Vargas’ revelations may be a victory for immigration advocates, but not for journalism

Jose Antonio Vargas’ essay about being an undocumented immigrant reveals the schizophrenia of trying to make something of yourself while concealing a key part of your identity.

His story is meant to illustrate the injustice of U.S. immigration policy – that a boy who had no choice in coming to the U.S. was forced, bit by bit, to construct an elaborate lie in order to stay here.

For journalists, his story has another dimension. What does it mean when someone involved in journalism tells a series of lies and breaks a series of laws, for so long, about something so important?

It may seem small to focus on Jose the journalist when he says his story is about Jose the undocumented worker. But the two are intertwined. After being turned down for an internship because he was undocumented, he writes, “I decided then that if I was to succeed in a profession that is all about truth-telling, I couldn’t tell the truth about myself.”

Vargas is a journalist; he’s also an activist. He says he came forward to “own up to what I’ve done,” but he’s also doing it to to launch his Define American group, which seeks passage of the DREAM Act.

When you take that into account and consider a few omissions in his story, it becomes a work of skillful advocacy – one that could harm journalism as much as it elevates immigration reform.

Coming clean

Vargas approached The Washington Post, his former employer, to tell his story. But, the story was killed after weeks of editing.

Perhaps it was spiked because Post leadership was concerned about the legal repercussions of revealing that the paper had employed an undocumented worker. Perhaps they were embarrassed to publish a story in which someone describes how he duped them.

The Post’s Paul Farhi suggested in a story that it was killed as a result of credibility concerns. “Given the subject — a reporter’s dishonesty about his personal life — The Post subjected Vargas’s story to an unusual degree of scrutiny,” he wrote.

That fact-checking, according to Farhi, revealed that Vargas had not disclosed that he had replaced his expiring Oregon driver’s license with one from Washington. Vargas conceded that he had withheld this information on the advice of his attorney.

Considering how much Vargas focused on his fake documents, this seems a notable omission. “The disclosure set off internal discussion about whether the newspaper was getting the full story from its former reporter,” Farhi wrote.

In telling his story, Vargas faces the same challenge that any liar faces when he comes clean, whether he’s a child who tried to cover up a mistake, a felon who changes his story to testify in court, or a U.S. congressman trying to explain incriminating photos on Twitter. How do we know you’re telling the truth now?

“The trouble with habitual liars,” wrote Jack Shafer in Slate, “and Vargas confesses to having told lie after lie to protect himself from deportation, is that they tend to get too good at it. Lying becomes reflex. And a confessed liar is not somebody you want working on your newspaper.”

The Times, apparently, did trust Vargas. Chris Suellentrop, an editor who worked on the story, wrote in a blog post that the Times rushed to get the story in hand in so they could fact-check, edit, illustrate and lay the story out in the two days before the magazine’s deadline. (Suellentrop declined to speak with me for this story.)

The driver’s license is not the only inconsistency in Vargas’ account. In a section about his work at the Post, he describes the obvious issue of how he dealt with covering immigration. “I did my best to steer clear of reporting on immigration policy but couldn’t always avoid it,” he writes.

He then describes in detail three political stories he wrote, leading me as a reader to believe he’s disclosed what he needs to. But in writing about how Vargas’ work at the San Francisco Chronicle, Phil Bronstein describes a murkier situation:

“In 2003 he wrote a story for us about illegals getting fake drivers’ licenses in the Mission when he’d used phony documents to get his own. He told me last week that he decided then that was a serious conflict of interest and [he] wouldn’t cover immigration any more. But he later wrote on the topic for the Post.”

Bronstein told Julie Moos, my editor, that he got this information from Vargas himself. Moos, though, found three other Chronicle stories dealing with immigration. (When she asked Vargas about it via Twitter, he responded, “There were times at SF Chron, and also at WaPo, where I just couldn’t avoid writing about #immigration.”)

Let’s give Vargas the benefit of the doubt; who can remember all the stories they’ve written on a particular topic? Yet I wonder why he didn’t mention one in particular.

In his essay Vargas writes that one of the reasons his grandfather was angry at him for coming out as gay was that it meant that he wouldn’t marry an American woman and get a green card.

