Donald Trump’s presidency and business entanglements have been the subject of some truly excellent investigative reporting. Whether or not they have had much impact, mainstream fact-checkers have done a good job tracking and explaining the 5,000 “false or misleading claims” made by the president in his first 600 days in office, according to The Washington Post. Data journalists, by and large, seem to have grappled honestly with what they got right and wrong during the 2016 election. But much of the ostensibly neutral political press—cable news outlets especially—seems to have learned little from its catastrophic failure in 2016. With so much at stake on November 6, they’re failing us at the worst time
Last year, a study of 2016 presidential election coverage by researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society found that, while negative stories about both candidates dominated, the media consistently covered the issues Trump was running on—immigration, jobs, and trade—and just as consistently focused on Hillary Clinton’s scandals to the exclusion of her policy ideas. Whether it was blowing up a minor story about Clinton using her private e-mail address for government business—something Trump officials did when they got into office—or amplifying a baseless conspiracy theory about Clinton selling off America’s uranium in exchange for contributions to her charity, Trump called the tune, and the media played it.
But every utterance doesn’t deserve a segment on CNN. Producers, editors and reporters haven’t figured out how to curate the news coming from Trump, how to focus our attention on what’s important. Trump floods the zone with bullshit, they dutifully convey it, and we end up swimming in it. Every night, cable panelists dissect whatever nonsense Trump wants them to talk about, regardless of whether they support or oppose him. He’s still calling the shots, and creating controversy out of thin air. There’s no better example of that at present than the so-called “migrant caravan” down in Southern Mexico.
Several thousand refugees slowly making their way north from Central America towards our southern border are certainly a potent political symbol. As The Washington Post reported this week, “President Trump has settled on a strategy of fear—laced with falsehoods and racially tinged rhetoric—to help lift his party to victory in the coming midterms,” and the conservative-media version of the story is tailor-made to stoke racial anxiety among the Republican base. Meanwhile, the facts about our broken immigration system and the ongoing crisis of violence that grips Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua have been all but drowned out by the right-wing spin.
Consider a few facts about what’s actually happening. Arguably, the most important is that the asylum seekers are attempting to follow US laws, not violate them. They have a right, under both US and international law to present themselves at the border and apply for asylum. That is their intent. By law, they cannot apply from outside the country (one can apply for refugee status from abroad, which is a different process entirely). A well-established system is in place for processing those applications (around 90 percent of which are denied these days).
The number of asylum seekers coming to the United States has increased dramatically as the Trump regime has cracked down on both authorized and unauthorized immigration. As of March, there were 318,000 pending applications for asylum. Assuming that number remains the same today, in the unlikely event that all of the estimated 7,000 refugees arrive at our border in a month or two—“fear and police harassment have whittled down [their] numbers,” according to U.S. News and World Report—they would increase the number of asylum-seekers in the US by around one-fifth of 1 percent.
Virtually every news story refers to a “migrant caravan.” Anyone moving from one place to another can accurately be described as a “migrant,” but our laws treat refugees—people fleeing from violence or natural disaster—differently than those who want to come to the United States for work or school or love. Failing to communicate clearly that these refugees have every legal right to apply for asylum only plays into Trump’s hands. He claimed this week that “every time you see a Caravan, or people illegally coming, or attempting to come, into our Country illegally, think of and blame the Democrats for not giving us the votes to change our pathetic Immigration Laws!”
As of Thursday morning, CNN reported that the refugees were in Mapastepec, Mexico, about 80 miles north of the Guatemalan border and more than 1,000 miles from the United States. But even a Washington Post story about “false narratives about the migrant caravan” claimed that there’s a “brewing migrant crisis at the U.S. border.” That kind of florid language is common in such reports, despite the fact that, as Molly Molloy reported for The Guardian, “illegal border crossings have declined significantly from record highs in the early years of the 21st century.”
Headlines like “Mattis expected to send 800 more troops to help border authorities stop caravan” (CNN) and “Defense Secretary Mattis Will Send Some 800 U.S. Troops To Border With Mexico” (NPR) fail to convey the absurdity of this bit of security theater given that the refugees already plan to turn themselves in to Border Patrol upon arrival.
Even David Frum, The Atlantic’s reliably #NeverTrump conservative, fell for Trump’s narrative. In an embarrassingly under-researched piece this week, Frum wrote that the caravan was “a challenge to the integrity of U.S. borders.” He mentioned asylum claims in passing, but spent more time on how “illegal crossings of the southern border in 2018 have returned to their levels of 2016.” He concluded by harrumphing that “if liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals will not do.” How presenting oneself at the border to be processed by our government violates our borders or sovereignty remains a mystery. It was the intellectually polished version of a typical Trump tweet.
Frum wasn’t trying to help Trump. Neither are others who breathlessly report on the “migrant caravan” or our “crisis on the border,” or the reporters who dutifully chronicle every cockamamie thing he says at a rally. But unwittingly, they are. As long as neutral journalists continue to chase down every rabbit hole Trump digs, he’ll continue to play the news cycle like a virtuoso, and we’ll continue to be overwhelmed by it all.