The Media Today

Trump’s ‘theater of the absurd’ pitches up in El Paso

February 12, 2019

Yesterday, Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic governor, redeployed nearly 400 members of the National Guard away from his state’s border with Mexico, explicitly rebuking a “manufactured border crisis” and the Trump administration’s political “theater of the absurd.” Indeed, in recent months, Trump’s border rhetoric has become increasingly theatrical, conjuring a violent, lawless scene whose details often lean towards pure fantasy.

While Trump and the reporters who cover him often make general references to “the border,” specific sections of its 1,933-mile span have occasionally come into focus. Recently, El Paso, Texas, has taken center stage. Trump officials and boosters have long touted El Paso as proof that walls work, but it stuck with Trump as an example following his exchange, last month, with Ken Paxton, Texas’s Republican attorney general. During his State of the Union address last week, Trump said that El Paso “used to have extremely high rates of violent crime,” but now, “with a powerful barrier in place… is one of our safest cities.”

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This was not true. As the El Paso Times pointed out afterward, the crime rate in the city declined steeply long before the installation of border fencing in 2008 and 2009. Though the crime rate nudged up on either side of its construction, it has since dropped again. Local officials vocally called Trump out on his SOTU lie. Yesterday, as Trump prepared to visit El Paso, local politicians cited the president’s words as a threat to the city’s reputation as a cohesive, multiracial community. At a press conference, officials decried Trump’s falsehoods about their fence, while on CNN, Dee Margo, the city’s Republican mayor, called Trump’s SOTU remarks “erroneous” and “not correct.” Later on, Jake Tapper picked up on Margo’s remarks, telling his audience, “The president is lying to you to get his wall.”

At his El Paso rally last night, Trump doubled down on his border-security demands, flanked by banners that screamed “FINISH THE WALL.” According to the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale, Trump did not reiterate his falsehood about the city’s pre-fencing crime rate. Instead, Trump seemed preoccupied with his crowd size, claiming that the local fire department squeezed 10,000 of his supporters into a 6,500-capacity venue. (It did not.) Just across town, Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso native and former Congressman, held a rally of his own, where he announced, “We are not safe because of walls but in spite of walls.” Who was the bigger draw? Online, the debate raged all night.

Yesterday’s more important news occurred off-stage, in Washington, where House and Senate negotiators reportedly reached a deal on border funding one day after talks were said to have foundered. While details weren’t publicly announced, the package apparently offers $1.375 billion for physical barriers on the border—a total that falls far short of Trump’s requested $5.7 billion. It’s unclear if Trump will take legislators’ cue. Senior Republicans sound optimistic that he will. In El Paso, however, Trump was noncommittal. “I don’t even want to hear about it,” he told rally attendees in response to the news. And he told Fox’s Laura Ingraham he’d blown off a full status update to go onstage and do an interview with her. “It was between the deal and you, and I had to choose you,” he told her. “We’ll see what happens.”

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One thing is certain: if Trump does not sign off some sort of funding package before Friday, the federal government will shut down again. If it does, it will have severe, and very real, effects on federal employees and service-users. Amid all the theater, that’s worth thinking about.

Below, more from the “theater of the absurd”:

Other notable stories:

  • Another twist in the Bezos-Enquirer saga: In a scoop yesterday, The Wall Street Journal’s Julie Bykowicz and Lukas I. Alpert reported that the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., asked the Justice Department whether it should register as a foreign agent after it sought Saudi official input on a glossy magazine it produced about the kingdom. AMI previously sought Saudi financing, but denied that it had received any. According to Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo, meanwhile, AMI’s board has retained an outside firm to investigate its conduct toward Bezos, who last week accused the Enquirer of extortion.
  • Cliff Sims, the former White House aide whose recent tell-all, Team of Vipers, reportedly enraged Trump, is suing the president. Sims alleges that by continuing to enforce NDAs White House staffers signed with his presidential campaign, Trump is curtailing the First Amendment rights of public employees, The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni report. “The suit gets at the heart of what the president has attempted to be simultaneously over the last two years—both a private citizen and the holder of the highest office in the land,” Haberman tweeted.
  • CJR’s Alexandria Neason looks at The View From Somewhere, a new podcast in which Lewis Raven Wallace will explore the fraught history of journalistic objectivity. “A lot of great journalism in the United States and all over the world has been journalism that stood for something,” says Wallace, who was fired by American Public Media’s Marketplace in 2017 after he refused to delete a blog post questioning the value of traditional objectivity. “Standing up to power requires standing for something.”
  • Is Patch the future of local news? Recode’s Peter Kafka finds the network of 1,200 hyper-local news websites is turning a profit based on digital advertising. “On the other hand: If your idea of a local news operation involves a team of reporters and editors that can exhaustively cover your hometown, you will be disappointed with Patch, which usually assigns a single journalist to cover multiple towns,” Kafka writes. CJR discussed the Patch model over on Galley. You can join the debate here.
  • Staff at the Hartford Courant are pushing to unionize, and have asked owners Tribune (formerly known as tronc) to voluntarily recognize their efforts. Nearly 80 percent of eligible employees have signed on, NPR reports.
  • In Georgia, criminal charges have been filed against the press secretary of Atlanta’s former mayor for violating the state’s open records law. Jenna Garland is accused of holding up a request from Channel 2 Action News, a local TV station, because the sought-after records contained damaging information, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s J. Scott Trubey reports.
  • In France, a number of prominent male journalists have been outed as members of the Ligue du LOL, or the “LOL League,” a decade-old Facebook group used to coordinate online harassment of women and minorities, including other journalists. One member of the group faked a job interview with a female videographer, then uploaded the audio to Soundcloud. Read more from BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick in English, or Le Monde’s Corentin Lamy in French.
  • In the UK, an independent, government-commissioned report on the state of the media industry has concluded that public funding should be made available to rescue local journalism. The Cairncross review also recommended an investigation into tech giants’ ad dominance, and a new regulator to ensure their fair treatment of publishers.
  • While Gannett has rebuffed Digital First Media’s advances for now, Digital First’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, has already come for Gannett’s real estate, buying the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s downtown HQ through a subsidiary last year. Alden, which has a reputation for gutting papers’ editorial offerings, has also focused on “efficiently buying, selling, leasing and redeveloping newspapers’ offices and printing plants,” The Washington Post’s Jonathan O’Connell and Emma Brown report.

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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.