Vargas wrote a story about this very issue for the Chronicle, describing how U.S. law enables heterosexuals to obtain permanent residency for their spouses, but homosexuals can’t do so for their partners.

I’m not saying Vargas shouldn’t have written those stories. Merely having a stake in an issue doesn’t prevent a journalist from writing about it.

“I don’t think it’s a given that an illegal immigrant would have such a conflict around immigration issues,” said Kelly McBride, Poynter’s senior faculty for ethics, reporting and writing. “But you have to assess that. In this case, it was impossible to do that because it was impossible for Jose to reveal his immigration status to his boss and not lose his job.”

Vargas believed it was impossible to avoid these deceptions. Given that, I expect him to adhere to an even higher standard of disclosure now.

Vargas asks readers to trust him. Yet I don’t know whether he’s telling us the whole truth now or if he’s coloring it to portray himself as a poster child for immigration reform.

It’s hard to tell. Even now we must rely on his word.

Truth-telling and advocacy

Journalists sometimes zoom into one person’s life to tell stories about complicated issues. By focusing on one person, they can go deep, portraying nuance through the thoughts and actions of a single person.

In such stories the reporter still applies a critical eye, confirming accounts, fleshing out others’ perspectives, and posing tough questions. Vargas, in telling his own story, gets all of the benefits and little of the accountability that would come with telling his story to another reporter.

What would have happened if Vargas had told his story to someone else? For one, we probably would have heard from Phil Bronstein in the story, not after. Perhaps there are other people who would have added counterweights to Vargas’ account or confirmation.

We have none of that. Vargas is both the protagonist and the trusted storyteller. He chose the language, he controls the narrative, he decided what facts to include. His story did undergo editing at the Post, but during that time something happened that killed the story and we don’t know what.

We know of a few instances in which Vargas didn’t reveal information that would have presented a fuller picture. Perhaps he held back other facts that would have complicated his story.

A reporter probably would have checked out what Vargas had written about immigration. I bet she would’ve noted his new role advocating for passage of the DREAM Act in the story rather than in an editor’s note, like the Times did.

Considering that Vargas’ standing as a journalist is key, a reporter would likely have asked Vargas if his secret ever affected how he interacted with sources, particularly undocumented immigrants. Was he ever put in a position where his secret forced him to compromise his obligation to tell the truth? Did he ever conceal a source’s legal status, perhaps by altering a detail or using a pseudonym?

Vargas said in a tweet that he felt conflicted as a reporter; Did those feelings inform his journalism?

A reporter may also have asked if his secret ever led him to stories he wouldn’t have found otherwise, like the stories about the fake drivers’ licenses and the homosexual couples.

I would have asked Vargas how, as a journalist covering the 2004 presidential campaign, he dealt with voting. What was it like to cover a campaign knowing that you couldn’t participate in the democratic process?

Or did he vote? He says in his story that at some point he started to claim on employment documents that he was a citizen; perhaps he decided to act like one. Either way, it’s important.

If these questions seem too critical, remember that Vargas is not just a journalist. He’s an advocate who has placed himself in the public eye as a spokesman for immigration reform. It’s naïve to think that he told this story simply to come clean when he’s made clear his larger agenda.

When you read his first-person account with an awareness of his new public advocacy role, you see all the ways that Vargas dresses his life story in the language of the American dream:

  • “I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it.”
  • “This deceit never got easier. The more I did it, the more I felt like an impostor, the more guilt I carried — and the more I worried that I would get caught. But I kept doing it. I needed to live and survive on my own, and I decided this was the way.”
  • “I was paying state and federal taxes, but I was using an invalid Social Security card and writing false information on my employment forms. But that seemed better than depending on my grandparents or on Pat, Rich and Jim — or returning to a country I barely remembered. I convinced myself all would be O.K. if I lived up to the qualities of a ‘citizen’: hard work, self-reliance, love of my country.”

Earning one’s citizenship, opting for independence over dependence, loving one’s adopted country – these are moving reasons to support citizenship for people who arrive here illegally as children.

This is the language of someone making his case, not just telling his story.

