Aarti Shahani is a public service fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a writing fellow at Justice Strategies. She talked to Roberto Lovato (above), businessman, activist and founder of Presente.org, the face of the campaigns to demand Lou Dobbs’ ouster from CNN by Hispanic and pro-immigration activists. Here’s their conversation.
A.S.: Why did you go after Dobbs?
R.L.: To be clear, CNN was our target. Lou Dobbs was their 800-pound gorilla. We used him to get to (CNN/US President) Jon Klein. Dobbs was repudiated among colleagues and managers. Peers confirmed that he’s a volatile person. We assessed his vulnerability, and decided it was ripe.
We also looked at the market conditions. His ratings and CNN’s were both falling. Like any media company, CNN has to establish a beachhead in a mission-critical Hispanic market. It’s 50-million strong and growing. If you have a problem in the Latino market, you have a problem with your very future.
CNN’s gotten other threats of boycotts. None had delivered anything resembling a credible threat.
A.S.: What’s a credible threat?
R.L.: We didn’t call for a boycott. We made a strategic choice to tease out a contradiction. CNN was preparing the series “Latinos in America,” a major attempt to court [us]. We produced a YouTube video that contrasted Dobbs with its host Soledad O’Brien. We made it clear that we’re not targeting her.
Our video went viral. We had events in eighteen cities.
In the 2006, millions of immigrants marched for rights with their feet and defeated laws that wanted to put us in jail. We haven’t had wins since then. We went back to where people marched, in Denver, Miami, Oregon. Hundreds signed up via text messages after we talked on Spanish radio. Immigrants are incensed. They marched with their fingers, so to speak. We gathered 100,000 signatures online in just over a month. It stunned even us.
CNN knew what that meant. Klein says that Latinos had nothing to do with Dobbs’ departure. What do you expect? Power concedes nothing without a demand. It conceded our demand. Obviously CNN doesn’t want to encourage other activists.
The funny thing is, Dobbs left at an inopportune time. We began conversations with CNN advertisers and were planning a hemispheric press conference in ten Latin American countries.
A.S.: When I asked Newt Gingrich about your campaign at a public event last month, he said, “If we can get conservatives to petition for MSNBC to dump a couple of people, then I’m pretty happy to look at this petition for Lou Dobbs.” Are you surprised he didn’t run to Dobbs’ defense?
R.L.: A lot of people don’t like Dobbs. Funny thing is, the majority of people adversely impacted by him didn’t even know who he was. Our campaign got the word out to Spanish speakers.
A.S.: Dobbs called you a flea. How do you respond?
R.L.: Dobbs is a mouthpiece for the extreme right’s hate. Our campaign was as an act of love. I don’t care if people think that sounds touchy-feely. Strategy is nothing if not the spirit of one adversary taking on another. The combative spirit of Latinos was central to our calculations. We won’t take verbal violence that results in physical violence. We started and ended with love for ourselves.
A.S.: Didn’t you infringe on Dobbs’ right to free speech?
R.L.: Is it a legitimate business model to make money off hate? Dobbs himself started hiding behind the 1st amendment. Sure he can speak. But the Constitution doesn’t say anything about his right to a show on CNN. Even Ted Turner said in a 2008 interview that he would fire Dobbs immediately. There’s precedent on hate speech. Remember Don Imus?
Media hasn’t done serious coverage of media justice issues. We expected the reception context for our message in liberal editorial rooms to be unfavorable. We assumed we’d be racialized and interpreted not advantageously. Rather than whine and lament, we strategized. We got good, significant press coverage, even in mainstream national media.
A.S.: Nicco Mele, the cyber-organizing guru who ran Howard Dean’s online campaign, says “the internet is very powerful for anti-establishment underdogs and issues.” Now that Presente.org won, what’s next?
R.L.: A whole lot of listening. We’ve amassed a modicum of people power. Our mission is to build on it by hearing our base. We’re consciously celebrating our victory. It’s important for a people to stop and reflect. This is my first day of rest. I turned on CNN at 7 pm and there’s John King. Oh my god. What have we done?