Vargas still considers himself a journalist while advocating for immigration reform

In an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Jose Antonio Vargas discussed coming out as an undocumented immigrant, which he reveals in an essay for The New York Times Magazine. When NPR’s Michele Norris asked him if he still considers himself a journalist after forming a group to advocate for immigration reform, he said, “I am a journalist. I go to church every day; it’s journalism. It’s my church. It’s my religion.” In response to a question about whether he’ll benefit more from coming out than the immigrants he’s advocating for, he said, “As I move forward with this, I will certainly make sure that this does not just become the Jose Antonio Vargas show.” He also defends his journalism, saying no one has raised any questions about the 650 stories he’s written in his career. Selections from the interview below.

How Vargas reconciles his journalism with his activism:

Norris: “So you decided at one point that you were covering the story, but actually you were the story.”

Vargas: “Yeah. And I think all of us as journalists, you know, were trained to be objective, sort of. But you know, objectivity is a luxury. I’ve written enough stories, that I think they stand on their own, that no one can question the journalistic acumen, and the journalistic ethics, in them….”

Norris: “You’re a former journalist at this point, or do you still consider yourself to be a journalist? You’re an advocate, and it’s sort of hard to be both.”

Vargas: “That’s a very good question. I am a journalist. I go to church every day; it’s journalism. It’s my church. It’s my religion. It’s all I know how to do. It’s all I’ve known what to do. And what I’m hoping to do in the next few months, leading into the 2012 presidential campaign, is really to try to make sure we’re looking at this issue [immigration policy] as holistically as possible.”

On how coming out helps the cause of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.:

Norris: “As you know there are millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S., and tens of thousands of them could potentially be eligible for citizenship, or at least a path to citizenship, under the DREAM Act. Is doing what you’ve done the best way to help their cause?

“And I ask this with someone in mind. I was listening to AM radio this morning and I heard a caller who identified herself as an undocumented person – in fact she used the word ‘illegal’ to talk about her own self – and she said, this is going to make him – you, Jose Antonio Vargas – rich and famous. He’ll get a book contract, he’ll maybe even get a movie deal. She asked the question, ‘What about me, how does this help me?’ Does she have a point?”

Vargas: “She totally has a point, and this is totally about her. This much I promise you: As I move forward with this, I will certainly make sure that this does not just become the Jose Antonio Vargas show. The media’s going to try to do that, for the next few days and weeks. But as long as I’m doing this, I’m going to make sure this is not just about me.”

On whether being in the U.S. illegally raises questions about his work as a journalist:

Norris: “The media will also hit you with some sharp questions, put you under a very, very powerful microscope. And one of the things people wonder about is the sort of duality in your life – the lies that you had to tell. You’re coming out and writing this tell-all at the same time that you’re launching this group, Define American, that is pushing for the passage of the DREAM Act.

“When you were actually working as a journalist, in order to hold onto that position and that job, you had to tell a series of lies. And journalists are usually known as people who don’t take sides in controversial issues. They usually pursue the truth and explain the laws. In your case you broke the laws and avoided the truth. And some of your critics say that two words that are missing from your story so far are, ‘I’m sorry.’

Vargas: “…I am sorry for breaking the country’s laws – my country’s laws. I am no different from anybody else in that I wanted to live my life and I wanted to survive. And if I didn’t tell those lies, I couldn’t have gotten work and I couldn’t have survived. The hardest conflict for me has been, how can you live honestly with lies? …

“This idea that I’ve lived kind of a dual life: I have written 650 news articles, I’ve maybe had, maybe nine or 10 corrections in my entire career. I don’t think a single source, including Mark Zuckerberg who I profiled in The New Yorker or Al Gore who I profiled for Rolling Stone, have come forward and said, ‘Oh, I never said that.’ I have tried to do my job the best way that I could do it. And the work I think speaks for itself.”

In the full interview, which lasted more than 12 minutes, Vargas describes checking the the “citizen” box for the first time (at the San Francisco Chronicle), how his family has responded to his revelation and whether it will result in him being prosecuted or deported.

Meanwhile, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton wrote in a story published Friday afternoon saying that he doesn’t understand why the paper didn’t run Vargas’ story: “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.”

Pexton suggested the paper should have taken an additional step beyond publishing Vargas’ own account.

“But then do a second, rigorously reported news story that included answers to some of the outstanding questions that readers inevitably have:

“How did he come to work at The Post as an undocumented immigrant and get through the background check? Why did Perl decide to keep Vargas’s secret? Are there potential legal consequences for Perl or The Post Co.? And, more generally, is Vargas trustworthy as a journalist even though he covered up a key aspect of his life?

“I tried to find answers to some of these questions last week. Mainly I got no comment.