The journalism that Vargas leaves in his wake likely will be more difficult to practice. In getting sources to talk to them, reporters often have to pass through a gauntlet of suspicious questions meant to ferret out bias. Now, as NAHJ President Michele Salcedo said Thursday, newsrooms will have to prove their bona fides by proving that all their reporters are legal citizens.

There’s already a long list of people who have committed journalistic malpractice, and while Vargas doesn’t seem to be one of them, that won’t keep people from using this to question journalists’ credibility.

Absurd, yes. But not all challenges to journalism are purely rational.

The saddest, most un-American part of Vargas’ story is that it would have been easier for him to live in the U.S. if he took a low-level job. His ambition for jobs that are held in higher esteem – and held to a higher degree of scrutiny – meant that if he wanted to break down the glass wall separating him from others in the newsroom, he had to lie.

People lie when they judge that the cost of dishonesty is lower than the cost of telling the truth. Some people have a low threshold for the pain of honesty so they frequently lie. Others have a high threshold and are usually truthful.

I wish I had a better sense of Vargas’ threshold. What I do know is that when the cost of telling the truth would have jeopardized his life and his career as a journalist, he wasn’t willing to pay that price. Now, in starting an organization to advocate for immigration reform, he has decided that truth-telling is worth the risk.

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  • Poynter

    @facebook-545153827:disqus A couple thoughts in response:

    I think the voting issue is relevant because he’s not simply a foreigner; he is living as if he’s a citizen. He checked the “citizen” box on employment papers, for instance. He talks about this being his country. And he covered presidential campaigns. Yet he can’t vote. As a reporter I would ask about this to find out if he ever registered or voted and then, assuming he didn’t, whether he was particularly affected by the disconnect between posing as a citizen & covering an election.

    I agree that the Times story is a very different kind of journalism from his work for the newspapers. In this case, considering the subject matter and his activism, I think a reported story by a third person could have presented a fuller and less problematic picture. However, I also see that it may have been less powerful.

    Steve Myers

  • Anonymous

    I can’t point to any specific story, other than the one published in the Times, because that’s the only one that I have read. But, so far, he’s batting 1.000 when it comes to being less than truthful. Due respect, but it’s ridiculous to say that that story doesn’t count. C’mon.

    Have you read his stories on immigration? Can you say that he hasn’t fudged or distorted things? If so, how can you be confident? Keep in mind that it is nigh impossible to know that something has been distorted or left out or inappropriately played up unless you have direct knowledge of the subject/story. It is also well-known that one man’s fair, impartial article is another man’s hatchet job. That’s why it is so critical to have journalists who can’t be accused of having axes in their hands. I wouldn’t trust an illegal alien to write objectively about immigration policy, if for no other reason than to do so erodes public trust. Cover a city council meeting, a house fire, a shooting, fine. But not immigration–unless you are transparent and disclose that you are an illegal alien, which obviously was not possible in this case. And so I’m back to where I started: He should have begged off those stories. It doesn’t help matters that, according to the ombudsman, his colleagues at the Post didn’t trust him and that he needed a lot of attention from editors. That raises some red flags in my mind, but, unfortunately, the ombudsman did not give us sufficient details to form reasoned judgments, which is disappointing.All this said, tell you what let’s do: You find me a dozen or so stories he’s written on immigration issues and I’ll critique them.

    Finally, you did not respond to my request that reporters often misrepresent themselves. That’s a serious charge. In all fairness, please tell me what publications (other than the National Enquirer and papers of that ilk) allow journalists to misrepresent themselves. It would be nice if you could also provide examples of journalists misrepresenting themselves and such misrepresentation being viewed as OK. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Here, the Wash Post Ombusdman writes about Vargas and his conduct in the newsroom:  He left behind a reputation in The Post’s newsroom
    for being tenacious and talented but also for being a relentless
    self-promoter whom many colleagues didn’t trust. Editors said that he
    needed direction, coaching and constant watching.

    OK, this is the kind of discussion I’d like to see, but as you may notice, his behavior doesn’t seem to have anything to do with his immigration status. “Relentless self-promoter” can be said of many journalists I know, all of them perfectly “documented.”

