Remember the refugee caravan? The group of desperate people banded together for protection, fleeing apocalyptic violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, who slowly worked their way through Mexico to apply for refugee status at the U.S. border? Remember President Trump stoking furious race panic over it, and how the neo-Nazi who posted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the caravan went on to massacre 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue?
You probably do, because the caravan got saturation coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and cable news — probably the most of any single topic in the month right before the election. But it has since largely dropped off the media radar, as the Times itself points out. And all because Trump wanted that to be the subject of discussion before the election and doesn't care anymore.
The press must stop allowing itself to be led around by the nose like this.
Matt Gertz at the liberal watchdog Media Matters did a straightforward study examining how cable news and the Big Two papers covered the caravan. Between Oct. 15 and Nov. 2, the Post published 65 articles mentioning the caravan in its A section, with 13 of those on the front page. Over the same period, the Times published 50 articles mentioning the caravan, with 12 of them running on the front page, and cable news spent hours and hours discussing it.
Afterwards, Gertz did a follow-up study showing a 50 percent reduction in coverage in the Big Two, with a two-thirds reduction for front-page coverage:
Look at those post-election declines in caravan coverage. pic.twitter.com/622JkKkZZn
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) November 14, 2018
Now, leaving aside Fox News (and a few dimwitted segments here and there), the problem with this was not individual segments or articles, which mostly provided appropriate context or fact-checked the president.
No, the problem was the tremendous volume of coverage (to be fair, I contributed to this myself with one article), and more importantly, the editorial choice to blare it out from front pages and primetime nonstop. You basically couldn't miss caravan coverage, on every newsstand and TV screen.
This was bad for three reasons. First, it almost certainly helped drive the ongoing frenzy of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant hatred. Second, it obscured other subjects, making it seem to casual news consumers that a total non-issue was one of the most important questions facing the country — highly reminiscent of the way Hillary Clinton's emails were blown wildly out of proportion by constant repetition in the political press.
Third, it effectively colluded with Republican Party electoral strategy. Tricking the media into flooding the zone on the caravan was absolutely a deliberate strategy on the part of Trump and the Republican Party. The tactics were extremely obvious: coordinated, hysterical lies about the refugees from Trump and most other Republicans; PR stunts like deploying the military to do pointless border security theater; and using right-wing agitprop organs (above all Fox News) to drive more coverage. The point was to whip base voters into a frenzy, and more importantly, push any coverage of substantive topics (like the multiple efforts to destroy protections for people with pre-existing conditions) off the agenda of national discussion.
Indeed, Trump was bitterly disappointed when his working strategy was interrupted by two right-wing terrorists taking his statements to their logical conclusions.
Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this “Bomb” stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows - news not talking politics. Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 26, 2018
We can also get a sense of the level of unjustified attention by examining a similar incident. Remember the other caravan, which arrived at the end of April this year? Until I started poking around, I sure didn't. It was smaller than the most recent caravan, but both were still just a tiny fraction of the yearly immigrant flow. It did get some (completely worthwhile) reporting, but nothing remotely like the pre-election coverage. Google Trends data on the word "caravan" gives a decent snapshot, showing the huge gap in attention between the first 2018 caravan and the second, the pre-election coverage boom, and the subsequent collapse:
When pressed about this, most reporters will respond that whatever the president does is inherently newsworthy. And that is true to a degree. But it does not justify giving Trump's statements two weeks of saturation coverage right before an election, especially not when that's patently what he wants. Reporters and especially editors should be more careful about being the cat's paw of a demagogue.
And if the problem of slanted coverage isn't enough, the media might consider simple self-preservation. This is a president who is constantly whipping up hatred of the "FAKE NEWS" mainstream press. This is an administration with a press secretary that, when CNN's Jim Acosta made Trump mad with an uncomfortable question, revoked his press pass and justified it by publishing a flagrantly doctored video from a conspiracy website making it seem as though he had karate-chopped a young woman.
Just like the coordinated right-wing screaming about "liberal media bias" of ages past, they do this to bully the press into producing the coverage they want, as the president obviously craves media attention more than anything in the world. But let us not forget the MAGA Bomber sending a mail bomb to CNN's New York headquarters just before the election. CNN is suing to get Acosta's press pass, and someone at the courthouse told Acosta he should be hanged. Following Trump's next shiny bouncing ball isn't just bad journalism, it might even threaten the lives of working reporters.