed Post leadership in an e-mail when the Vargas story was submitted to The Post in March that he had known of Vargas’s illegal status and that he had decided to keep it confidential because he was convinced that disclosing his private conversation would end Vargas’s career, if not cause his deportation. Perl said he has not been docked pay, suspended or fired, but he declined to elaborate."

Recent directives from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement indicate that Vargas probably is safe from deportation, Corey Dade reported for NPR.

"In memorandums issued by ICE director John Morton, the agency clarified that its priorities are to focus on illegal immigrants who present 'a clear risk to national security.'

"In one of the memos, released June 17, Morton said ICE is focused on felons and repeat offenders, gang members, and those with numerous immigration violations such as illegally re-entering the U.S. and committing fraud.

"The memo also directs ICE officials to avoid proceedings against a wide array of individuals, including U.S. military veterans, minors and seniors, pregnant women, those who grew up in the U.S. and 'long-time lawful permanent residents.' "