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United States: The Trump Card: How US news media dealt with a migrant hate manifesto

By Bill Orme

In the United States, as in Europe, migration was a dominant topic of mainstream news coverage throughout the summer of 2015.

In Europe, the story was a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions, with millions fleeing violence and repression. The migration focus in US media, by contrast, was an utterly domestic debate about the legal status of millions of immigrants who have been peaceably settled in the country for years.

And it was prompted largely by one candidate in the early stages of a US presidential campaign, rather than reflecting an actual change in migration patterns or any other precipitating event. The refugee crisis across the Atlantic and in more distant parts were distant sideshows.

In serious news organisations in the US and Europe alike, migration has been covered as a multifaceted story of human tragedy and perseverance, of domestic resistance and acceptance, of multicultural diversity and geopolitical complexity, and, above all, as one of potentially permanent and profound demographic change.

Yet this coverage has long been strikingly different in the United States, where political refugees have not been a factor in debates over immigration in decades, while “economic” immigration has been a constant throughout its history – and a recurring topic of divisive partisan debate. The continuing desperate exodus of Syrian and other refugees was seen as a “foreign” story, with little initial reporting on the US role or responsibility in the origins of the crisis, or as a potential safe haven for those fleeing turmoil and often savage cruelty. By extension, ethical issues in migration coverage are also perceived quite distinctly in American media.

“Migrant workers in Gilroy, CA” by Bob Nichols/UDSA licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ethical questions confronting news media in recent months included difficult decisions about the of shocking images of human suffering, and ground rules for the direct interaction of journalists with people in desperate need of food, shelter and medical aid. In the United States journalism during 2015, to judge by debate within the profession, the most pressing ethical question was how much newsprint and air time to devote to a single presidential candidate whose campaign strategy was the use of virulent attacks on immigrants as a device to secure more of this media coverage. The answer to the question was clear – as much as the market would bear.

The unexpected early dominance of the Republican presidential nomination contest by real-estate billionaire and reality-TV star Donald Trump was directly propelled by his caustic criticism of “illegal” immigration generally, and of Mexican immigrants in particular. His coarse language, once considered outside the bounds of US political discourse, and his incendiary pronouncements produced front-page headlines, hours of television news coverage, sharp denunciations by Latino leaders and Democratic candidates – and a swift upward spike in his standing in the Republican primary polls.

In August, the first televised Republican campaign debate broke ratings records for these primary-election forums, due mainly to Trump’s reputation for inflammatory, unscripted candour.

Trump was a very good news story. Over the course of the summer, the three US cable news networks devoted nearly twice as much air time to Trump as to any other of the 16 Republican candidates – and most of this coverage focused on his unapologetically xenophobic anti-immigration rhetoric. He boasted that he had singlehandedly put immigration at the center of US political debate and media coverage for the first time in years – one of his few objectively accurate claims.

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“Donald Trump Laconia Rally” by Michael Vadon licensed under CC BY 2.0

Trump’s anti-immigrant bombast defied normal journalistic fact-checking practices because it seemed to many to be deliberately, almost tauntingly devoid of any factual foundation. But as he repeated his charges on the campaign trail – and as they were then replayed hourly on television news – polls showed that many potential voters accepted them as established facts. Among Trump’s most-repeated claims:

  • The Mexican government has a policy of systematically “exporting criminals” to the United States – “rapists” and drug traffickers most prominently among them
  • American cities on and near the southern border are suffering from a record crime wave directly attributable to the influx of these lawless Mexican immigrants
  • Though the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution has long been held by US courts to confer automatic US citizenship on all children born in the United States, “the best legal scholars” disagree with that interpretation and say US-born children of “undocumented aliens” should not be considered US citizens
  • As President, he would quickly end any further unauthorized Mexican immigration by building an impregnable wall along the entire 3000-kilometer border – and he “would make the Mexican government pay for it”
  • Most radically, he would also as President order the immediate deportation of all people in the country without official residency permits – some 11 million of them, from children to the elderly – “so fast that it will make your head spin”

Did news organisations challenge these assertions?

At first, not much, in part because Trump’s claims seemed to many to be patently absurd, intended not as serious policy statements but as showboating rhetoric, with little need for factual refutation. But as Trump climbed in the polls, establishing himself as the leading choice of likely Republican primary voters, journalists began stating for the record that net Mexican immigration to the United States had slowed to a halt more than five years earlier, due to demographic and economic factors on both sides of the border.

Reporters covering Trump campaign visits to the border also dutifully pointed out that US border cities like El Paso had some of the lowest crime rates in the country, as well as the highest proportions of Mexican immigrant residents in the country. Many noted that much of the border is already fortified with heavily patrolled wall-like barriers. And some stories stressed further that the 14th Amendment guarantee of full citizenship rights to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” has been accepted and enforced without serious dispute since its adoption in 1868.

Other Trump claims were a bit harder to subject to empirical tests, such as assertions about the legal, political and logistical feasibility of the mass expulsion of millions of tax-paying residents of communities that depend on them as a work force – and nearly half of whom have children or other immediate relatives who are US citizens.

