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.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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