Jose Antonio Vargas recently told a former editor that after he wrote about illegal immigration in 2003, he realized covering the issue was a conflict of interest and he wouldn’t do it any more, but he continued to cover it in the months that followed.
In a conversation with San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein in which Vargas confessed his undocumented status, he also told Bronstein that after writing “a story for us about illegals getting fake drivers’ licenses in the Mission … he decided then that was a serious conflict of interest and [he] wouldn’t cover immigration any more.”
But Vargas had written before then about immigration and he continued to cover immigration for the Chronicle after that story ran. The fake driver’s license story was published in October of 2003. In December, he wrote about Latinos boycotting work, school and retail purchases to protest a driver’s license bill. And in January of 2004, Vargas wrote about how gay couples are not legally able to sponsor their partners for citizenship. Vargas came out himself in high school, deflating his grandfather’s hopes that he’d become a U.S. citizen through marriage.
Before this discovery, I asked Michele Salcedo, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, whether news organizations who published Vargas’ work should review it, given the potential conflicts of interest. She said:
“I think it’s up to the news organizations to decide whether or not their editing process was rigorous enough in the first place to determine whether there were biases or holes in the reporting or that the story was somehow skewed in either direction, whether he was overcompensating because he knew of his conflict or whether he was pushing a particular point of view because of his circumstances.”
In response to my inquiry, the Chronicle’s Bronstein emailed me to say “Jose only brought up the driver’s license story when we spoke … I don’t know what the Chronicle is doing to check for similar pieces but I’m cc’ing here … the Chronicle’s editor, and … the Managing editor who would determine that.”
Certainly, Vargas could have forgotten the other stories in the seven years since he wrote them. However, this discrepancy — along with others — raises questions about how forthcoming Vargas is being about the relationship between his undocumented status and his journalism.