Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East has been a major story during the new administration’s early days. As one of Trump’s main campaign promises, this immigration policy has generated untold hours of TV coverage and news headlines.
The policy’s sloppy language, bungled roll-out and punitive real-world impact on innocents have rightly been prominently reported by journalists. Much of the coverage has focused on the widespread backlash to the ban, which has manifested itself in numerous legal challenges and a nationwide series of rapid-response airport protests. Coupled with the new president’s record-low approval ratings, the refugee ban increasingly tells a tale of a White House struggling to impose an unpopular agenda.
But coverage of the opposition to the ban has also sparked a kind of reflexive counter-narrative within the corporate media. Since the first protests broke out a few weeks ago, a competing genre has appeared adjacent to that coverage. In it, the press parachutes into red-state diners, barbershops and grocery store parking lots to seek out Trump voters—and only Trump voters—to gauge their support for the ban.
As a result, the “news” in these news stories isn’t that surprising. Turns out the same people who consistently backed the idea of a Muslim ban during the primaries and after the national nominating conventions also like Trump’s current ban by a similar margin.
Nevertheless, wire services (Reuters, 1/30/17; Associated Press, 1/31/17), newspapers (New York Times, 1/30/17; Hartford Courant, 2/1/17; Boston Globe, 2/1/17), magazines (Time, 1/31/17; Newsweek, 1/29/17), online news sites (NorthJersey.com, 1/30/17; Huffington Post, 1/31/17), and national radio and TV networks (CNN, 1/31/17; NPR, 2/2/17; VOA News, 2/6/17) have all indulged in this kind of tautological reporting. Just this week, you could find more examples in Politico magazine (2/13/17) and the Philadelphia Inquirer (2/13/17).
With overall public sentiment on the refugee ban largely split—though poll question phrasing can vary the responses significantly—it’s entirely legitimate for the press to dig into and understand the arguments animating both sides of the issue. But it’s also important to note that only one side shows evidence of being animated over the ban right now. So it’s entirely fair to report the split among the public and still devote more coverage to events that are actually newsworthy, like courts issuing temporary restraining orders in defiance of the president, or thousands of people across the country marching in the street and in airport terminals.
In effect, these Trump-supporters-support-Trump-ban stories share an implicit bias in their narrative framing: that (overwhelmingly white) Trump voters deserve rarefied, privileged attention by the media, even when doing nothing newsworthy. As Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel has suggested, the press never devoted a series of articles to quoting Democratic supporters of the Affordable Care Act under the framing “Despite Protests, Obamacare Popular in Berkeley.”
The insidious double standard of this tautology-as-news trend isn’t the only unhealthy journalistic aspect of this genre. To borrow a favorite phrase from the right wing, the press has increasingly carved out journalistic “safe spaces” for Trump supporters to air their support, free of reported context or rigorous factchecking.
For example, in the many stories I reviewed, dozens of Trump supporters routinely conflated immigrating refugees with an increased risk of terrorism. But only one article, from Huffington Post (1/31/17), bothered to point out the incredibly low actuarial risk of dying from a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee: 1 in 3.64 billion per year.
Likewise, when one ban-supporting veteran was quoted by Newsweek (1/29/17), “He just wants to have [agents] in place to process people and make sure they’re vetted,” there’s no follow-up from the Newsweek reporter to note that, in fact, an extensive vetting infrastructure for refugees already exists. Stripped of that key context, one could easily get the impression from the story that Trump has somehow lit upon some common sense revelation about immigration policy. Much closer to reality: Trump’s promise of “extreme vetting” is a vacuous bit of national security theater with no specific policy improvements attached to it.
By straining to offer meta-balanced coverage of the refugee ban, corporate media all too often end up reinforcing right-wing memes and talking points. An Associated Press article (1/31/17) went out of its way to let its readers know that Trump fans insult Democrats and liberals critical of the ban as “snowflakes” and “soft-hearted do-gooders” that need to “calm down.” The headline on a Reuters (1/30/17) article trotted out the old “heartland voters” saw, which is but a half-step removed from the odious, loaded term “real American.” Its lead sentence also adopted the same “calm down” condescension often expressed by Trump-ban supporters. But it’s this passage that not-so-subtly captured whose voices Reuters was exclusively featuring here (emphasis added):
The relaxed reaction among the kind of voters who drove Trump’s historic upset victory—working- and middle-class residents of Midwest and the South—provided a striking contrast to the uproar that has gripped major coastal cities, where thousands of protesters flocked to airports where immigrants had been detained.
