A recent edition of “West Wing Playbook”, a dishy White House-insider’s feature in Capitol Hill tip sheet Politico, ran a story captioned “A Doocy on the border”. It compared the similar styles of Fox News’ border reporter Bill Melugin and the outlet’s White House correspondent Peter Doocy — in unglowing terms. As if news reports that expose flaws in the administration’s immigration narrative is a bad thing.
A Brief History of Investigative Reporting. The media solutions company AllSides rates the media bias of news outlets, giving Politico a rating of “lean left”. That sounds about right to me, and I read all the congressional journals during my two stints as a House staffer.
In the past, the left-leaning press lionized dogged reporters, from CBS’s Edward R. Murrow — nemesis of Red-scare artist Sen. Joseph “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy (R-Wisc.) and presenter of the 1960 agricultural labor expose “Harvest of Shame” (which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may want to watch) — to the Washington Post’s duo of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose Watergate reporting brought down President Richard Nixon.
Not only were such journalists exalted in the left-leaning press, but they were also immortalized on the silver screen: Murrow in the 2005 movie Good Night, and Good Luck (six Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actor for David Strathairn as Murrow; no wins); and Woodward and Bernstein in the 1976 thriller All the President’s Men (eight Oscar nominations, four wins, including Jason Robards as Post editor Ben Bradlee for best supporting actor).
More recent was 2015’s “Spotlight”, described by IMDB as: “The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.” It won the Oscar for best picture, albeit in a weak year for nominees.
In their time, each of the reporters above was fighting against a popular and prevailing narrative, which is why they’re remembered. This point is seemingly lost on many in the left these days, and more than a few on the right, too. That said, they also had the luck or foresight to choose some unseemly targets.
Melugin and Doocy. I seriously doubt the Academy will be tossing statuettes at movies featuring the dogged efforts of Melugin or Doocy to uncover the truth of the Biden administration’s border policies circa 2022 10 years hence, but then I have been wrong before.
Doocy is a constant presence at White House press briefings, and his topic is often immigration, ranging from inconsistencies between the administration’s Covid-19 policies for illegal entrants and world-ranked tennis stars to border fence construction in Yuma, Ariz. Doocy is such a burr under the president’s bike saddle that Biden referred to him on a hot mike as “a stupid son of a b---h” in response to a question about inflation. Melugin’s reporting from the Southwest border often feeds directly into Doocy’s questioning, but it can go both ways. One such example was when Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre disputed Doocy’s claim that illegal migrants were just walking across the border.
In response, Melugin suggested that Jean-Pierre, President Biden, and Vice President Harris “should come down ... to Eagle Pass for one day. ... I don’t understand how they think they can understand border policy, immigration policy, what really happens down here without physically being down here.”
Notably, Melugin concluded that statement by admitting, “I didn’t understand it until I started covering it.” He joined the network in May 2021, about three months after Biden took office, and has largely been reporting from the U.S.-Mexico line ever since.
“West Wing Playbook”. With those facts in mind, I turn to the West Wing Playbook’s assessment of the two Fox News reporters. It begins:
There’s a tall Fox News reporter in his mid-30s with slicked back hair and an air of combative indignation who is getting under the skin of some people in JOE BIDEN’s administration. And he’s not PETER DOOCY.
BILL MELUGIN, a former local Los Angeles Emmy-winning reporter, has become a growing presence online and in broader political circles as Fox’s go-to reporter at the U.S. southern border. He’s done hundreds of television hits since joining the network last year, largely from border states, where he often focuses on the historic flow of migrants that are overwhelming communities there.
Trivial tonsorial digs aside, it’s difficult to take issue with those points.
But then the analysis takes an interesting turn as the column describes the “increasing frustration” of Biden administration officials — both past and present — with Melugin’s coverage of the border. Playbook parrots without analysis White House complaints that this reporting has “an alarmist quality to it, designed to feed political narratives rather than illuminate the actual issues feeding the migrant flow”.
With respect to the “actual issues feeding the migrant flow”, Playbook cites an unnamed former official, who told the column that “the Biden team has complained about the lack of nuance in the network’s coverage of the topic, which focuses more on the number of migrants rather than explaining the root causes of the situation”.
There is a lot to unpack in those excerpts, which reveal much more about the administration’s competence and border policies — and Playbook — than Melugin’s reporting on the border itself.
Under Biden, Border Patrol agents at the Southwest border have set new records for apprehensions in both FY 2021 and FY 2022 (the latter with one reporting month to go).
Worse, those records have been set in most every demographic. In FY 2021, agents apprehended nearly 145,000 unaccompanied alien children (UACs), nearly doubling the old record (just over 76,000) during the “border emergency” in FY 2019. Put differently, agents apprehended more UACs in a single month (March 2021, 18,716) than they did in all of FY 2010 (18,411) or FY 2011 (15,949).