Previous coverage:

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  • Anonymous

    Here’s the e-mail I sent this morning to NPR’s Michele Norris:
    Michele, I greatly appreciated the interview with Jose Maria Vargas. But as a journalist I was caught up short by the comments you made below during the interview. There is a long history in the U.S. and in other countries of journalists who were advocates for social justice issues, as I’m sure you know. That’s not the model perhaps at NPR or the NY Times or the Washington Post but there continue to be outstanding journalists whose reports state a point of view based on the evidence they’ve found and on their personal values.
    So I object to your narrow definition of a journalist as someone who doesn’t take sides on controversial issues. Does that mean that journalists shouldn’t take sides when they report on slavery around the world, or violation of the rights of women or minorities, or wanton corporate destruction of the environment, or systematic abuse of the death penalty, or abuse and torture of detainees?
    Or do you think it’s only acceptable for journalists to take sides on an issue like slavery or women’s civil rights — or the legalization of undocumented young Americans — in retrospect, long after the political controversy is resolved and it’s safe to take a side? If you have time, I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks.

    –Harris Meyer
      Freelance journalist

  • Jan Shaw

    You are either an advocate or a journalist.  The difference is that the purpose of journalists is to seek fact-based truth so that readers are better informed.  The purpose of advocates is to convince people to believe in the advocates’ points of view.  

    So that’s the difference.  Mix in money — as in donations — and it adds an appearance of whoring journalism. 

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, Mr. Vargas, if journalism is your “church” and “religion,” then you’re about as faithful to yours as Jim Bakker was to his. 

    Still a journalist, you say? I’m not sure you ever were one. In any case, the Web site of your new amnesty reform organization has a big box at the top marked “DONATE.” What a nice way to continue practicing journalism.

    Your own words in the NPR interview say it all: “I think all of us as journalists, you know, were trained to be objective, sort of.” 

    Obviously you were also trained to be ethical and honest, sort of.

  • Anonymous

    High drama indeed from a self-confessed liar!  If he hadn’t lied, he
    couldn’t have survived, he claims.  Well, the obvious fact is that
    millions of people have and do survive in the Philippines.  But more to
    the root of the lie is that he never tried to get legal, so how can he
    know he wouldn’t have been able to survive if he hadn’t lied?  He never pursued legality
    and truthfulness.  Now there is a message! Here is someone who, at age 12  was sent from his native Philippines to the US to live with his citizen grandparents. He
    claims he was “raised” in this country. Really? At age 18, one is old
    enough to vote, join the military and 18 is generally considered the age of
    majority in the US. By 18, you are done being raised. So, 12 years
    being raised in the Philippines, and 6 years being raised in the US.  I
    think the guy is lying when he says he was raised in this country.

    He says he didn’t know he was here illegally until he was 16, when he
    applied for a driver’s permit. But the guy is an habitual liar. There is
    a good possibility he knew his green card was a fake, but figured it
    wouldn’t be recognized as such. But, giving him the benefit of the
    doubt, he didn’t ask his grandparents to help him get legal, did he? He
    finished school, went to college, lied about his status, sought
    employment, used fraudulent docs and signed false statement to secure
    employment on multiple occasions, lied to his employers, earned a good living, and hobnobbed
    with influential and powerful people. (He keeps reminding us of this last fact.)  He had the education, the money and the connections to
    secure legal status. But he never even tried!  He had to lie and use
    fraudulent docs to survive?  LIAR!  He had to lie and use fraudulent
    docs to live in the manner and style he preferred, without interruption or inconvenience.  Big difference!  How many of us get to live in the manner and style we would prefer? 

    His “dramatic” story does not disclose that he used fraudulent docs to obtain a drivers license, which he then used to buy airline tickets and board airplanes.  But WaPo discovered it when its editors were vetting his essay or facts.  ICE has been emasculated by Obama, so I’m not surprised they are giving him a pass on not just being an illegal alien, but also on the fraudulent docs and falsely claiming to be a US citizen. But my shock that he is getting a pass from Homeland Security on his violation of TSA rules, using fraudulent docs to board airplanes, shows I still have some naivete lurking inside me. How many US citizens would get a pass for gaming TSA?  The very special Vargas, however, will probably get a presidential pardon and a private Congressional bill conferring citizenship on him.  The illegal community and liberal press has already crowned this liar and fraud a hero, so who should be surprised?

    Am I the only one who thinks his “drama” (did you see the glossy pics of him the NYT put in a slideshow featuring this guy?) particularly coming on the heels of Morton’s announcement of ICE’s new non-enforcement police, is just a little too slick and contrived?  Frankly, I think Vargas’ “outing” of himself was a carefully orchestrated move, a slick presentation, artfully timed, of the “immigrant community” PR and lobby machine, with a scent of Luis Gutierrez lingering in the background. Now I have to wonder if foreign governments are helping to fund the “immigrant community” PR and lobby machine.  All the pieces fit nicely, and there is no down side for Vargas for his participation.  He’s making a mockery of our laws, is getting away with flipping off Homeland Security, has become the heroic darling of the illegal alien promoters crowd and the snobbish elite, and will probably make a bundle on the interviews, stories, and talk shows, not to mention a probable book and movie.  Who says crime doesn’t pay?

  • Dave Monat

    No comment about Vargas gaining access to the White House with fake Social Security card?  Hmmmm

    I guess it doesn’t matter any more.  The Secret Service doesn’t check SS#’s or else Obama wouldn’t be allowed in.