The most prominent US journalist to publicly and directly challenge Trump on these immigration claims was Jorge Ramos of Univision, the best-known reporter on the country’s leading Spanish-language television network, who has on behalf of his large national audience questioned US politicians about immigration policy for years.

At a Trump press conference in Iowa, Ramos stood and tried to ask the candidate a question about his immigration charges. Trump ordered Ramos to “sit down,” as he had not been called upon. When Ramos persisted in his questioning, he was forcibly escorted out of the press conference by Trump’s security guards. “Go back to Univision!” Trump called out to the Mexican-born Ramos – a remark that became quickly infamous among Latinos, who heard it as a thinly veiled anti-Mexican insult and deportation threat. After other reporters protested over Ramos’s expulsion, Trump invited him back for a long testy exchange on border wall construction, the 14th Amendment, and mass deportation plans.

The Trump-Ramos encounter quickly became the single most widely viewed and reported immigration discussion in US media history, with many news media prompted by the incident to examine Trump’s assertions in detail for the first time.

The immigration beat

There are now an estimated 41 million foreign-born residents of the United States, or about 13 per cent of the total population of 316 million. That is the highest share since the previous peak US immigration period a century ago – and far higher than the average eight per cent of the population in the European Union’s largest countries who were born outside the EU (Spain, 8.5 per cent; France, 8.3 per cent; UK, 8.1 per cent; Germany, 7.4 per cent).

The biggest group of foreign-born US residents, in terms of national origin, emigrated from neighbouring Mexico – more than 13 million – followed by China (2.3 million), India (2.1 million) and the Philippines (2 million). Almost five million were born in Europe, with the largest numbers coming from the UK and Germany. Yet British and German immigrants rarely figure into US news coverage. Nor do the nearly one million Canadian immigrants in the United States.

The political and media focus has been largely been Spanish-speaking immigrants, even after immigration from Latin America has dramatically slowed. Net new US immigration peaked in 2007, when the number of undocumented immigrants reached an estimated 12 million, including about 7 million from Mexico. Since then, net immigration from Mexico has dropped almost to zero, and the overall population of undocumented US immigrants has stabilized at about 11 million – most of whom have lived in the country for a decade or longer.

The political, cultural and economic complexities of this large and diverse immigrant population are covered closely by many US news organisations, both locally and nationally. BusinessWire, a press-release distribution service, lists more than 90 US immigration reporters in its database for corporate clients. Most work for daily newspapers in cities with large and growing immigration populations – which is to say, most US cities.

Many of these beat reporters have distinguished themselves with insightful, empathetic coverage of issues ranging from assimilation challenges to the legal netherworld of US immigration courts to the systematic deportation of long-term residents for minor criminal offenses. Yet when immigration becomes a headline issue in a presidential campaign, the topic is often assigned to political reporters, rather than beat specialists, reflecting in some ways the accurate news judgment that this political story has little to do with demographic realities. The focus of that coverage is on the potential electoral consequences of the immigration debate, and on the political personalities who are most prominently focused on the issue, rather than on the substance of the issue itself.

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“National Hispanic Heritage Month” by EJ Hersom licensed under CC BY 2.0

A still-simmering melting pot

For all mainstream US media, whether in English or in Spanish, immigration stories are implicitly rooted in a proud self-image of the United States as one “nation of immigrants” – albeit a still-simmering “melting pot” where many people self-identify as ethnically “hyphenated” Americans generations after their ancestors arrived in the country. Yet that inclusive national narrative has been cyclically interrupted by periods of fierce nativist backlash, whether against Irish, Italian and Jewish newcomers in the 19th century, or against the 21st-century migrants from Latin America and the Middle East.

Is the US public – and, by extension, the US media – on balance in favour of immigration, as the country’s ethnic diversity and people’s own family histories would suggest? It’s not clear, and reporting and opinion surveys in US media are often contradictory.

In May 2008, with the immigration debate again rekindled by presidential primary debates, a CBS/New York Times poll reported that 69 per cent of Americans favoured the prosecution and expulsion of undocumented immigrants. A month later, in June 2008, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed 85 per cent of Americans opposing proposals for the deportation of more than 10 million immigrants.

Seven years later, in a Pew Research Center survey conducted in May 2015, a solid majority (72 per cent) of Americans – including 80 per cent of Democrats, 76 per cent of independents and 56 per cent of Republicans – said undocumented immigrants in the US should be allowed to stay if they met certain legal requirements. Yet surveys of Republican voters a few months afterwards showed most agreeing with Trump’s hardline position on the issue.

Why the difference? In good part, as is often the case in opinion polls, it had to do with how the questions are posed. If you asked if immigrants who break the law should be punished and deported, a large majority said yes; if you asked if it were either feasible or desirable to forcibly expel millions of foreign-born workers and their families, most said no.