  • Anonymous

    Again, how were the stories that Vargas wrote in any way distorted by his immigration status? You are not answering the question. Instead, you continue to refer to Vargas status as “illegal” “undocumented” whatever-you-want-to-call-it immigrant as the mere cause of his journalistic qualities. It’s been mentioned by Julie Mercer that “undocumented” vs. “illegal” is tangential to the discussion. So, setting aside his status in this country, how did that affect his REPORTING? Once he was in the country illegally, it was obvious that everything else he did would be done to try to cover it: his obtaining a drivers’ license fraudulently, etc. HOW DID THAT AFFECT HIS REPORTING? Not the writing of his own story, his day-to-day reporting? You keep bringing up the fact that he lied to the Wash Post about how he got a driver’s license. That’s not an example of his reporting, that’s a story he wrote about himself. Not the same.

    I suspect the conversation we’re having is not about Vargas journalistic skills, but his legal status, and once you’ve determined that the great sin of having been shipped to his country illegally (without his knowledge) is paramount, nothing anybody tells you will convince you that his work had little to do with his immigrant status.  The language you use (“please, let’s not call it undocumented”) speaks volumes to that).

  • Anonymous

    “Undocumented” vs “illegal” is tangential to what’s important here in terms of journalistic ethics. Apologies for bringing it up. 

  • Julieamercer

    Thank you for pointing out that the term “illegal alien” is the official nomenclature of ICE.  Some defenders of illegals attempt to point to the term as derogatory when, in fact, it is the term used by professional law enforcement officials throughout the system and has no derogatory intention.

  • Anonymous

    “Reporters who work undercover often have to misrepresent themselves?”

    What publication, or publications, are you talking about? No publication I ever worked for would allow a reporter to misrepresent himself or herself (see Food Lion)–or work “undercover” (whatever that means). It’s pretty much the first, or close to the first, paragraph in the code of ethics.

    Here’s how Vargas’ legal status affected his work as a journalist: He had skin in the game, and he didn’t disclose it.  That’s Point A, and you really don’t have to go any further than that. Whether he did it 650 times, ten times or one time is irrelevant. Point B is, when he purported to write a tell-all about his life as an illegal alien working as a journalist (please, let’s not call it “undocumented”–I’m a “resident alien” in the nomenclature of ICE and proud of it), he left out a part about illegally obtaining a driver’s license. It was a key omission caught during fact-checking which may, or may not, have contributed to the Post spiking the story. When confronted, he said that he did it on the advice of his lawyer. That’s a slam-dunk example of how his legal status affected his reporting: I didn’t tell the full truth because a lawyer who is helping me deal with my immigration status told me to leave it out, and I listened to my legal advocate instead of fulfilling my duty to readers.

  • Anonymous

    The federal court ruling nullifying Proposition 8′s ban on gay marriage will stand for now, a judge decided June 14.

    U.S. District Judge James Ware said the argument
    from the proponents – that the ruling judge should have disclosed that
    he is gay and in a long-term relationship – was invalid.
    Read more:, a court ruling stands even though foes claimed the ruling should have been overturned because the judge failed to disclose his private life. Again, how does Vargas immigrant status affect his reporting?

  • Anonymous

    Vargas wrote about 650 stories, and only about 10 about immigration — less than 2 percent. How does that make him an advocate? He only became one recently, after revealing his status — he wasn’t one before. Yes, he’ll use his first person account to further a cause, but that’s often the case with first person accounts.  His work as a journalist — if he returns to the profession — will be viewed through the lens of his legal status, no doubt about that. But we’re not talking about that here, we’re talking about the work he’s done. Reporters who work undercover often have to misrepresent themselves. Does that mean their reporting is any less valid? How exactly was his past reporting affected by his legal status? How many people did he smear? How many lies appeared in print?  If you work in journalism, you know very well a reader will demand a correction faster than the ink takes to dry if you make a mistake. It always fascinated me how long it took for Jason Blair to be discovered, but to my knowledge, nobody has come forward to say Vargas printed a bunch of lies, lifted stories from other journalists. That’s what we’re talking about here, how did his legal status affected his reporting, his work as a journalist? I still don’t see the connection. 

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, I just don’t think you can excuse Vargas’ behavior with moral relativism. 

