[Press Rogue ]Crisis Mode | Harper's Magazine

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[Press Rogue]

Crisis Mode


Until recently, the editorial boards of the nation’s leading newspapers agreed on one important fact: there was no crisis at the border. In March, when President Trump declared a national emergency, the New York Times said his reasoning ran “contrary to all evidence.” In February, the Washington Post declared that there was “no crisis at the southern border.” A week earlier, the Los Angeles Times had offered a similar analysis: “The nation faces many problems. A crisis at the border isn’t one of them.”

Editorialists spent the early part of this year asserting that the president’s rhetoric on the border was based on a false premise. In the Post’s words, his language was a cynical attempt to “spin fiction as fact, secure in the knowledge that minds will reel as fact-checkers labor to deconstruct his ziggurat of falsehoods.” Meanwhile, more than 200,000 migrants were taken into custody. Hundreds of thousands more are expected to be arrested by Border Patrol officers this year. Yet it was only last week, when the situation precipitated a Homeland Security leadership purge, that opinionators began to recognize that there might indeed be a real crisis. No longer able to ignore the severity of the problem, the Times and Post belatedly deployed David Brooks and Dana Milbank to bemoan the administration’s response, the latter begrudgingly writing: “I’ll admit it: President Trump is right. There’s a crisis on the southern border.”

That a paper’s editorial pontifications are disconnected from facts on the ground is hardly breaking news. But an instance in early March threw the divide into stark relief: the day the Times editorial page ran its missive stating that Trump’s declaration ran “contrary to all evidence,” a headline on the front page characterized the border as being at a “breaking point.”  It fell on a letter to the editor to point out the discrepancy. “So which is it? the reader asked. “No evidence of a crisis, or a real crisis?”

This reader was justified in his confusion. On the issue of immigration, the press has spent the Trump epoch operating under a mandate to quell the president’s sensationalism at all costs, even if it means downplaying the (largely self-imposed) difficulties the government faces in coping with migrants. This pose may explain why many editorial boards, including those of the Times and the Post, have long ignored the swelling numbers of families seeking asylum, a trend that began last summer and that analysts were highlighting as early as January. The opinionators stubbornly refused to acknowledge the developing problem, seemingly anxious that doing so might lend Trump’s rhetoric some legitimacy. Maintaining opposition to his narrative was essential to the project of checking his administration, regardless of conditions on the ground.

The current debate about whether or not the region is in crisis dates to last April, when the Department of Justice’s “zero tolerance policy” went into effect, requiring family members attempting to enter the country without documents to be detained separately. At the time, the Atlantic wrote that the administration was responding to a “largely fictitious crisis,” while most outlets observed that the crisis was not the number of migrants entering the United States, but rather the policy of family separation itself. When the midterms took center stage in the fall, Republicans ginned up another crisis: a “caravan” of a few thousand Central American migrants inching their way toward the border, a procession the president dubbed an “invasion.” The nation’s formidable fact-checking corps leapt on the story, with the Post writing up a “Caravan of Phony Claims” and the AP laying out Trump’s “distorted theories and numbers on immigration.”

The press was right to keep such close tabs on Trump’s distortions. But, inadvertently, these fact-checks played into efforts to actively diminish the situation at large. Politico noted that apprehensions had peaked at 1.64 million back in 2000 and wrote, “Border arrests over the past decade… are very low compared with recent history.” NPR echoed that sentiment, writing, “The total number of migrants apprehended at the border … remains far below the numbers that were routine in the 1990s and 2000s.” The Times returned to the well following Trump’s televised address in January justifying the shutdown. Under the headline “Trump Claims There Is a Crisis at the Border. What’s the Reality?” two reporters wrote that “illegal border crossings have been declining for nearly two decades.” A similar Post story also nodded back to 2000’s record numbers and stated that “nationwide apprehensions of migrants entering the country without authorization are at some of their lowest numbers in decades.”

While the statistics underlying this panoramic framing are accurate, it is also true that the number of detained families reached a new monthly high in December, as the Times and Post articles both clearly pointed out. Yet ideologues shrugged off the recent data, instead focusing solely on the historical numbers. For an editorial board eager to combat the president’s inflammatory stem-winding with grandiloquence of its own, it was easy to ignore a modest shift in the status quo in favor of a broad frame that confirmed the desired narrative: a president using an invented emergency to execute a power grab.

The Post has led the charge on this front. Each month this year has brought a new record tally of migrant families seeking asylum, yet the paper’s opinion pages have remained ostrich-like in their focus on absolute immigration numbers. In that February missive declaring the absence of a crisis, the Post’s editorial board stated, “Illegal crossings between ports of entry … have plummeted since the turn of the century.” The next month, even as it admitted that the number of arriving families constituted a “humanitarian crisis,” the board was resolute that “it remains the case that the migration records being broken involve the composition of migrants … not the overall number of arrests by Border Patrol agents, which remains way below historical levels.” In the past two weeks, there seems to have been a change in the national press, with many coming to terms with the gravity of the situation. Yet the Post’s star columnist Eugene Robinson has remained resolute, declaring on Monday that “tens of thousands of Central American asylum seekers, even hundreds of thousands, do not constitute a serious crisis.”

Such bickering about how many or what types of migrants being detained might count as a genuine crisis betrays the tendency of Washington’s opinion makers to view immigration as just another political shuttlecock, whacked back and forth between opposing courts of crisis and normalcy. And while Trump and the national press go set after set, the human cost only grows. As the Times put it last week, “These days, thousands of people a day simply walk up to the border and surrender.” With so many claiming asylum, “the country is now unable to provide either the necessary humanitarian relief for desperate migrants or even basic controls on the number and nature of who is entering the United States.” That lack of control has manifested in glaring ways, like the recent sequestering of migrants under an El Paso bridge, and in smaller ones, like the case of Jose Arturo Gonzalez Carranza, the widower of a soldier killed in Afghanistan who was mistakenly deported to Mexico last week. The Times’ Wednesday story on Gonzalez Carranza exemplifies the strong reporting being done on the border, fleshing out the travails people are forced to endure when a system reaches its “breaking point,” even as the editorial boards hem and haw.

Semantic wrangling about whether such stories constitute a crisis is beside the point, and the reluctance of many liberal editorialists to admit that stability at the border remains elusive speaks to a childish refusal to cede any ground to the Trump administration. The fact-checkers were right to counter the conservative bombast about a caravan crisis, but their emphasis on historical context muddied the waters, making it easier for their publications’ armchair strategists to overlook the growing numbers of asylum seekers. Editorials exist to observe problems and explore policy prescriptions; the process demands long-range perspective, but must also be grounded in day-to-day reporting. Insisting for so long that there was no crisis at the border betrays a failure by opinionators to fully reckon with their colleagues’ diligent reporting. Rather than evaluate the immigration system in action, they chose to focus on political gamesmanship, and in the process, got lost in a shouting match with Trump.

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