The Media Today

The shocking image from the border, and the lessons from Aylan Kurdi

June 26, 2019

Last week, the Associated Press detailed the inhumane conditions imposed on hundreds of migrant children at a US border facility in Clint, Texas, near El Paso. Other stories followed the AP’s coverage; the children, we were told, had gone weeks without a bath or clean clothes, slept on the floor, and taken care of each other after the Trump administration separated them from their parents. These details were shocking. But they were secondhand. As The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi noted yesterday, the government, as is common, blocked reporters from the facility; instead, lawyers who visited in order to monitor conditions fed their observations back to the press, which they don’t normally do. “We received reports from children of a lice outbreak in one of the cells where there were about twenty-five children,” Warren Binford, one of the attorneys, told The New Yorker. When a comb got lost, “Border Patrol agents got so mad that they took away the children’s blankets and mats.”

In recent days, similar testimonies have swelled in our media. Sometimes, however, it takes an image for a horrible truth to land with full impact. Yesterday, the AP shared a monstrous photo of a different—yet clearly related—tragedy at the opposite end of Texas’s border with Mexico. On Sunday, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, a migrant from El Salvador, and his daughter Valeria, not yet two years old, were swept away as they attempted to cross the Rio Grande. On Monday, Julia Le Duc, a journalist with La Jornada, a Mexican newspaper, photographed their bodies as they lay washed up on a river bank across from Brownsville; Valeria was bound to her father by his black shirt, her arm crooked around his neck.

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The image unleashed an immediate outpouring of emotion. On CNN, Don Lemon choked up as he talked about it. “That is what the immigration crisis looks like,” he said.

Commentators and major news outlets compared the image to the photo, taken in 2015, of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee whose body washed ashore in Turkey after he drowned trying to reach Europe. Politicians did likewise: “It’s our version of the Syrian photograph—of the three-year-old boy on the beach, dead. That’s what it is,” Joaquin Castro, a Democratic congressman from Texas, said. CNN, The Guardian, and others noted that the Kurdi image had a profound, galvanizing impact on the tenor of the migration debate in Europe. “It remains to be seen” whether the image from the Rio Grande “may have the same impact in focusing international attention on migration to the US,” the AP wrote.

There’s no question the Kurdi image resonated. It spread like wildfire on social media; by one estimate, 20 million people saw it in just 12 hours. Donations to refugees soared as politicians in multiple countries promised to work harder to resettle them. But did it actually change anything? One year on from Kurdi’s death, his aunt told the BBC that, in her view, following the initial shock, “everybody went back to business”; the same day, Patrick Kingsley—then The Guardian’s migration correspondent, now at The New York Timeswrote that “Small shifts in policy and discourse have proved to be temporary.” Donations and online interest dropped off. As migrants continued to come to Europe, politicians closed their borders, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that felt suspended post-Kurdi returned. Three years on, the BBC found migrant children living in horrifying conditions in camps in Greece; some as young as 10 had tried to kill themselves. “A photograph, no matter how emotionally wrenching, can only do so much,” Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, wrote for Quartz in 2016. “The fact is that there will be no sudden emotional tipping point triggering aggressive humanitarian intervention. Empathy is important, but not sufficient.”

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Of course, the situations in Central America and at the US border are different from what has happened in Syria and in Europe. But Slovic’s words ring loudly this morning, as do many of the details of Kurdi’s story and the inaction that came next. Children crammed into camps, children separated from their parents, and children washing up dead are all grim common threads. We cannot allow collective inaction to become another. Our job now is to apply pressure to those who have the power to take action, and to keep that pressure up for as long as it takes.

Below, more on the border:

  • Action and reaction: As outrage grew over the treatment of migrant children in the Clint facility, border officials started to move them out to reduce overcrowding. Yesterday, 100 of them were moved back in. Also yesterday, John Sanders, the acting head of Customs and Border Protection, said he would step down early next month. Later in the day, the House of Representatives approved $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid for the border—under strict conditions—in what the Times described as “the first action by Democrats to rein in President Trump’s immigration crackdown.” An alternative bill in the Senate has fewer strings attached, and is favored by the White House.
  • The ethics of the image: Different outlets treated the photo of Óscar and Valeria Martínez differently. Some (including CNN) showed it on their homepages; others appended graphic-content warnings to the tops of their stories. On Twitter, Philip Bump, of the Post, argued that the AP was wrong to use the photo as its share image on social media; “The glib response is ‘make people look,’ not ‘allow people not to,’” he wrote. In 2015, following Kurdi’s death, CJR’s Jack Murtha weighed the ethics of the question.
  • “The cruelty is the point”: Adam Serwer’s Atlantic essay from October is worth returning to. “President Trump and his supporters find community by rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear,” he wrote. CNN’s Lemon reinforced the point last night. “The cruelty is the feature, not the bug,” he said.

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Alexandria Villaseñor, a 14-year-old climate activist who participated in Extinction Rebellion’s protest outside the Times last week, explains while she’ll be striking against Fox News this Friday. “My fellow activists and I have decided that we must extend our climate strikes from our initial target—governments, with their power to implement different policies—to the news media, whose reporting shapes the public mood and therefore the potential public pressure against those governments,” she writes. In April, Villaseñor was among the guests as CJR and The Nation launched a project to improve climate coverage. You can watch the event here or read about it here.
  • The first Democratic presidential debates are nearly upon us. Tonight, 10 candidates including Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke will face off in Miami; tomorrow, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and seven others will take their turn. Both nights will air on NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo; the Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum previews their coverage plans. With so many candidates onstage, each will have limited time to grab the attention of the public and the press. The Post’s Margaret Sullivan hopes reporters will keep citizens’ needs front of mind: “Debate coverage that focuses heavily on the gaffe and the media moment won’t help them,” she writes.
  • Yesterday, the White House moved to replace Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the outgoing press secretary, and Bill Shine, its long-departed communications chief, with one person. Stephanie Grisham, a combative, long-serving Trump loyalist who currently runs comms for Melania Trump, will fill both roles and continue to serve the first lady. Per the Times, Grisham plans to revive “some version of a formalized news briefing.” (Where she’ll find the time is anyone’s guess.) On Monday, CJR’s Amanda Darrach reported from the controversial “not a party” White House correspondents threw for Sanders at a DC steakhouse. One reporter told Darrach, “Everybody has their issue with Sarah Sanders, but if you can’t have a drink with somebody, then all of civilization has broken down.”
  • In late May, during a surprise public appearance, Robert Mueller intimated that he did not want to testify before Congress; “the report is my testimony,” he said. House Democrats, however, had other ideas, and used subpoenas to get their way: last night, they announced that Mueller will testify publicly in back-to-back sessions before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on July 17. It’s not clear what Mueller will say beyond “read my report,” but we’ll all be watching anyway—which, of course, is exactly what the Democrats want.
  • Following weeks of turmoil at the NRA, production has finally ground to a halt at NRATV, the lobby group’s media arm. The channel is operated by Ackerman McQueen, the advertising agency that has fallen out spectacularly with NRA leadership; low traffic, high costs, and concerns about messaging contributed to the NRA’s decision to halt live programming, the Times’s Danny Hakim reports. NRATV may continue to air old content.
  • For CJR’s new print issue on journalism around the world, Paula Ramón reports on the “news abyss” in Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, have cracked down on independent media. Susana Ferreira profiles Anas Aremeyaw Anas, an undercover documentarian in Ghana who has never publicly shown his face. And E. Tammy Kim looks at South Korea’s disinformation problem.
  • Drama at the Times: David Barstow, who, along with Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner, won a Pulitzer for his astonishing reporting on Trump’s taxes, planned to ghostwrite a book with a source for the story. The arrangement would have been a violation of Times rules and Barstow ultimately did not follow through—but he did alienate his colleagues and “freak out” the source by exploring it, The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright reports.
  • And in yesterday’s newsletter, I noted a Financial Times report that Texas Monthly could soon be sold. Later in the day, that happened: Randa Duncan Williams, an investor based in Houston, acquired the magazine from a private-equity firm run by Paul Hobby. Like Hobby, Williams “comes from a legendary Texas family,” Texas Monthly writes.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.