    Sure, every reporter is human, and sure, nobody can claim 100% objectivity on all subjects, but most of us don’t routinely lie and break laws in the practice of our craft. 

    And how do you excuse the fact that Vargas, who wrote several articles about immigration, is now hyping (and soliciting contributions for) an immigration reform organization called Define American? That’s not much different from a financial columnist writing about the advantages of buying gold — then quitting the profession to join a company that specializes in gold sales. 

  • Anonymous

    But Vargas’ transgression doesn’t solely involve his illegal immigration status. As this story notes, Vargas also “[told] a series of lies and [broke] a series of laws.” That flies directly in the face of his credibility and that of his employer(s), which isn’t exactly a good thing in this era of widespread media distrust. 

    Moreover, we now know that Vargas wrote several articles on the very subject that’s at the heart of his dishonest behavior: immigration. That’s kind of like discovering that Anthony Weiner did an op-ed piece on sexting.

    However, what really puts it in context is Vargas’ latest effort: He’s spearheading a group called Define American, and if you go to its Web site, you’ll notice a big “DONATE” button at the top of the page. 

    Obviously, Vargas isn’t even pretending to be a journalist anymore. But one could argue that he used his former profession, via his article in New York Times Magazine and subsequent national interviews, to garner free publicity for his cause. 

    So there’s the difference you wondered about: The vast majority of people who get speeding tickets don’t form organizations dedicated to the elimination of traffic laws. 

  • Alfredo Santana

    I’m getting tired of all these “canons of journalism” that supersede basic needs to hold, and keep a job, doing recent reporting for the readers, and not for the editors. Although I don’t support lies that lead someone to keep a well-paid job, I support honest journalism, crafted for followers of print-media publications, a field that is suffering big in the age of digital communication.  

  • Anonymous

    I’m honestly having a hard time understanding why the big fuzz about Vargas immigration status and his abilities as a reporter. Are we pretending we know absolutely everything, every single detail about every reporter that ever walked on the Washington Post? Frankly, Jason Blair did a lot of damage to the profession, and he was also a bona fide U.S. citizen. Would Vargas stories be less valid if he had gone undercover to report about a company polluting the environment – and therefore, having to lie about his identity? Breaking the immigration law is a civil violation, but nobody ever gets questioned about receiving a speeding ticket (also a civil violation) and his or her ability to remain as a reporter. What’s the difference?

  • I am Balthazar

    If the story of Vargas as a journalist–not as an undocumented immigrant–compels the world of journalism to carefully scrutinize their workforce to ensure employing only those with unquestionable integrity then that itself is victory in journalism. I am an everyday person and that’s how I see it. 

  • Anonymous

    It is true we are all flawed human beings (or sinners, if you prefer). It’s a far different matter whether we are all violators of U.S. law or living an elaborate charade and lying to others about who we really are. I don’t think that’s the case.

  • Anonymous

    To Steve Myers: Your otherwise thoughtful piece is undermined by your studious use of the word “undocumented” and general avoidance of the word “illegal.” 

    I have no problem with alternating between the two, but the deliberate adherence to politically correct terms such as “undocumented” are — as you put it — “the language of someone making his case, not just telling his story.”

  • Anonymous

    Cindy, I can appreciate your sympathy for Vargas, but your post sounds more like the words of an “Oprah” guest than a journalist who cares about the future of our profession. Your rationalization — “Yes, they lie to stay here. I think you would, too.” — could be used to justify any transgression, large or small. 

    For instance: “Sure I plagiarized an obscure source to get an A on my final J-school project, but without that grade, I wouldn’t have graduated. I think you would have done the same.” 

    Or: “Sure I faked quotes and created imaginary sources, but I wound up getting an award for that story. I think you would have done the same.”

    Either laws and ethics matter in our profession or they don’t. And if they don’t, we might as well inform the American public that their increasing distrust of reporters is well founded, and that from now on, we’ll do whatever it takes, legal or otherwise, to get our news … and that the spirit of William Randolph Hearst is alive and well. 

    Even more troubling is your implication that writers who criticize Vargas are out of touch at best and bigots at worst. Your assumption that his critics work in a “segregated environment” with too few “journalists of color” strikes me as a subtle way of saying that most white journalists simply aren’t capable of covering minority issues with compassion, integrity and understanding. 

