Race Card

According to Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi, "It's the media's job to make sure and report the news, not to make sure everybody gets along."

Lucky thing, because when it comes to immigration, an increasing number of Coloradans are miles apart philosophically, and members of the media often get caught between competing ideologies. Take Harsanyi, whose reputation as the Post's conservative voice has been of little help to him in this instance, since those who lean rightward haven't come to a consensus on the subject. Many of Representative Tom Tancredo's supporters call for fences and mass deportation to combat what they see as full-scale insurrection, for example, while no less of a Republican than President George W. Bush prefers the implementation of so-called guest worker programs that would grant previously undocumented immigrants legal status on a temporary basis.

In a December 19, 2005, column, Harsanyi staked out a middle ground, endorsing a plan co-written by Parker's Helen Krieble (and praised by Governor Bill Owens) that would give private employers the right to disseminate guest-worker visas. His suggestion didn't go over well with hardliners, who shared their displeasure via a slew of letters he politely describes as "strongly worded." He got more of the same on January 5 after penning a column that derided efforts by state lawmakers (most of them Republicans) to score political touchdowns by means of immigration-related legislative proposals, even though most of these matters fall under federal jurisdiction. "What we're witnessing here is an arms race in pandering for the 2006 elections," he wrote. "And it's only going to get worse."

Such stances tend to exasperate those conservatives who want Harsanyi to walk in lockstep with them even as they fail to mollify open-border sympathizers who view him through their own array of biases. "It's perfectly legitimate to have a nuanced position on immigration," he insists. "But it's very difficult today."

Rocky Mountain News columnist Tina Griego faces a similar conundrum, albeit one that's rooted as much in ethnicity as in dogma. The reaction to "Let's Be Sensible About Illegal Immigration," a January 9 essay based in part on her observations of a protest at Centro Humanitario, a day-labor operation, is a case in point. She offered several sops to the Minutemen crowd in the column, declaring that "the border must be tightened as a matter of national security" and "the federal government must sanction employers who hire illegal immigrants." However, she also lobbied for policies that would "expand opportunities for foreign workers to come here legally" -- a position she knew would enrage certain readers. In the same piece, she wrote that "I could amuse myself by counting the number of times the letters to the editor contain the word 'hordes' and 'illegal invasion' followed by'but I'm not a racist/nativist/xenophobe'" -- yet at least one note she subsequently received was far less tactful. "Griego needs to get her biased mexican head out of her arm pit and realize the harm these illegals are doing to this country," an online correspondent announced. "Most American born mexicans I know HATE the illegals!!!"

Sorry, pal: Griego was born in New Mexico, not Old Mexico. But these distinctions don't make a big impact on zealots predisposed to judging books by their covers. "I'm Hispanic, and my politics are liberal," Griego allows. "So there's often a personal assumption: I'm a Griego, so therefore I'm Mexican, and therefore my allegiance lies with Mexican people. All of which is very simplistic." She understands, of course, that e-mailers don't constitute a genuine cross-section of her readership: "I usually hear from the angrier readers, the more frustrated ones. I have no way of measuring what the majority sentiment is out there." Still, she gets discouraged when stereotypes prevent her opinions from being objectively examined. For a percentage of her audience, she fears, "it doesn't really matter what I write, because it's so difficult to break down preconceived notions of what I'm going to say."

Channel 9 doesn't want to be labeled, either, but last year, the station handed immigration critics the perfect excuse to do so. In June, KHOW talk-show host Peter Boyles got his mitts on a memo about a planned installment of "LawLine 9," a phone-in segment in which attorneys would be available to help immigrants worried about deportation, among other things. Boyles, one of the area's most vocal immigration-reform advocates, urged his listeners to give 9News reps an earful about this service, and they did. In the end, "LawLine 9" went forward, but it was stripped of its most controversial elements.

For Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis, this publicity disaster was "an awakening about how confusing and how emotional this particular topic is at the moment." With these thoughts in mind, staffers came up with a scheme to stage and telecast a town hall meeting devoted entirely to immigration. "We thought it was time to educate," Dennis says.

The resulting program, Bordering on Reform, debuted on January 14 at the worst possible time -- the beginning of the Denver Broncos-New England Patriots playoff match-up. Dennis insists that the scheduling was entirely coincidental; the Reform slot had been picked the previous fall. Fortunately, the station screened the production again on January 21 and has placed more than two hours of unedited footage on its website,, giving more locals an opportunity to see the most ambitious and successful attempt to grapple with immigration undertaken by a Denver television station to date.

Not that striking the proper balance was easy. The station asked plenty of prominent political leaders to sit onstage at the University of Denver venue where the town hall took place, but four invited Democrats -- Senator Ken Salazar and Representatives John Salazar, Diana DeGette and Mark Udall -- were either too busy or too chicken to attend. Dennis doesn't hide her irritation over their absence. "I think it was incumbent on Representative DeGette and Senator Salazar, especially, to participate," she says. "Their reasons may be justifiable, but they're the decision-makers, and it didn't help the dialogue for them not to be there." Granted, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper turned up, but because he's beset by accusations from Boyles and others that his city serves as a de facto sanctuary for illegals, he spent a lot of his speaking time on the defensive. Hence, state representative Terrance Carroll, a fairly low-profile Dem, was pretty much on his own against Tancredo, Owens and former governor Richard Lamm, a prime backer of an anti-illegal-immigration ballot initiative put forward by a group called Defend Colorado Now.

Nevertheless, Reform managed to present a wide range of opinions anyhow, thanks to invited guests such as the Latin American Research and Service Agency's Polly Baca and Dr. Estevan Flores of the Latino/a Research and Policy Center. There wasn't much physical distance between these speakers and folks such as Defend Colorado Now's Fred Elbel, but everyone remained courteous throughout -- and if the several hundred audience members moaned, applauded or booed on occasion, they never got out of control. Much of the credit for the overall civility goes to reporter Adam Schrager, who served as the program's moderator in more ways than one. In Schrager's words, "It's a testament to these people that they were able to sit next to each other and talk about this issue in a respectful way to viewers who may have only heard the rhetoric before."

Reform's cool tone is hardly commonplace when it comes to the immigration debate. On his KHOW forum, Boyles comes right after those who don't agree with his borderline concerns -- and he does likewise to supporters who seem fueled by the sort of prejudice that, in his view, hurts the cause. "We have to be careful that we don't allow the Klan and people like that to get into this argument," he maintains. "I'm more afraid of them than I am of what might happen because of the illegals."

Boyles doesn't know if the media can help prevent immigration extremists from transforming violent disagreements into violence itself, but he certainly hopes so. "There are people who predict our future is rioting like we just witnessed in France," he says. "My prayer is, 'God, let's not let that be true.'"

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts