The Media Today

The challenges of covering a shutdown marked by lies

January 7, 2019

As the partial shutdown of the federal government enters its 17th day, the end does not appear to be in sight. Over the weekend, negotiations between the White House and Congress failed to make progress, with President Trump’s insistence on $5.7 billion in border funding still the principal sticking point (unsurprisingly, the administration’s offer to build a “steel barrier” instead of a “concrete wall” has not washed with newly empowered House Democrats, who have blasted the whole enterprise as immoral). Shutdowns are always tricky stories for journalists, with complex technical negotiations often hiding behind political grandstanding. This shutdown—now the third-longest in US history—is even trickier, with lies, misleading statistics, and the volatile nature of Trump’s decision-making all thrown into the mix.

Away from shifting developments on the Hill, the worsening, real-world consequences of the shutdown have provided some solid ground for the press. Since the end of the holiday season, in particular, reporting has crystallized around the furloughed government employees struggling without pay, and the essential personnel who are having to work for free (CNN reported on Friday that hundreds of Transportation Security Administration officers called out sick last week, causing staffing problems at major airports). While national parks have remained open, most operations are suspended, a clear safety risk. And if the shutdown extends beyond the end of the month, 38 million Americans would see their food stamps restricted, and more than $140 billion in tax refunds would be at risk, according to The Washington Post.

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The politics of the situation, however, remain unusually fraught for news organizations, which have had to contend with a fresh barrage of misinformation emanating from the White House. While there’s nothing new in Trump and his surrogates lying to journalists, the problem has arguably intensified of late: Axios’s Mike Allen argues that Trump has committed “fake news recidivism” since announcing John Kelly’s ouster as chief of staff last month. The shutdown, as CNN’s Brian Stelter notes, has become a “fight over facts,” with the administration using a toxic cocktail of flaming immigration rhetoric and junk statistics to create a sense of national-security crisis to justify its planned border wall.

News outlets have called out the web of lies behind that picture. Differentiating himself, once again, from his boosterish network colleagues, Fox News’s Chris Wallace won plaudits yesterday for challenging Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, on her claim that thousands of terrorists are flooding into the US from Mexico. “I studied up on this,” Wallace told Sanders on air. “Do you know where those 4,000 people come, where they’re captured? Airports.” Reporters pointed out that most undocumented immigrants in the US in recent years passed into that status by overstaying visas, not by crossing the Mexican border.

As the shutdown continues, it’s vital that the press continues to bust Trump’s immigration fictions in a clear, consistent, and prominent way. While the stakes are always high with Trump’s lies, he raised them yesterday when he told reporters he might declare a national emergency to fund the wall. The consequences could be disastrous: in a piece for the latest issue of The Atlantic, Elizabeth Goitein, an expert on civil liberties and national security, writes that a state of emergency could give Trump sweeping legal powers across a range of policy areas. After Trump spoke yesterday, Goitein’s piece did the rounds among reporters on Twitter, and the mediasphere started seriously interrogating the hypotheticals. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos interviewed Rep. Adam Smith, the new Democratic chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who confirmed Trump’s emergency powers, but warned they would likely face an immediate court challenge.

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Speculation about Trump’s presidential prerogative and what he might do with it has added yet another layer of complexity to the shutdown story. As it progresses, journalists must continue to separate possibility from certainty and facts from lies, then weave it all together into a comprehensible picture. Many reporters have done that well so far—in particular by asking the president and his spokespeople whether the wall is really worth all the pain for out-of-pocket federal workers. But the shutdown beat may only just be getting started.