Selective citation of these polling numbers by media commentators has helped create parallel and mutually incompatible political beliefs about immigration, with most self-described Democrats not only favouring immigration but believing that most Americans agree with that view, and most self-described Republicans believing precisely the opposite. This ideological divide over the supposedly factual has been exacerbated by the increasing ideological polarisation of US media, especially in broadcasting. Republican voters – especially older, white, male Republicans, as polls show – watch the Fox News cable network more than any other US television news service, and listen while driving to the conservative talk-radio hosts who now dominate the AM airwaves. Democratic voters, by contrast, are more likely to watch the avowedly liberal cable news shows on MSNBC and current-affairs comedy programmes such as “The Daily Show” that routinely satirise right-wing political commentators.

Spanish-language media, and Spanish-language voters

As Trump’s rise highlighted, the fundamental difference between the migration stories in the United States and the European Union is that US debate centres on the continuing growth of what is already the largest and fastest-growing U.S minority group, who mostly come from just a few countries immediately south of the US border.

All those countries – Mexico, most importantly, but also the smaller nearby nations of Central America and the Caribbean – have always been intimately interconnected with the United States, economically, politically and culturally. The 17 per cent of the US population that the Census Bureau identifies as “Hispanic” or Latino includes millions of recent arrivals as well as many communities that have been an integral part of the United States since it became an independent republic. Though still under-represented politically, its leaders today include state governors, big-city mayors, presidential cabinet secretaries, and 32 of the 535 members of the US Congress. Even more distinctive, arguably, when compared to Europe, is the scale and influence of the Spanish-language media serving that community, especially in broadcasting.

Even in the age of on-line, on-demand Internet resources, and even among households with daily newspaper subscriptions, television news remains the most important source of current-affairs information for most Americans, surveys consistently confirm. Television news is proportionately even more important in Latino households, polls show.

The nightly national news programmes of Univision, the leading US Spanish-language television network, are often the highest-rated news shows in the country’s biggest television markets, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Telemundo, Univision’s Spanish-language rival, isn’t far behind. In addition, the more than 160 local television stations owned or controlled by Univision and Telemundo air their own popular nightly Spanish-language local news programmes.

Though news programming on Univision and Telemundo features regular coverage of events in Latin America, most of its reporting is domestic in content, reflecting the interests of its US resident audience. International reporting is almost as often focused on news in Europe or the Middle East, as with the English-language networks. Yet immigration – or more precisely, the US political debate about immigration – is covered completely differently in Spanish-language media than it is by the other major US network news broadcasts. As Ramos has said: “For us, this is personal.”

Following his celebrated confrontation with Trump, Ramos was chastised in some US media outlets for a purported lack of journalistic ethics, for both the perceived if minor offence of asking a question before he was called upon, and for the allegedly more grave error of expressing opinions rather than simply posing questions.

The sternest criticism of these alleged breaches of journalism protocols was heard on Fox News, famed for its own unabashedly opinionated commentary. One Fox News panelist, the former CNN host Tucker Carlson, charged that Ramos was not really a journalist – “He’s not a reporter, he’s an editorialist, he’s an activist” – and hence unworthy of legal protection under the press freedom guarantees of the US Constitution. Bill O’Reilly argued in his nightly programme that as a network “anchorman” Ramos should not express opinions, but confine himself to dispassionately narrating the day’s news. “If Jorge Ramos wants to be a commentator like me, that’s fine,” but that’s different from being a “journalist,” asserted O’Reilly, who has long identified himself as a journalist.

Ramos responded the next day, noting that for his Spanish-speaking audience – and for his network’s own employees and their families – immigration was not an abstract policy matter but an issue directly affecting their daily lives. For Univision, a feigned neutrality on the subject would be dishonest and a disservice to its viewers, Ramos argued.

Sympathetic media observers also likened his stance to an older and still-revered US broadcast tradition of crusading journalism, perhaps best exemplified by the famously critical coverage by CBS anchormen of US Congressional investigations of allegedly pro-Soviet Americans in the 1950s and of the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

“I think the best journalism happens when you take a stand when it comes to racism, discrimination, corruption, public life, dictatorship or human rights,” Ramos told ABC News. “As journalists, we are not only required but we are forced to take a stand, and clearly, when Mr. Trump is talking about immigration in an extreme way. We have to confront him, and I think that’s what I did yesterday.”

As television ratings rose for both Trump and Ramos in the aftermath of their Iowa encounter, both sides could claim victory, with US media coverage driving the story. Trump increased his lead as the Republican front-runner, while Democratic Party activists reported a Trump-fueled surge in Latino voter registration, aimed squarely against whoever is the eventual 2016 Republican presidential nominee.

Yet somewhat lost in the coverage of this US political saga was the daily reality of the millions of immigrants who still lack clear legal status, and whose future prospects are unlikely to be clarified further in the continuing presidential campaign. Nor is their eventual eligibility for residency likely to be advanced by US media coverage of their precarious legal circumstances, unless the English-language television journalists from whom most Americans get their news also cross the line with Ramos and take a stand.

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