I liked ¡Ask a Mexican!, Gustavo Arellano’s column in SoCal’s OC Weekly, the moment I started reading it a few months ago. It’s funny, and I think it’s actually pretty valuable. There are a whole lot of white folks who, despite living in places like California or Texas, never really interact with Hispanics. When I read that our local weekly, the Observer, was going to be running the column, I was glad to hear it.
(The Observer, OC Weekly, and a host of other alt-weeklies are all owned by the same chain, Village Voice Media.)
But then I read this week’s column. (It’s not online that I can find.) It has a riff on the terms “illegal immigrants” and “undocumented workers”:
The Dallas Morning News stylebook reportedly requires its reporters to describe as “undocumented workers” the men and women you call “illegal.”
That’s curious, for a number of reasons. First, “reportedly” is a weasel word — does the DMN stylebook say that or not? It’s an easily checkable fact. Second, why in the world does a columnist in Orange County know or care about the stylebook of a Dallas newspaper?
And third, it’s just wrong. Since I write for the DMN, I happen to know what our stylebook says. The entry for “illegal immigrant” says: “Use this term to describe someone who is in the United States or another country illegally, either by entering without legal authorization or overstaying an entry visa…Avoid the euphemistic undocumented immigrant.”
In other words, the precise opposite of what the column claims.
It wouldn’t have been hard to check, either. Google News finds 186 stories in the DMN that use “illegal immigrants,” versus 17 that use “undocumented workers.”
Like I said, curious. But then I saw that lots of Village Voice Media alt-weeklies were making the same baseless claim via Gustavo’s column. Here’s the Nashville Scene’s version of Gustavo’s column:
The Tennessean stylebook reportedly requires its reporters to describe as “undocumented workers” the men and women you call “illegal.”
Here’s Kansas City’s alt-weekly, The Pitch:
The Kansas City Star stylebook reportedly requires its reporters to describe as “undocumented workers” the men and women you call illegal.
And the original version from the OC Weekly:
The Orange County Register stylebook reportedly requires its reporters to describe as “undocumented workers” the men and women you call “illegal.”
(I’m sure there are more, but most VVM web sites, like the Observer’s, just link to the OC Weekly’s version of the column instead of reproducing what ran locally.)
Needless to say, the idea that “illegal immigrant” is somehow banned from each of these newspapers is wrong. (OC Register: 53 stories with “illegal immigrants” according to Google News vs. 4 with “undocumented workers”; The Tennessean: 25 vs. 8; Kansas City Star: 221 vs. 49.)
What I’m assuming happened is that Gustavo wrote the column with the OC Register line, which was then sent out to sister papers. Recognizing that readers in Dallas/Nashville/wherever couldn’t care less about the OC Register’s stylebook, local editors changed the name of the newspaper to their city’s daily.
(Kudos to Phoenix New Times. According to Nexis, it’s the only VVM weekly to have run Gustavo’s column but edited out the false newspaper claim.)
At no point in this process did facts interfere. Alt weeklies have long been known for criticism of the local daily — sometimes legit, sometimes knee-jerk. I just hope they don’t start exporting the knee-jerk stuff to each other.