To read this story is to realize that the “kind of voters” being singled out in this class and geographic division are mainly white (although few are ever identified by race).
Reuters was by no means alone. Time and again, these Trump-supporters-support-Trump stories paint all voters in the South and Midwest—referred to as being from “heartland,” “Trump country,” “Republican strongholds”—in crudely monolithic terms. To illustrate the tension between them and so-called coastal elites, the mainstream press plays up the airport protests in New York City and Los Angeles while almost wholly ignoring protests happening in places that don’t easily conform to its red-state/blue-state narrative, like Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Denver, Detroit, Charlotte and Columbus, and even smaller airports in Trump-friendly areas like Bangor, Maine; Boise, Idaho; Bloomington, Indiana; and Birmingham, Alabama.
In the very worst cases, the press ends up joining in on the misinformation. This NorthJersey.com “article” (1/30/17)—actually little more than a series of trite person-on-the-street interviews—simply offers a string of nearly unanimous support for the immigration ban from Trump voters. When one man provides a dangerously vague, flagrantly xenophobic statement—“If you know who your enemy is, why invite them in?”—there’s no follow-up from NJ.com about just who the “enemy” is or why that language might be counterproductive. Instead, it passes unchallenged, and so gets the imprimatur of legitimacy.
Similarly, Erin Burnett Outfront (CNN, 1/31/17) dedicated an entire segment to interviewing Trump voters from Atlanta, all of whom supported the ban. (Were Trump voters who opposed the ban even allowed to participate? CNN never made its methodology clear.) As the Trump supporters continually conflated Muslim refugees and immigration with terrorism as a justification for “changing policies,” CNN played right along, running B-roll of the aftermaths of the 9/11, San Bernardino, Paris and Nice attacks to ratchet up the fear factor.
The network never found it necessary to explain that most of the Paris attackers were radicalized French or Belgian citizens, that the husband in the San Bernardino attack was a native-born US citizen, and that the Nice terrorist, a Tunisian national, had been living in France for 11 years before the attack. In other words, Trump’s refugee ban would have had little to no chance of preventing similar attacks in the US, yet it would strand tens of thousands of innocent people in desperate, war-torn countries.
Even the New York Times (1/30/17) can’t help but pull its punches in this genre. When pushing back against a Trump supporter echoing the president’s claims that a refugee ban would prevent terrorism from abroad, this Times story insists on diluting the truth with a weak he-said/he-said framing (emphasis added):
Mr. Trump has tapped into a deep anxiety that is a relatively recent feature of modern American politics: terrorism from abroad. His detractors argue that his actions are not borne out by facts.
This Times story does have an ironic silver lining, however. It inadvertently offers up a stinging meta-critique of the media’s own flawed coverage of refugees and terrorism, a phenomenon that Trump has manipulated masterfully as part of his political ascent.
But emotions are powerful forces, and much of what people know comes from smartphone and tablet screens showing an endless stream of news of terrorist attacks that feel immediate and threatening even if they are far away.
“I don’t begrudge my grandma who never met a Muslim in her life, but all she sees on TV are Muslims blowing things up,” said Mr. Bower, 35, who grew up in rural Idaho. “It is not irrational that people are worried.”
Make no mistake, Trump’s 18-month-long presidential campaign is responsible for stoking untold amounts of Islamophobia and xenophobia within our country. But the complicity of the corporate press in setting the conditions for his rise through decades of irrational, fear-based coverage of terrorism can’t be overlooked either.
Tragically, the media appear unwilling or unable to learn this necessary lesson. But a good first step would be to stop force-fitting journalism into the same narrative frames used by a president who believes in prioritizing (mostly white) fears of the other.
Reed Richardson is a media critic and writer whose work has appeared in The Nation, AlterNet, Harvard University’s Nieman Reports and the textbook Media Ethics (Current Controversies). You can follow him on Twitter at: @reedfrich.