Erik Wemple | Opinion
March 2, 2017 at 1:20 PM
We know President Trump watches Fox News. We know he watches CNN. We know he watches MSNBC. But does he watch ABC15 in Phoenix?
If he does, he'll surely be happy with a certain strain in the station's news coverage. Some examples:
Get the gist? Yes, there are undocumented immigrants out there involved in illegal or mischievous activity. And the media is chronicling them.
Stories like those notwithstanding, President Trump on Tuesday night somehow managed to say these words before Congress: "I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims. The office is called VOICE, Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement," said Trump. "We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media and silenced by special interests." Emphasis added. Like most all of Trump's observations about the media, this one was dreadfully dishonest. If the media can be understood to include Fox News, then surely Trump has seen its aggressive coverage of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, not to mention the victims thereof.
To name one particularly salient example, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, a vanilla-milkshake-drinking buddy of Trump's, has more than just provided saturation coverage of the heinous 2015 slaying of Kate Steinle, who was walking on a San Francisco pier when she was allegedly shot by an undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times; O'Reilly has also used his program to pressure Capitol Hill to pass "Kate's Law," a measure to boost penalties against those who are convicted of crimes in the United States and then reenter after deportation.
The Steinle case came up in an interview conducted by Fox News's Kimberly Guilfoyle with Trump last August. After she asked him if he was softening his stance on immigration, Guilfoyle said, "Well, you know, as a prosecutor, I found it very frustrating that we were not observing and enforcing the laws that are on the books and that people would be revolving door coming back in. I was a prosecutor in San Francisco, you know. And then the Kate Steinle case, tragedies like this."
In his speech, Trump cited the cases of Jamiel Shaw Jr., a 17-year-old killed in 2008 in Los Angeles by a gang member in the country illegally, and of Michael Davis Jr. and Danny Oliver, California law enforcement officials who were killed by an undocumented immigrant. In both cases, the tragedies were covered extensively by major outlets.
But forget about the big, hulking national organs of the mainstream media for a second or two. Trump referred to "the media" as being complicit in somehow suppressing the crimes of undocumented immigrants and their victims. And "the media" most certainly includes the small army of local TV stations in the country beaming news to their communities. As a group, these folks have adopted the world's most nondiscriminatory policy when it comes to covering crime. They cover juvenile crime, young adult crime, middle-aged crime and elderly crime; crime committed by men, crime committed by women; smart crime, dumb crime; crime against innocent, helpless victims, crime against "bad dudes"; white-collar crime, pink-collar crime, blue-collar crime. And yes, crime committed by undocumented immigrants.
"We're all sort of steeped in the 'if it bleeds, it leads' culture," says Bill Keller, a former New York Times executive editor and currently editor in chief of the Marshall Project, a nonprofit site on criminal justice. "Your local TV news station, your local paper and in particular the kind of crime-obsessed tabloids write a lot about crime. I guess I do tend to think that we make America out to be a scarier place than the statistics say it is because crime coverage is relatively easy."
How correct is Keller? Let's just take the case of that undocumented immigrant, Gabriel Quinones, who was charged last August for having sex with an underage girl. The story wasn't just covered on ABC15, as noted above. It rated a story on Fox10; it rated a story on CBS5; it rated a mention in the East Valley Tribune.
Ed Munson, vice president and general manager for KHPO/KTVK in Phoenix, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that his people spent a great deal of time chronicling the activities of former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio. "As far as crime is concerned, certainly our colorful sheriff was involved in immigration raids and dealing with crime that was perpetrated by immigrants or illegal immigrants or whatever, so we covered that and continue to cover that extensively," says Munson. One of the goals of the Arpaio raids, notes Munson, was to round up undocumented immigrants who'd committed crimes — a coverage area in which his newsroom did "countless" stories.
Asked how he makes calls about such stories, Munson replied, "Our principle is its relatability to the audience. If it means something to audience, then we're going to cover it. If it's not going to affect their lives or uplift them … then we're not going to cover it. Obviously there are visceral reactions to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. If that is a story — particularly if it results in injury or dying, perhaps it would be moved up the ladder." And if Munson's people don't cover crimes by undocumented immigrants, what's the reaction from Arizona immigration hard-liners? "I hear from them," he says.
That's just the point. Local TV news is a cutthroat affair, with one station competing against the next for essentially the same set of stories about the weather, the consumer scam, the NFL squad — and crime, crime, crime. Even if news staffers were inclined to "cover up" the misdeeds of undocumented immigrants, they can't — if the competition scores ratings with those stories, they lose. In the February sweeps, notes Munson, "there are three of us fighting for the winner in 25-54 [demographic]. We are within one-hundredths of a point of each other and it's just neck and neck … it's a horse race for news viewership."
Good news for Trump, in other words. He loves manipulating facts about media coverage to goose fears among the American public, like the time he alleged that terrorism acts go unreported. That local TV news organizations are jockeying to see who can get the mug shots of criminal undocumented immigrants on their screens the fastest helps his agenda, especially when he can go on national television and suggest that this stuff is getting underplayed. Meanwhile, the fact remains the immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born folks, not that Trump hasn't been reminded of that many, many times.