The ongoing difficulty of keeping attention on the border

When President Trump last month caved to public pressure and signed an executive order ending the separation of families at the US–Mexico border, his about-face was seen as a clear result of incessant media coverage of the policy. It was equally clear, however, that the order’s execution would demand continued, high-profile scrutiny. That felt like a tough ask for America’s news media. Maintaining intense coverage of an issue beyond an apparent tipping point has always been difficult. The whipsaw pace of the news cycle makes it doubly so.

The border story has clung tenaciously to headlines in recent days and weeks—at least compared to the routine, premature shelving of hot topics in the administration’s early days. While it’s rarely been top of the agenda, a good number of national reporters—as well as local ones in Texas and Arizona—have pressured government agencies to release more information on the number of children being detained without their parents, the facilities where they’re being held, and the timeline for reuniting them. While the authorities have not been very forthcoming, the story has been aided by the emergence of fresh news pegs—most notably tomorrow’s court-imposed deadline for returning children under five to their families, which the government may miss—and emotive footage as some infants have started to be taken back to their parents.

ICYMI: NPR deleted a tweet after making an embarrassing mistake

It’s hard, however, to escape the feeling that the spotlight has dimmed slightly on an ongoing human-rights crisis directly caused by the actions of the US government. Much of this feeling isn’t to do with coverage of the border itself, but rather the tenor of what’s dislodged it from the top of the news cycle. Speaking with Brian Stelter on CNN’s Reliable Sources yesterday, Vox Editor-at-Large Ezra Klein, for example, complained that the media over-indulged repetitive attacks emanating from Trump’s rally in Montana last Thursday. “Whenever Donald Trump wants to change a subject, he just sets up a rally and goes and says a bunch of crazy stuff,” Klein said. “What are we crowding out, when we let him decide what we cover?”

Klein’s suggestion that the media shouldn’t cover Trump’s rallies until they throw up new information seems unrealistic. It’s always been hard for the press to accept that Trump is a master at driving the news cycle. But if the alternative is blacking out the unprecedented words and behavior of a sitting president, then the public loses and Trump still wins—adding further grist to his anti-media narrative.

What the media can and should do is allocate resources proportionately and contextualize their reporting. Over the weekend, high-profile journalists like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Daily Beast Editor Noah Shachtman criticized The New York Times for its series of articles last week chronicling the supposed shunning of prominent Trump defender Alan Dershowitz on Martha’s Vineyard. A big organization like the Times clearly has the resources to cover a range of topics aggressively, and supposed liberal snubs of Dershowitz do tie into an interesting narrative on civility and political polarization in which the Times—and many other outlets—have invested. But Klein’s criticism persists: If coverage of Trump’s rallies, or Dershowitz, or the civility debate take attention away from the situation at the border, without overtly linking back to it, then clearly we miss something important.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

As this presidency has progressed, the media has got better at parsing an unceasing news cycle by synthesizing issues that may previously have been treated in isolation. With families at the border likely to remain separated for some time, that synthesis should continue. Over the weekend, viewers and readers were gripped by the ongoing rescue operation which has started to free 12 boys trapped in a Thai cave. While this story is starkly different from the border one, it’s legitimate to ask why the US government is sending assistance to reunite Thai families just weeks after forcibly separating migrant ones. As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch wrote in an astute column yesterday, these two groups of children have the same desire: “to get out alive from a grim situation that was no fault of their own.”

ICYMI: A 30-year-old mother from El Salvador gives her take on media coverage of child separation at the border

Below, more important stories from the border and beyond:

  • Darkened windows: A US defense contractor “detained dozens of immigrant children inside a vacant Phoenix office building with dark windows, no kitchen, and only a few toilets during three weeks of the Trump administration’s family separation effort,” according to Reveal and The Center for Investigative Reporting.
  • The judge “could hardly contain his unease”: The AP’s Astrid Galvan also had a moving report from Phoenix this weekend, as a one-year-old child went up for a hearing in front of an immigration judge.
  • Remembering Puerto Rico: In late May and early June, CJR’s Pete Vernon took the media to task for neglecting to cover important news related to the devastation Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico last year. A new study reporting a significantly heavier death toll than officially estimated, he wrote, took a backseat to a racist tweet by Roseanne Barr and the cancellation of her eponymous sitcom.
  • Still behind bars: Reuters issued another update on a largely forgotten media story that should generate more headlines than it does: the ongoing detention of its reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Myanmar.

Other notable stories

  • American Ninja Warrior and The Bachelorette will be interrupted at 9pm ET tonight by an altogether different kind of reality TV show: Trump’s live announcement of his Supreme Court pick. As with his unveiling of Neil Gorsuch last year, “White House aides have strict instructions to keep information under wraps so Trump himself can make the big reveal,” the AP’s Catherine Lucey and Zeke Miller report.
  • For The Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein reports on business journalists’ worsening relations with, and access to, the companies they cover. “Such is the sorry state of corporate media relations these days [that] even the prospect of a positive story can’t crack open the door to the executive suite,” he writes.
  • The Daily Dot is suing the NYPD for the concealed-carry permit applications of Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Eric Trump following the agency’s perfunctory denial of an initial freedom of information request, CJR’s Amanda Darrach reports.
  • Univision is considering selling off its Fusion Media Group properties including Gizmodo and Deadspin, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Shalini Ramachandran and Benjamin Mullin.
  • The New York Times’s Paul Mozur reports that the Chinese government is embracing facial recognition and artificial intelligence to build “a vast and unprecedented national surveillance system.” Writing for CJR in June, Kelsey Ables looked at how China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, is using AI to get more eyeballs on Communist Party propaganda.
  • The Post’s Margaret Sullivan talked with national security blogger Marcy Wheeler, who last week revealed that she reported a source to the FBI last year. Wheeler, who became a witness in Robert Mueller’s inquiry as a result, has declined to identify the source, but told Sullivan that while, “on its face, I broke one of the cardinal rules of journalism….what he was doing should cause a source to lose protection.”
  • And amazing stories continue to come out of the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, 10 days after a shooter broke in and killed five staffers. The Gazette’s Danielle Ohl writes that reporter Wendi Winters lost her life as she charged the attacker with a trash can and recycling bin—just weeks after receiving active shooter training at her church.

ICYMI: The White House revolving door spins, but don’t expect change

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.