Below, more on the shutdown:

  • Rhetoric to reality: For The New York Times, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Peter Baker track how Trump’s wall went from easy campaign talking point to complicated policy conundrum. “As Mr. Trump began exploring a presidential run in 2014, his political advisers landed on the idea of a border wall as a mnemonic device of sorts,” they write, “a way to make sure their candidate—who hated reading from a script but loved boasting about himself and his talents as a builder—would remember to talk about getting tough on immigration.”
  • The real immigration crisis: The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer trains his attention on the administrative problems at the border. “There is an immigration crisis at the border—it’s just not the one the President keeps talking about. In the last half decade, while immigration at the US border has dropped significantly compared with earlier years, the profile of migrants has changed in ways that the US immigration system has never been designed to address,” Blitzer says. “The more the shutdown fight centers on the wall, the further away lawmakers get from the real policy problem.”
  • Going live? Late last week, CNN’s Oliver Darcy returned to the question of whether cable news networks should broadcast Trump’s remarks live. While his pronouncements are newsworthy, doing so, Darcy notes, “gives the president a platform to reach millions of people at once and dominate the conversation—and Trump often uses the opportunity to deceive viewers by peddling misinformation and falsehoods.”

Other notable stories:

  • Veteran producer Susan Zirinsky is replacing David Rhodes as president of CBS News, the LA Times’s David Battaglio reports. Zirinsky has pledged to improve workplace conditions at the beleaguered network, where sexual-misconduct scandals have recently taken down high-profile staffers Les Moonves, Jeff Fager, and Charlie Rose. When she starts in March, Zirinsky will become the first woman to lead CBS’s news division.
  • Senior executives at Facebook, including Mark Zuckerberg, are “fed up” with the Times’s aggressive reporting on the company, which they see as biased, NBC’s Dylan Byers reports. “The frustration was rekindled [last] week after the Times bought a sponsored post on Facebook to promote ‘a step-by-step guide to breaking up with’ Facebook and Instagram—a move sources likened to Facebook taking out an ad in the Times encouraging readers to cancel their subscriptions,” Byers writes.
  • The Post’s Paul Farhi asks whether there’s a problem with Paul Overberg, a Wall Street Journal data journalist, leading a homeowners’ association’s campaign against the expansion of a local mosque. While Overberg’s behavior is probably not a conflict of interest, it could be perceived as such, media-ethics experts tell Farhi.
  • In a Times op-ed, Judith Shulevitz takes issues with “morality clauses” in writers’ contracts with publishers. The clauses, which absolve publishers of their responsibilities to writers facing damaging scandals, have become more common in the #MeToo era, including at Condé Nast. The problem, Shulevitz argues, is that “immorality is a slippery concept. Publishers have little incentive to clarify what they mean by it, and the public is fickle in what it takes umbrage at.”
  • The Post’s James McAuley profiles Mehdi Meklat, an author, commentator, and star blogger for Libération, who fell from grace in France after journalists dug up anti-Semitic and homophobic tweets two years ago. “Meklat was a rare anointed commentator from the ‘banlieues,’ the multiethnic suburbs just outside the French capital that often feel worlds away,” McAuley reports. Now, as Meklat seeks redemption, he’s arguing that “second chances are rarely given to people of color.”
  • In Brazil, Sao Paulo Shimbun, a Japanese-language newspaper, has shuttered after 72 years of publication—a blow to the world’s largest Japanese expat community, the AP’s Victor Caivano reports. The paper “was a victim of declining sales, an aging readership and the internet,” Caivano writes. Meanwhile, CJR’s Mathew Ingram reports that The Internet Archive is backing up as many Brazilian websites as it can after far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration swelled fears of digital erasure.
  • After Emily Dugan, a reporter for BuzzFeed in the UK, published a leaked report that the government’s Ministry of Justice said didn’t exist, staff inside the department called her a “bitch” and “crazy” in internal correspondence. Dugan found out by filing a Freedom of Information request.
  • And in a bid to reduce its carbon footprint, Politiken, a leading newspaper in Denmark, has banned domestic air travel for its staff and will only send them on overseas flights when absolutely necessary, the AP reports. Flights that are taken will be offset by contributions to climate initiatives, while the paper’s travel section will focus on destinations that can easily be reached via public transport.

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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.