Illegal immigrants are flooding your doorsteps with mail!
Today's Stu Bykofsky column in the Daily News is not only mean-spirited but contains a number of glaring factual errors. The entirely speculative premise of his column is that a guy in South Philly gets a lot of mail at his house addressed to other people who have Hispanic surnames. While this may seem like a small annoyance best resolved via the recycling bin, Bykofsky boldly conveys the suggestion that the government might place a lien on this guy's house because undocumented immigrants are tax dodgers not paying their fair share for the public benefits they greedily consume.
“He's frustrated and afraid that he may somehow get entangled in this, worried that he may open the mail to find a lien against his property.”
If a journalist quotes or paraphrases someone making a factually incorrect statement, he or she has the responsibility to provide context ― in this case, that context being that the suggestion made by the seemingly paranoid guy in South Philly is false.
“You don't get liens from mail for someone else,” says a bemused Irv Ackelsberg, a lawyer at Langer and Grogan. “The fact that someone gets a letter addressed to someone else does not put their house in jeopardy. It's sent the wrong person. It's kind of like calling the wrong number.”
“The way I read it, Stu didn't suggest anything,” says Daily News city editor Gar Joseph. “He simply reported what the victim feared could happen.”
David Lee Preston, the Daily News assistant city editor who edited the column, concedes potential journalistic shortcomings.
“Well, I think you're both right. How's that for a politically safe response? Gar is correct that Stu is merely reporting this man's fear, and Dan is correct that some more reporting might have informed readers about whether that fear is founded. Still, it's not always a columnist's job to fact-check every fear and sentiment, and I certainly wasn't going to hold the column to ask Stu to do this on a Sunday from his vacation in Florida.”
It doesn't, however, take a thoroughgoing fact check to smell something fishy here. And I think it's clear that journalists ― who New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane infamously referred to as “truth vigilantes” ― must offer factual context so that readers aren't misled. And yes, this rule even applies to Bykofsky ― who goes on to erroneously suggest that undocumented immigrants don't pay taxes:
“The good news, maybe, is that when Luis Cabrera Colon owes $645 in back taxes, that means that he was paid above the table, instead of under it. But when he vanishes into the woodwork, it produces the same end result - he works, but doesn't pay income tax.
But Luis will be treated — for free — at a local hospital if he gets sick. (Free to him, not to you.) If he has kids, they're in school — free — and maybe getting food stamps — free! — because Colon's low salary would qualify. (It's free to him, not to you.)”
Also false. Indeed, the very fact that these workers were paid over the table means they are paying Social Security taxes that they will likely never receive any benefit from. As Cox Newspapers recently reported, this amounts to billions of dollars every year. And then there's the the question of money being withheld from their wages, and the fact that they also pay sales tax and that part of the rent they pay to landlords eventually goes to property taxes.
“Hard to consider its factuality since it seems to be entirely speculation,” says Dennis Mulligan, executive director of the Nationalities Service Center. “And speculation built entirely on the simplistic and mistaken notion of immigrants not paying taxes but using public benefits. He begins with a conclusion and fits the 'facts' to justify the conclusion, although in this case there is only the 'fact' of this man receiving mail at his address involving people with 'Hispanic' names. In the absence of fact he has helpfully filled in most of the story with anti-immigrant guessing.”
The errors began in front of a South Philly rowhouse and were later amplified by Bykofsky. They should have been stopped by editors.
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