As someone who identifies as a moderate liberal, and as a former reporter who believes that even opinion journalists need to give everyone a fair shake, I'm often astonished by the blatant slant of Fox News. But today I'm writing in disbelief about Thursday's coverage of the migrant caravan story on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program. MJ, as I'll call it, is normally a source of fair-minded, if sometimes highly opinionated and mostly liberal opinion. But on Thursday it offered a case study of the notorious brand of slanted, simplistic, snarky, and condescending reporting on immigration that is widespread in elite journalism circles. By infuriating millions of Americans, it stoked a backlash that helped Trump get elected.
I am no fan of President Trump. I was disgusted by his insults of Mexicans. I think his wall-the-entire-border strategy would be a waste of billions of dollars. I think the Trump plan to send the National Guard to the border is aimed more at placating Trump's base than at stopping the influx of Central Americans heading to our southern border to apply for asylum.
Having said all that, let's count the ways that Thursday's MJ was bad journalism.
1. It was factually inaccurate. Much of the discussion was framed by a flagrantly erroneous graphic that was labeled "Fewer Illegal Border Crossings". Co-host Willie Geist said the chart tracked the reduction of illegal crossings from a 2000 peak of more than 1.6 million to a 2017 historic low of about 310,000. As MSNBC noted in the graphic, its source was Katie Park of National Public Radio.
Now a check of the NPR website shows that Park did indeed prepare a chart that last December was used to illustrate a story headlined "Arrests for Illegal Border Crossings Hit 46-Year Low". (Emphasis added.) So MJ mistook arrests of illegal border crossings for the total number of illegal crossings. The misinformation effect was compounded by the fact that Border Patrol agents have long said that because of "get aways" — people who avoid arrest — the number of illegal border crossings can be two, three, or four times the number of arrests.
Now if someone wanted to excuse the MJ mistake, he could fairly point out that, in any case, the problem of illegal migration across the Mexican border has shrunk to about one-fifth its level in 2000. Nevertheless, it is a very big deal that every day of the year the Border Patrol is arresting an average of about 1,000 illegal immigrants and that maybe another 2,000 more are getting away — many into the interior of the United States.
MJ's error of commission with the flawed graphic was compounded by an error of omission when it failed to discuss a crucial fact that explains Trump's frustration with the Central American influx. Our legal system makes it remarkably easy for migrants to become eligible to stay in the United States while they pursue claims for asylum. While many — perhaps most — of the claims are justified, many others are bogus. Many migrants want to come to the United States for the traditional purpose of seeking opportunity. And since bogus claims are often accepted for review, the system provides an extraordinary incentive to lie. The result is an immigration courts logjam and a system where good intentions create horrible dysfunction.
2. It was slanted and simplistic. An acknowledgement of the above facts is essential to an understanding of why the Central Americans keep coming and why Trump, who made border control his campaign launch pad, has acted so impetuously. But MJ host and namesake Joe Scarborough was more interested in mocking Trump.
Scarborough began a mini-rant by doing a double-take on the erroneous chart, asking if it were really true. Geist assured him that it was. So Scarborough declared, "We're really living in an alternate reality. ... You have National Guard troops going to the border to protect a border that has fewer crossings since 1971. And then they're talking about building this wall for a problem that again is at a low ebb for almost half a century."
Yes, Joe, the problem at the border is a lot smaller. But it's a helluva long way from being small. And while illegal immigration from Mexico has indeed declined dramatically, it is rising steadily from Central America, and will continue to rise unless we reduce the incentive to come. Meanwhile, the recent history of illegal immigration makes it clear that a financial crisis or political turmoil in Mexico can quickly produce a spike in illegal immigration, especially if worksite enforcement remains a low priority.
3. It was biased. New York Times reporter and regular MJ panelist Jeremy Peters provided a lecture that reflected both the good and the bad that runs through much of his paper's work on immigration. Peters made a good point about the hyperbolic alarm on Fox News and other conservative media about the dangers of the caravan. But he turned a blind eye to legitimate concerns about the consequences of a policy that provides an enormous loophole through which hundreds of thousands of migrants have entered the country in recent years. Further revealing his bias, Peters scoffed at the concern that, because many asylum seekers are poorly educated and many are single mothers, their need for social services poses a big burden for the communities where they settle as they await their day in court.
Here is how Peters commented on the coverage from Fox and others on the right: "So what you see here is an embellishment and really a villainization of immigrants that is in keeping with President Trump stoking the grievances and fears that people in this country have about new entrants. ... [The caravan story] became a story of an invading Central American army of ingrates who were coming to the United States to leech off our social services. And the humanitarian aspect of their trek up here was completely lost and ignored in much of the right-wing media."
It is entirely legitimate and even necessary to acknowledge these humanitarian concerns. The problem is that Peters and many others in the liberal media ignore the legitimacy of public concerns — not just on the right—about the situation. In an exasperating irony, Peters on Thursday claimed that many on the right unfairly demean migrants, even as he unfairly demeaned those who want to stop the illegal traffic.
4. It was snarky. Geist and Scarborough had great fun as they mocked an assertion by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about new stretches of the sophisticated border wall that will replace old stretches of decades-old, cheaply constructed wall. Nielsen said the new construction will be classified as part of the Trump wall, not as a renovation, as a reporter suggested.
Said Scarborough, ridiculing the "Build the Wall" battle cry, "So, Willie, it's 'Renovate the wall.' … Which is actually all they're talking about."
This was silly season stuff. But it might come in handy. Next time you replace your rusty old car with a new one, you can try to calm your budget-conscious spouse that you're really just renovating the old wreck.