    But that kind of narrow thinking begets more narrow thinking: After all, if most journalists who AREN’T “of color” lack the qualifications to cover minority issues, does that mean journalists who ARE “of color” lack the qualifications to cover any story involving only white people?

    Of course, both premises are ridiculous. So how about if we all try to view our profession as more of a common calling and less of an “us vs. them”? 

    And how about if we treat that common calling with the respect it deserves — and realize that, as with modern medicine, our profession will only be trusted when we energetically purge our ranks of unethical practitioners.


  • Tom Grubisich

    If all journalists, including those whose forbears landed at Plymouth Rock, were subjected to the searching scrutiny that Steve Myers thinks Vargas should get, would any of them survive intact?  All journalists have beliefs, opinions, prejudices and pre-dispositions that may influence how they report a story. They have a husband, wife or partner and friends that may create the possibility of a real, as opposed to perceived, conflict of interest.  Journalists routinely select facts with which to build their stories and people whom to quote, and which quotes to use, based on what is swimming in their head, consciously or subconsciously or somewhere in-between.  They do this even as they may dutifully remind themselves to be “objective,” especially if they’re covering a controversial story.  Fortunately, the Web gives the public a better opportunity to make informed judgments about news coverage that’s produced by the very human beings that Vargas and every other journalist are and always will be.

  • Anonymous

    I’m used to the “open borders” advocates claiming certain ethnic groups (“La Raza,” etc.) have some sort of God-given birthright to violate our nation’s laws. But I believe this is the first time I’ve witnessed them claiming that a journalist, a supposed truthteller by profession, should be allowed to lie, or that his serial dishonesty furthers the greater good.
    I’ve come to the conclusion these zealots are so blinded by ethnic considerations and the privileges they believe certain ethnic groups are entitled to that they are bigots, pure and simple. They do not care about Americans as a whole, they care only about certain ethnic groups. We knew they advocated breaking the law to further these ethnic groups’ interests. Now we can see they advocate lying and dishonesty as well.
    As a news consumer, I can’t help wondering if similar “moles” are working illegally in other American newsrooms, covertly trying via their coverage to skew a a debate that by right, should be had by Americans and legal residents of our country alone. As a news consumer, I think I have the right to know if the person giving me the story is telling the truth or, like Mr. Vargas, engaging in lies and subterfuge.   

  • Anonymous

    It’s sad to see this turned into a contest between immigrant-bashing and justifying rank dishonesty. 

    Vargas may have meant well. But his excuses are total b.s. He damaged his cause, and more importantly, disrespected journalism. This is not about journalists of color. It’s not about “being closer to the story.” (Imagine how much more “personal and emotional” Watergate could have been, if only Nixon had written the account.) 

    I don’t support reducing people to “illegal aliens,” or encouraging racial profiling, and I would have been sympathetic to his plight. That is, before he did all this. 

    It’s a brutal economy. How many citizens could improve their odds by adding a Master’s degree or three to their resume? Vargas wants to pretend it’s all right to cut in line — because lying and screwing other people out of a job are the qualities of all U.S. citizens? Please. At least he’s doing the right thing now and getting out of journalism.

    This was a nuanced post. Parts of it seem too credulous, though. He’s decided to embrace “truth-telling” in his new work? You mean, like Jayson Blair did when he went into personal coaching?

  • Anonymous

    While not all lies are created equal, a pattern of lying by a journalist and failure to address obvious conflicts of interest, repeatedly, is not forgivable, in my view. Mr. Vargas could have begged off stories that presented conflicts–journalists do that all the time–with white lies (remember, not all lies are created equal) that didn’t disclose his illegal status. He did not, apparently, do that. Instead, he appears to have dived right in. He said he was going to come clean, but he lied via omission–and a key omission–when it was supposed to be tell-all. That’s the do-not-pass-go here, I think.

    I appreciate that Mr. Vargas may be a courageous man, but, given the pattern of lies–particularly regarding his concealment of the driver’s license situation in a supposedly coming-clean piece–should, I think, raise suspicions about whether he is doing this voluntarily or whether he is doing this because the jig was up in some way that we don’t know about. I think the NYT ombudsman has a fairly good track record, and I suspect, hope, that he’ll delve into this and provide more context.

