The Media World Is Deeply Conflicted Over This Vargas Story

Editors and critics ponder the fallout after Jose Vargas came out as an illegal immigrant

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Now that the news of Jose Antonio Vargas's immigration status has had a chance to settle in, it's time to consider the effect his confession in the New York Times Magazine yesterday will have on his former employers at the Washington Post. Vargas lied, out of necessity some say, to his bosses at the Post in order to keep his job and to continue to flourish as an award-winning news reporter. But he also pitched them first on his own story about his immigration status, and the Post reportedly spiked the story after much delay. Vargas conceded in his piece that he told editor Peter Perl of his status while he worked for the Post and Perl, apparently, told no one else. Slate's Jack Shafer suggested today that that detail could land the Post in some trouble. Immigration law, he writes, "slaps employers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants with legal sanctions and fines."

But as Politico's Keach Hagey found in his reporting, and the Post itself corroborated in a response today, it wasn't the fear of legal ramifications that kept the paper from running Vargas's story, it was the inherent distrust that Vargas's pattern of deception, made necessary by his legal status, sparked his Post employers. After discovering a "red flag" in Vargas's narrative, there was some "internal discussion about whether the newspaper was getting the full story from its former reporter," according to the Post's Paul Farhi. Adds Hagey in his Politico piece: "It's unlikely that the Post killed the story to keep [the Post's employment of an illegal immigrant] from coming to light, since Post editors knew that the story was the opening salvo of a media campaign Vargas is helping to launch that will press for a different conversation about illegal immigration--and that the story was likely to find a home somewhere else."

And it did. In The Times Magazine's Sixth Floor blog, editor Chris Sullentrop explained how as soon as Vargas pitched the story, editors considered "tearing up the book" for it -- that is, replacing predetermined content -- which they ultimately did. Peter Baker, a former Post colleague of Vargas's who now works at the Times Magazine, told Hagey, "the Times magazine guys looked at it and said, we definitely want to run this. This is what journalism is all about, putting a face on issues that are important in society.”

Vargas's critics say that because of his pattern of lying, he should be regarded as a dishonest journalist. Shafer emerged yesterday as an early and vocal critic of Vargas when he tweeted, "What's the difference between Janet Cooke and Jose Antonio Vargas? Both are liars, but different species of liar, right?" Shafer was referring to a former reporter for the Washington Post who returned her 1981 Pulitzer prize after the article she won it for, about an 8-year-old heroin addict, turned out to be a fake. Shafer received criticism on Twitter for the comparison, and today he expanded on it:

Like Janet Cooke, Vargas lied about who he was. Cooke would never have gotten her job at the Washington Post, would never have written "Jimmie's World," would never have won a Pulitzer Prize if she hadn't misrepresented herself on her résumé as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar. 


Likewise, Vargas would never have been hired by the Post had he told the paper the truth about his immigration status. I know the two lies aren't exactly analogous. Cooke told her lies to inflate her status, Vargas to normalize his. But the fact that Vargas lied about his noncompliance with what I (and others) consider to be an unjust law cannot be waved off. The trouble with habitual liars, 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.

While the Post itself hasn't made the comparison to Janet Cooke, it has registered its discomfort at the news of Vargas's immigration status. Here's a closer look at Paul Farhi's formal response in the Post to the Times Magazine story:

Given the subject — a reporter’s dishonesty about his personal life — The Post subjected Vargas’s story to an unusual degree of scrutiny. One red flag popped up during weeks of checking: Vargas hadn’t disclosed that he had replaced his expired Oregon driver’s license with a new one issued by Washington state (the license had enabled Vargas to pass airport security and to travel to distant work assignments). Vargas later conceded that he had withheld the information on the advice of his attorney. The disclosure set off internal discussion about whether the newspaper was getting the full story from its former reporter.

Over at the San Francisco Chronicle, editor Phil Bronstein wondered today if he had been "duped" when he hired Vargas in 2004 to do a story about illegal immigrants obtaining phony driver's licenses. "Jose lied to me and everyone else he worked for, and that's not kosher, especially in a profession where facts and, more elusively, the truth are considered valuable commodities." Bronstein, who said Perl would be the "roadkill" in this situation, got a little insight when he called Phil Bennett, a former Post managing editor, now managing editor at Frontline, who had worked with Vargas but not known his immigration status:
"I'm torn," Bennett said when I spoke with him a few days ago. "Honesty matters. But what Jose has done is courageous and I admire him for it."Jose is a hustler, what one friend called "a classic self-promoter" who wisely identified those who could and would help him. He had to be to maintain the life he did. He refers to the "underground railroad" of secret allies and assistance, but his was like a posh lounge car, not a grape field.

Bronstein winds up deciding that Vargas's "project just might lubricate the politically tarred-up wheels of government and help craft sane immigration policy," and that, "if it has that effect, we should forgive him his lies." Who knows, though, if other media figures are going to come to the same conclusion.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.