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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Zuckerberg-backed Group Spins Immigration

A group with ties to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hijacks the credibility of news organizations in a misleading ad that supports a bipartisan immigration overhaul bill. The ad, featuring Sen. Marco Rubio, attributes several quotes to media outlets, but the quotes come from opinion pieces written by backers of the immigration bill.

Rubio is shown talking about the bipartisan bill, which he and seven other senators — the so-called “Gang of Eight” — introduced on April 16. Periodically, quotes attributed to news organizations are shown on screen. Several quotes that support a conservative position are attributed to the Washington Post — “border security on steroids,” “bold” and “very conservative” — but those come from a conservative columnist’s opinion pieces, not, as the ad implies, the newspaper’s editorial board or straight news stories.

The group behind the ad, Americans for a Conservative Direction, is part of Zuckerberg’s FWD.us, a nonprofit group formed to back policies important to the technology sector, which the website identifies as “comprehensive immigration reform and education reform.”

Americans for a Conservative Direction is pushing the bipartisan immigration bill to a conservative audience. Its GOP-studded board includes former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; Sally Bradshaw, a former chief of staff to then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Joel Kaplan, a deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush and now vice president of U.S. public policy at Facebook; Dan Senor, a former advisor to Rep. Paul Ryan during the presidential campaign; and Rob Jesmer, who was executive director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

According to Politico, the ad, which was launched April 23, was to air in six states — Rubio’s home state of Florida, as well as Texas, Utah, North Carolina, Iowa and Kentucky. But we saw the ad airing in Washington, D.C., on CNN. We have reached out to Americans for a Conservative Direction and FWD.us, but have not yet received a response.

The ad starts off by saying that “conservative leaders have a plan,” but the immigration bill is a bipartisan measure that has been criticized by many Republicans. The Washington Post editorial board warned that a “conservative backlash threatens immigration reform.”

Rubio, a tea party favorite, has faced criticism for pushing the bill, which would put in place various border security measures first, then allow those who came to the U.S. illegally to stay and eventually gain citizenship. They would have to “submit to and pass background checks, be fingerprinted, pay $2,000 in fines, pay taxes, prove gainful employment, prove they’ve had a physical presence in the U.S. since before 2012 and [go] to the back of the line, among other criteria,” according to the bill outline. After 10 years, those immigrants could then get a green card and three years later, apply for citizenship.

It’s true that some conservatives do support the legislation — it was introduced by four Republicans and four Democrats, after all, and the Republicans backing Americans for a Conservative Direction clearly are behind it. But the ad uses an old tactic to mislead voters: passing off the words of opinion writers as if they were used by reporters or news organizations.

Several quotes shown on screen in the ad, and attributed to the Washington Post, were used in online columns by Jennifer Rubin, whose pieces run under the title “Right Turn,” with the tagline: “Jennifer Rubin’s take from a conservative perspective.” It’s not the newspaper that made these statements about the immigration bill, but a columnist who is in favor of it. In a January 13 piece, Rubin called Rubio’s initial outline of an immigration plan, which he had explained in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “bold,” saying, “Now the challenge is to turn a bold proposal into action and legislation.” The ad simply shows on screen: ” ‘bold’ Washington Post, 1/13/2013.”

Similarly, the ad attributes the words “border security on steroids” to an April 16 Washington Post story. That was the headline on another Rubin piece — “Gang of 8 delivers border security on steroids” — in which she said, “The amount of detail on resources, metrics and timetables on border security is rather staggering. Unless the Dems plan to defy the law I don’t see how this isn’t a tremendous boost for the item that immigration reform opponents have been complaining about, a lack of border security.”

The words “very conservative,” which the ad also attributes to an April 16 Post article, are in another Rubin column, which says, “In essence, if you accept that you have to start somewhere and we have no capability to uproot 11 million people, this is a very conservative-friendly plan.”

The Post‘s editorial board does support the bill, but it did not use the words shown in the ad to describe the legislation. The paper’s editorial backing the immigration overhaul called it “sweeping,” “common sense” and “a milestone of pragmatism.” That’s not the same as saying it’s “very conservative” or “border security on steroids.” The editorial did express concern that the implementation of border security measures could block the movement toward the law’s provisions to enable immigrants here illegally to gain citizenship: “In practice, the risk is that immigration hawks will insist on unattainable, or unverifiable, benchmarks of security as a pretext to impede progress toward citizenship for illegal immigrants,” the Post editorial said.

The ad also attributes the phrase “tough line on immigration” to CNN on April 15. That’s the headline — “Rubio’s tough line on immigration makes sense” — on a column by CNN contributor Ruben Navarrette, who is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. The column ends with this note: “The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.”

So, if Americans for a Conservative Direction wanted to accurately attribute the “tough line” phrase, it would have listed Ruben Navarrette as the source, not CNN.

It’s another example of wrongly borrowing a news organization’s credibility.

The ad does correctly use a phrase from an article by McClatchy Newspapers. The ad claims McClatchy said “toughest immigration enforcement measures in the history of the United States.” And, indeed, an April 16 article, published before the bill was officially released, said: “The controversial proposal would grant most of the 11 million people here illegally a path to citizenship and give thousands of deported individuals a chance to return, but would also adopt some of the toughest immigration enforcement measures in the history of the United States.” One quibble: The ad leaves off the qualifier “some of.”

McClatchy published a second story after the bill had been unveiled, this piece painting the “toughest … enforcement measures” as more of an opinion from Rubio:

McClatchy, April 16: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another member of the Gang of Eight and a presumptive 2016 presidential hopeful, boasts the legislation has the toughest enforcement measures in American history.

But opponents, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., charge that the enforcement plan lacks teeth, prioritizes legalization ahead of border security and ultimately would not be enforced. Sessions fears a repeat of the failed efforts to improve border security in the 1986 immigration overhaul that led millions of immigrants to flood into the United States.

Still, the words used in the ad appear, as quoted, in the first McClatchy article. We were not able to find one other quote from the ad — “tough border triggers,” which the ad says appeared in an April 16 Washington Post story.

But in other instances, the ad hijacks the credibility of news organizations, failing to note that the words of praise for the bill are the opinions of columnists.

— Lori Robertson