Trump, the press, and the politics of pain

July 12, 2019
Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

You can predict the scene already: a half dozen TV news crews surround a mother and her two children in one of the largest cities in America. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers force the family into vans, prying the children from their mother’s leg as they cry in anguish. All of it prepped and packaged in time for the Sunday night news.

The national immigrant roundup that is reported to take place this weekend is a wretched, disturbing, cynical thing: a campaign event for the re-election of Donald Trump, aimed at generating a highlight reel for the fringiest edges of his base. That woman and her kids will be rendered as PR props for Team Trump, the same as red MAGA hats and chants of “Lock her up!” 

It is telling that, twice now, word of an immigration crackdown has “leaked” to the press in advance. The first time, last December, it was used as a negotiating ploy with Democrats in the hope of landing on an immigration compromise suitable to Trump’s fans. The Art of the Deal as applied to unaccompanied minors. This time, with no deal at hand, the early leaks, which came on Thursday, seemed like a memo to TV assignment desks: call people in from their summer homes, prep the satellite trucks, and get ready to shuffle the story list on the A-block—bumping Jeffrey Epstein (not a good look for the administration, given the connections) and women’s soccer (ditto, since the winning World Cup team has made Trump look like a loser). If Trump knows anything at all, it’s how to play the media, and he’s well-trained at applying his expertise to the lives of immigrant families, who are now living in terror. 

ICYMI: When the US-Mexico border is local news

Unfortunately, for a press corps engineered to serve up heart-pulling melodramas, all of this will likely prove too juicy to ignore. We’ll watch the horror show, and then we will be subject to panel discussions about the latest partisan “controversy,” with Trump strolling out jut-jawed to declare his toughness on the border, while Democrats and human rights activists loudly protest the raids as immoral and unjustified. Who’s in the right?, the media will ask. Who knows?

The political press is struggling. The story of the border crisis is one that Trump created—he attacked immigrants from the start of his campaign, and in January 2018 he began talking about “the illegal immigration crisis” as an acute problem that his administration would tackle using a zero-tolerance approach that meant separating families. Since then, the story of the “border crisis” has come to have quite real effects; by June of last year, hundreds of children were being pulled from their parents and the policy had grown so unpopular that Trump was forced to sign an executive order ending it. By 2019, still more people were crossing into the US from Mexico—in May, 132,887 migrants were apprehended by Border Patrol—and, as Vox put it: “There really is something unprecedented—and deadly—happening at the US-Mexico border right now. But the threat is to migrants themselves.” The immigration crisis in America is not that people are streaming in illegally—crossings are still well below the high of 1.6 million people, in 2000—it’s that people are being apprehended and then housed in taxpayer-funded hellholes. The manufactured campaign crisis has become a real humanitarian one.

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This presents the same problem inherent in covering so many of Trump’s provocations, from the standoffs with Iran and North Korea to the looming trade war with China: all of these challenges are real, and potentially epochal, yet all have ways been stoked and embellished to serve the political needs of a very insecure president. How do you cover a story that is playing out mainly so that Trump can win kudos from Fox & Friends, while also taking seriously its complex, often dire, consequences?

What makes this all so difficult for reporters is that Trump’s actions can not be dismissed as media gambits; the drama unfolding merits urgent attention. Odds are that there will be even more pain as a result of Sunday’s raids. Journalism’s job must be to frame the immigration crackdown as a campaign event—not a policy response—that claims lives as collateral damage. Trump’s manipulation of a crisis is the point. That is the heartbreaking story that needs to be told.

THE KICKER: Fear at the border

Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.