Link Ch. 14 – Jose Vargas, immigration, and journalistic truth telling

Former Washington Post reporter Jose Vargas is a successful young journalist.  He was part of a reporting team that won a Pulitzer for covering the Virginia Tech massacre, he wrote a well-regarded profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker, and he’s written for numerous outlets around the country, including the Post, the Huffington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

While all these things have been well known for some time, what has been a secret up until last week was that Vargas is an undocumented immigrant who entered the United States illegally from the Philippines.

He outed himself in a first-person article for the New York Times Magazine.  In it, he tells the story of how he came to the US as a 12-year-old boy to live with his grandparents in Silicon Valley.  He did not know that he had entered the country on forged papers until he took his supposed green card to the DMV at age 16 to get his drivers permit, and was told that his card was fake and that he should not come back again.

As he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Monday, Vargas was supposed to work shadow economy jobs until he could find an American citizen to marry and get a permanent residency permit that way.  Only one problem:  When Vargas was in high school, he came out publicly as being gay.  So while he was out of the closet as a gay male, he remained secretive about his immigration status.

Vargas initially offered his story to the Washington Post, but the paper turned him down. (Why is not entirely clear.)  So when the Post didn’t take it, Vargas offered the story to the New York Times Magazine, which jumped at the chance. The editors went so far as “tear up” the completed magazine and put the Vargas story on the cover.

The story of Vargas and his outing of himself has caused a fair amount of controversy in journalistic circles because Vargas has been lying about his immigration status for his entire adult life.  And lying is rather looked down on by journalists.  Phil Bronstein, who had hired Vargas to write for the Chronicle, writes that he felt duped by Vargas, especially since Vargas wrote about the experiences of undocumented workers without mentioning that he was one himself.  On the other hand, Bronstein hopes that Vargas’ story may lead to meaningful immigration reform:

But if he can come out, the force of his story – both good reaction and bad – and his project just might lubricate the politically tarred-up wheels of government and help craft sane immigration policy. If it has that effect, we should forgive him his lies.

You can hear more about Vargas‘ life and situation at the Define American web site he’s set up.

After writing about all of this, I’m left with this central ethical conflict:  A journalist lying about his or her identity is always troubling for any reason.  But if Vargas had not lied about who he was, he could not have been a reporter.  This is, at its core, the definition of an ethical problem.  Because ethics are all about what you do when no answer seems right, when all answers are problematic, when telling the whole truth stands in the way of telling any truth.

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One Response to Link Ch. 14 – Jose Vargas, immigration, and journalistic truth telling

  1. Chris Allen says:

    What you’re posing is the ancient ethical dilemma: do the ends justify the means? In 1977 the Chicago Sun Times (sorry, I can’t italicize) set up a bar called the Mirage Tavern to uncover corruption in Chicago politics. It produced a 25-part series the documented graft, bribery and abuses among building inspectors, health inspectors and other city officials. The Pulitizer board refused to award the paper an prize for reporting, saying that the false front, pretending that the bar was a legitimate business when in fact it was a sham to catch crooked officials, and using hidden cameras was in fact bad journalism. The paper had indeed uncovered dozens of crimes, but it had lied to do it. And in the process, the Sun Times had undermined the reputation of journalists just a little bit more.
    Vargas lied too. He’s a good journalist, and he’s written excellent stories. But he lied to get those stories. He said he was a U.S. citizen.
    I have sympathy for those in this country without documentation. But journalism is one of the bedrocks of a healthy democracy. He has now undermined the trust that we place in reporters. Did his status cause any conflict of interest? Who is to know? Did it affect the stories he chose to cover (when he had a choice)? Did it affect his decisions on the sources he talked to? Or the sources he avoided?
    Reporters don’t have to review whether they are Republican or Democrat; gay, straight, bi- or unsure; rich or poor; Catholic, Hindu or Muslim. Those things aren’t illegal and won’t get one thrown out of the country. Unfortunately, being an undocumented alien is, and that has deeper consequences.
    Jose Vargas lied. He lied to his bosses, he lied by omission to sources, he lied to the U.S. government and he lied to his readers. That makes his journalism at best questionable, and at worst, a lie as well. The ends do not justify the means; they seldom do.

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