Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
If you share a part of your identity with the families targeted by President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy that criminally prosecutes those caught entering the country unauthorized, watching Fox News this week might’ve been a special kind of horror. The network has architected its discussion of the 2,000 children torn from their parents, branded as criminals upon arrival, to help government officials justify the crisis, blame the victims, and criminalize all immigrants. Thankfully, while Fox and other pro-Trump media outlets are working to exonerate the government from any responsibility in creating this humanitarian crisis, CNN’s coverage has offered a far more accurate depiction of reality, and MSNBC’s focus on the real-life consequences of this cruel policy enforcement truly has reflected the pain, fear, and uncertainty that thousands of immigrants fleeing worse conditions are being subjected to under Trump.
As a Salvadoran, I understand what these families are running from. As an immigrant, I understand how incredibly broken the current immigration system is and the many assumptions — of criminality, of alienness, of backwardness — projected onto those identified as immigrants, with no regard for whether they’d fit more neatly into the category of refugee. Many like me understand what it feels like to be the subjects of sentences rendered operative by dehumanizing verbs like “infest.” But Fox decided to essentially ignore those who could voice alternative perspectives. Instead, the network centered and overly relied on the government authorities who’ve had a hand in creating the chaos in the first place. This week, Fox repeatedly provided a platform for Customs and Border Patrol officials and for ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan to blame the victims unchallenged and to justify the horrors of Trump’s policy enforcement. On Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite show, Griff Jenkins sanitized the daily work of the border patrol, while the network at large virtually ignored the heartbreaking audio of terrified immigrant children weeping after being separated from their parents. The exceptional times the network brought on essential voices like a DACA recipient or an immigration attorney, they were drowned out by Fox’s drive to trivialize the crisis and exploit tragedies, all in the service of criminalizing immigrants. In doing so, the network is creating a false dichotomy in which its focus on gangs and crime is at the expense of the victims of those very gangs, threatened into fleeing their countries.
By contrast, CNN and MSNBC used the substantial resources they deployed to the border to cover the family separation crisis and feature commentary from experts, advocates, and immigrants. CNN’s correspondents on the ground offered a crucial view into what a zero-tolerance policy looks like for those it targets. The network often fell back on its model of a packaged news report followed by commentary from its political punditry, which serves as a reminder of the importance of having a roster of diverse voices to accurately represent the demographics of the issues being discussed. But its reporters opened up a window into the struggles of those seeking asylum and the cruelty they face from Trump’s policy.
MSNBC, on the other hand, offered audiences a unique window into what these families are experiencing. Its coverage elevated the stories not being told elsewhere; countered pernicious misinformation; and, by featuring a slew of immigrants, immigration attorneys, civil rights activists (like RAICES), members of religious organizations and medical professionals, better illustrated the tapestry of the complicated human consequences of what happens when cruel policies are inhumanely implemented.
Correspondent Mariana Atencio, in particular, was uniquely positioned by “her ability to connect, report, speak and translate” to bridge the gap between the lived experiences of audiences and those of the protagonists of this humanitarian crisis. By translating immigrants’ words live on camera, Atencio humanized the coverage, giving viewers the opportunity to put faces to the stories and providing immigrants the ability to speak directly to those responsible for the crisis. And when Atencio talked to border patrol, her nuanced framing was informative and clearly distinguished innocent undocumented immigrants from criminals. While the issues were painful, MSNBC’s coverage was consequential and compassionate — the kind that builds empathy and makes immigrants feel seen and heard.
Cable networks are in a unique position to offer a transparent view of what’s happening at the border to audiences who can’t witness it. What issues they choose to prioritize in their coverage, how they frame it, and who they decide to interview is a good indicator of the audience they are catering to: the American public or Trump’s administration.
Header image by Melissa Joskow / Media Matters