Why did UAC apprehensions surge under Biden? It’s simple. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden asserted, “It is a moral failing and a national shame when ... children are locked away in overcrowded detention centers and the government seeks to keep them there indefinitely”, vowing to do things differently.
He was referring to Trump administration policies under which UACs were held on average for 102 days while the federal government thoroughly vetted potential sponsors in the United States. Even then, Trump was attacked for “losing” 1,475 UACs who had been released and whom the federal government could not subsequently locate.
Under Biden, UAC releases now take about 28 days. That said, congressional disclosures in March reveal that — under the standard to which Trump was held — the administration had “lost” nearly 20,000 UACs whom it could not subsequently locate — 13 times more than his predecessor. That’s a story the press should shine a “Spotlight” on, but it hasn’t, though a little more “alarmism” would help those kids.
Or take the “root causes” trope. Under this administration, that means the purported drivers of illegal migration from Mexico and the “Northern Triangle” countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), drivers usually identified as some combination of poverty, corruption, and violence in those countries.
Omitted from the Politico column is the fact that more than 41 percent (827,500-plus) of the illegal entrants apprehended at the Southwest border in FY 2022 aren’t from Mexico or the Northern Triangle. What exactly are the “root causes” of migration from Romania, Nepal, or Guadeloupe, and what is the White House doing to combat them?
To ask the question is to answer it, which means the only way to address illegal entries is to deter illegal migrants. The problem is that — unlike every one of his predecessors — Biden has rejected deterrence as a border policy. You don’t have to trust me — his DHS secretary admitted it on Fox News.
Here’s the thing — Biden knows that the border is a disaster. Not only does Playbook tacitly concede that point (“The White House has remained extremely sensitive to immigration issues in part because it’s been a political vulnerability for Biden”), but just before he took office, the president-elect signaled his fears that it would happen.
Woodward and Bernstein’s Washington Post reported in December 2020 that Biden had vowed to “keep his pledge to roll back the Trump administration's restrictive asylum policies”, but would do so “at a slower pace than he initially promised, to avoid winding up with '2 million people on our border’”.
Guess what? The Trump policies were quickly ditched without guardrails being erected, and Border Patrol has now apprehended more than two million illegal migrants at the Southwest border this fiscal year. And even that does not count nearly 600,000 “got-aways”, illegal migrants who evaded Border Patrol agents and successfully entered the United States this fiscal year.
Biden Agonistes. In 1970, two years before Nixon won reelection in a landslide, author Gary Wills penned a book titled Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man. The New York Times lauded it as having achieved “the not inconsiderable feat of making Richard Nixon a sympathetic — even tragic — figure, while at the same time being appalled by him”.
One of Nixon’s more distasteful acts was creating an “enemies list”, including “the name, location, and a small description for each ‘enemy’”. Daniel Schorr, who covered Watergate for CBS made the cut as “[a] real media enemy”, as did Mary McGrory of the now-defunct Washington Star, for her “Daily hate Nixon articles”.
The Playbook article reveals that Joe Biden has taken a page from the former occupant of the Oval Office with his own enemies list that includes Doocy and Melugin. There are a lot of similarities between the 37th and 46th presidents — unsuccessful campaigns and scandals not the least — but keeping track of one’s political enemies used to be frowned upon in Washington.
Not anymore, apparently, or Politico would have painted Biden’s animosity toward Melugin and Doocy in paranoid and unfavorable terms. Perhaps it’s time for the publication of Biden Agonistes to reorder American politics.
Controlling an Uncontrollable Narrative. The Politico piece is clearly an attempt by the White House to control the border narrative. That narrative has become uncontrollable in recent weeks, however, as Republican governors have brought the border that Melugin reports from to America’s liberal cities (Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago) and enclaves (Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.) by sending them released migrants.
To be fair, it wasn’t the transport of those migrants that lost control of the White House’s border narrative (the federal government has been doing that for a while on the taxpayer dime), but rather the petulant and tinny response of the officials in those destinations. In many Americans’ minds, those cities get a fraction of the migrants tiny border towns do, and should simply live with it.
If Republicans were smart, they would highlight the Playbook article, which similarly evidences a petulant and tinny wail from the most powerful institution in the world — the White House. Take for example its plaints about “lack of nuance in” Fox News coverage of immigration.
What about the “lack of nuance” in reporting on Trump’s struggles to care for migrant children in the spring of 2019? Members of Congress and nearly all the press cackled and salivated as children suffered in CBP custody because Congress was blocking the money to send them anywhere else. But nothing says that the press needs to be fair, let alone “nuanced”.
If, as Politico reports, “White House officials like RON KLAIN, ANITA DUNN, and others have made it clear to staff that they are aware of the powerfulness of immigration as a wedge issue for Republicans”, it’s a wedge issue that Biden and his advisors have crafted. Perhaps they should change their policies rather than shooting at the Fox News messengers.