    Full disclosure, I say this as a journalist who has a green card.

  • Julieamercer

    With all due respect, I think you meant it like you said it and decided to tone it down because you were called on it.  Why else would you choose such race-tinged terms like “segregated environments” and “journalists of color” in your original post?

    Sorry for the intensity of my reactions as you sound like a caring person but I have just about reached my limit of listening to the happy enablers of illegal aliens who disregard the immense damage they are inflicting on our nation.  I also have very little sympathy for people who make excuses for their selfish, criminal behavior and am looking very forward to the coming mandatory E-Verify laws coming down the federal pike. 

    I stumbled upon this website today and got an inside view of the impact illegal immigration is having on journalism and decided to jump in the fray and throw in my two cents. 

  • Cindy Rodriguez

    Julie, I am not intending to accuse anyone of racism. What I am suggesting is that because most newsrooms do not have many people like Vargas working for them, they are missing important stories because it’s not a part of their world. They’re not in touch with it. People who are closer to the story — or in the case of Vargas, actually living the story — understand the issues from a personal and emotional standpoint. 

  • Eduardo Romero

    A small and a large comment to Steve’s interesting take as well as a quibble on Vargas’ story:

    - You ask, “What was it like to cover a campaign knowing that you couldn’t participate in the democratic process?” This seems more a quaint question than a relevant one.  When you read US electoral coverage in FT or BBC, are you thinking of whether the reporter can vote or not? Are you suggesting they make this disclosure? Yes, it would be interesting to see how it is to cover a campaign unable to vote, just as it is interesting to learn more about doing journalism while unwilling to vote (like Len Downie) but nothing more than that.

    - Your essay lumps together Jose’s news articles in SFC and WaPo with his first-person essay (almost an op-ed) in the NYT mag.  They are both journalism, they both deserve their own type of scrutiny, but they are different styles.  You seem to pose an either/or proposition – asking for either an independently reported story or a first-person account.  Fortunately, many of the gaps you bring up have been covered by others.

    Here’s an additional quibble with Vargas’ story which rests on the accuracy of his memory.  He relates that when he was 12, his recollection of the Philippines was “a country I barely remembered.” I suppose a youth might not know a lot of his “country” particularly after the trauma of leaving in such a manner (he does write about asking his mother about that particular episode).  However, I was left wondering how good his memory was if he can’t remember much before he was twelve years of age.

  • Julieamercer

    What convoluted reasoning.  Not all lies are created equal?  What is that supposed to mean?  And your assumption that all of us would lie to stay here drips with slimy rationalization of his dishonest behavior.

    But the final straw is in your second-to-last paragraph where you suggest the main reason so many people are judging Vargas harshly is because of racism or prejudice.  How can you make such assertions without any evidence?  Why not let the facts speak for themselves?  Vargas is a habitual liar and confessed to as much.  To accuse people of racism because they question the veracity of his character and journalism is a cheap, cowardly way to defend your position.

  • kerry anderson

    This is not only a question of ethics in journalism but more significantly one of aiding and abetting lawlessness. Not only does this damage the credibility of every employer of this ILLEGAL ALIEN there are some major issues with collusion in a Federal felony. Vargas has also exposed the Attorney who advised him to disbarment.
    This is another episode that does a lot of damage to the already failing and biased Old Media.  

  • Cindy Rodriguez

    Vargas did not need to recuse himself from these stories. If anything, his immigration status gave him insight into the realities that a generation of youngsters, brought here as children, have to contend with.

    If you read his immigration stories, you’ll find that they are thorough and insightful. 

    The fact that Vargas came out, risking deportation, tells me he is a man of integrity. 

    We need to put this in perspective: Not all lies are created equal. 

    History provides the context: After slavery ended many iterations of exploitive hiring practices have been instituted, from indentured servitude to the Braceros program. The U.S. Labor Department has well been aware of the exploitive underground economy. That desperate people arrive here willing to work the most dangerous and dirty jobs speaks volumes about their vulnerability. Yes, they lie to stay here. I think you would, too. 

