The wild-eyed coverage of the caravan

October 29, 2018
Honduran migrants heading in a caravan to the US on October 25, 2018. (Photo by Guillermo Arias / AFP)

Donald Trump continues to thrill rallies with frightful tales of an impending “onslaught” of Central Americans at the Mexican border. “This will be the election of the caravan, the Kavanaughs,” he declared Saturday night in Murphysboro, Illinois, a few hours after a raging anti-Semite murdered 11 Jews in Pittsburgh.

Trump is more bully than pulpit. But during the past week the pulpit has an obvious purpose: to manufacture a “National Emergy,” as he tweeted October 22, and rile up his voters. “An assault on our country,” he also tweeted. This look-over-there diversion was not a notion that flew spontaneously into his head. The New York Times reported that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen began briefing Trump on the “caravan” days earlier. Trump needed rescue from the perverse impressions left from his embrace of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 percent accurate,” a senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast. “This is the play”—a play right out of the totalitarian playbook described by Hannah Arendt 67 years ago.

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Trump not only thrills his base crowds, he requisitions the TV cameras. He points and they gaze—at least until the next blinding news slithers into the frame. On social media, fraudulent videos help spice up the horror stories about the invaders. “Some bad people started that caravan,” Trump said on October 20. “More importantly, or maybe almost as importantly, you have some very, very bad people in the caravan. . . tough criminal elements.” The AP chorused about an “army of migrants” and tweeted about “a ragtag army of the poor” until complaints convinced the news agency to back off. Trump upped the ante, tweeting that Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” citing no evidence. (There is none.) At a rally in Houston, as followers waved “FINISH THE WALL” signs, he knew whom to blame: “The Democrats have launched an assault on the sovereignty of our country. The crisis on our border right now as we speak is the sole result of Democrat laws and activist, Democrat judges.”

The cameras barely found room to fasten any responsibility on decades of US-supported Central American dictatorships—the failed states that promote misery and the gangs that fatten upon it—nor on the drought, probably worsened by global warming, that drives people into a thousand-mile exodus in hope of refuge northward. Soon enough, at an Oval Office event, Trump sort of retracted the bit about  “unknown Middle Easterners”: “There’s no proof of anything, but they could very well be,” declaring that the Border Patrol has “intercepted wonderful people from the Middle East, and they’ve intercepted bad ones.” Without citing any of the “very good information” he claimed to know, he charged that Democrats “maybe…made a bad mistake” by backing the caravan. “Could very well be” is, of course, a standard rhetorical move for promoting a meme contrary to fact.

And Trump has help. He sounds alarms and national TV plugs in the loudspeakers, even as mainstream networks muted the panic button with sympathetic comments about Honduran and other migrants. PBS NewsHour, to its credit, called them “less of a caravan and more of an exodus.” Still, ABC News couldn’t restrain itself from trumpeting “caravan crisis” in a graphic, and, as Margaret Sullivan wrote in the Post, also pumped “classic false-equivalency” into a chyron that read: “Both sides seizing on immigration as mid-term nears.”

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Unsurprisingly, no one sounded louder alarms than Fox News. On October 24, reporter Griff Jenkins checked in from the Rio Grande in McAllen, Texas, whispering as he crouched “in the bushes in wait” as Central Americans tried to make their way across the river in boats. Jenkins shouted at one family (in English), “Excuse me, sir, were you trying to cross into America illegally?” While no answer was heard, and the group headed back to the Mexican shore, Fox News’s chyron read: “GRIFF FOILS ILLEGALS’ ATTEMPT TO CROSS BORDER.” “We busted one of those smuggling operations,” Jenkins bragged.

Later, Jenkins repeated his question about illegal crossing to one of the women he had proudly “foiled,” who answered that she was fleeing Honduras because “you cannot get work there because the criminals will always get the money.” The chyron read: “ILLEGAL ADMITS TO KNOWINGLY BREAKING THE LAW.”

Trump’s cynicism was and is undeniable. So was and is his intent: to stampede his fanatics to the polls. Does it work? Who knows? Maybe not. David Weigel knowledgeably surmised in the Post on October 25 that, outside Washington and New York,

to the surprise of strategists and despite assertions by the president and his political team that the caravan is a game-changer, it’s not. One week after the president first tweeted about the caravan, images from Mexico have not appeared in any swing race campaign ads—not even to replace the usual B-roll of people climbing the border fence….Newspapers and local television stations outside Washington, which covered the president’s reaction to the caravan, have not followed the caravan itself as breathlessly as national and conservative media. Democratic strategists acknowledged that the first images of the migrant caravan made them worry. But neither side has seen movement in polling this week, nor has either side seen voters elevating “immigration” as their top issue.

If Trump’s pumped-up hysteria fails to turn the trick—at least in the polls and the calculations of campaign consultants—this speaks to a wave of common sense surging over our borders. No small thing. But the persistence of resistant minds, however necessary and heartening, does not get wild-eyed media off the hook. The good sense of much of the public—if Weigel is right—does not redound to the credit of the national media that jumped on his “onslaught” bandwagon. TV news surely must report the news about thousands of refugees whether they head for Mexico, Texas, or Italy. Let’s hear more, lots more, about why they join the exodus and set out to trek thousand-mile routes. Reporting, yes; panic buttons, no.

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Todd Gitlin , who chairs the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Communication based at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of 17 books, of which the next is a novel, The Opposition.