    But that does not make Vargas a liar prone to lying in other situations, as Jack Shafer has suggested, using what amounts to bad pop-psychology and a poorly thought out analogy to the infamous Janet Cooke.

    That so many writers pouncing on Vargas can’t extricate one from the other is troubling. I know where it comes from: working in segregated environments where there may be a handful of journalists of color.  

    I’d like to think that if our newsrooms weren’t so segregated we’d have a more contextualized conversation. 

  • Cindy Rodriguez

    Vargas did not need to recuse himself from these stories. If anything, his immigration status gave him insight into the realities that a generation of youngsters, brought here as children, have to contend with.

    If you read his immigration stories, you’ll find that they are thorough and insightful. 

    The fact that Vargas came out, risking deportation, tells me he is a man of integrity. 

    We need to put this in perspective: Not all lies are created equal. 

    History provides the context: After slavery ended many iterations of exploitive hiring practices have been instituted, from indentured servitude to the Braceros program. The U.S. Labor Department has well been aware of the exploitive underground economy. That desperate people arrive here willing to work the most dangerous and dirty jobs speaks volumes about their vulnerability. Yes, they lie to stay here. I think you would, too. 

    But that does not make Vargas a liar prone to lying in other situations, as Jack Shafer has suggested, using what amounts to bad pop-psychology and a poorly thought out analogy to the infamous Janet Cooke.

    That so many writers pouncing on Vargas can’t extricate one from the other is troubling. I know where it comes from: working in segregated environments where there may be a handful of journalists of color.  

    I’d like to think that if our newsrooms weren’t so segregated we’d have a more contextualized conversation. 

  • Julieamercer

    A person who habitually lies and deceives is a detriment to any profession–journalism or otherwise.  However, Vargas’ story smacks of all of the elements of lack of integrity that is, sadly, seen everywhere in journalism today.   If allowed to continue without serious course-correction, journalism will continue to slide into a pit of self-destruction as people will no longer give credence to the stories presented and will continue to search for credible sources of information on their own. 

  • Henry M. Lopez

    Thank you Steve for your reply and actions. I also have been deep in the trenches of community management and know the challenges.

    Henry M. Lopez

  • Poynter

    You’re right, Henry. I didn’t read the usernames on those comments; I’m well aware of the slur. We don’t allow hate speech, and I just deleted that comment because of the username. As for “nowayjose,” we allow people to use Disqus accounts. It affords a measure of anonymity, which isn’t ideal. But Disqus is the best solution we’ve found that enables some verification and is widely-used enough that it’s not onerous to comment.

    Steve Myers

  • Henry M. Lopez

    Mr Myers and to the Poynter Institute. As I look at the comments on this site, I see a username of nowayjose and sickofspics. Is this how ” focuses on journalism — how it’s done well, the challenges, and where it’s headed.”?

    If there’s a blind spot at work here, please, I hope it can be corrected. FYI “Spics” is a racial slur aimed at those of Hispanic ancestry.

  • Poynter

    Hello folks,

    Thanks for the comments so far. I’d like to keep the discussion here on the issues I’ve addressed in my story rather than the broad debate over immigration policy. There are many places to have the broader discussion, but focuses on journalism — how it’s done well, the challenges, and where it’s headed. So let’s try to talk about those issues.

    Thank you,
    Steve Myers

  • Anonymous

    As it stands now, Mr. Vargas is just another illegal alien who violated the law. The circumstances of his coming to the US and his family are conspicuously absent from the stories I’ve read so I reserve judgement on his motivation.

  • Anonymous

    No, I would say from the “journalism” I have read on this issue, Vargas is a triumph for journalism.  The majority of journalists cannot express the diffrence between an immigrant and an illegal alien.  Is Vargas above US law like the hispanics Obama wants to load on us for more than the $113 Billion illegals cost us annually.

  • Anonymous

    No, I would say from the “journalism” I have read on this issue, Vargas is a triumph for journalism.  The majority of journalists cannot express the diffrence between an immigrant and an illegal alien.  Is Vargas above US law like the hispanics Obama wants to load on us for more than the $113 Billion illegals cost us annually.