Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday abandoned precision in bashing media coverage of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Responding to a plume of coverage on the separation of children from their parents as they arrive at the southern border, Nielsen told the National Sheriffs’ Association: “It is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of. Don’t believe the press. They are very well taken care of. You know this, as many of you have detention facilities of your own,” said Nielsen to the sheriffs. “We operate according to some of the highest standards in the country. We provide food, medical, education and all needs that the child requests.”
The press? That’s a pretty big group, considering that few media organizations are ignoring the wrenching and inhumane policy that separated nearly 2,000 children from their families between April 19 and the end of May.
So the Erik Wemple Blog asked DHS: Are there any examples of coverage that you would cite as defying credibility or otherwise botching the facts? Have you asked any news outlets for corrections in their coverage?
A DHS official steered the Erik Wemple Blog to this report from CNN, in which correspondent Ed Lavandera interviews Natalia Cornelio, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. Having met with “dozens” of families subject to the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy at the border, Cornelio told CNN: “One of the women that I interviewed today told me that she was breast-feeding her daughter when the government took her daughter from her. And when she resisted, she said that was when they put handcuffs on her.”
The CNN story then cites allegations that authorities have misled families “so that the children can be separated and sent to different detention facilities.” A Customs and Border Protection official is quoted as protesting that “these allegations are unsubstantiated.”
The DHS official told the Erik Wemple Blog that the agency wasn’t apprised of the breast-feeding allegation before it surfaced on CNN. “Not only did they not reach us for comment,” says the official, “when we came to them and asked for confirmation, they still refuse to give us more details.” BuzzFeed News reported the denial of a DHS official: “We do not separate babies from adults.”
The Erik Wemple Blog has sought comment from CNN and is awaiting a response.
The DHS’s second exhibit comes from the Boston Globe, which reported on June 10 that a federal public defender had indicated that “several of her clients have told her their children were taken from them by Border Patrol agents who said they were going to give them a bath. As the hours passed, it dawned on the mothers the kids were not coming back.”
“We vehemently denied that accusation as well,” says the DHS official.
Brian McGrory, editor of the Boston Globe, told the Erik Wemple Blog, “We got very minor push back from a DHS spokesperson on the phrase ‘family separation policy,’ which we view as semantic. Our view is that the story was meticulously reported and accurate.” Furthermore, McGrory said that the reporter on the story, Liz Goodwin, “highlighted” the part about the baths “in an email to a spokesperson, making it the first in a list of many questions. The spokesperson did not address it in the response.” When the Erik Wemple Blog pressed the DHS official on these claims, we didn’t get a definitive response.
A third instance, said the DHS official, relates to comments attributed to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) in a Los Angeles Times story. After visiting a federal detention center south of Seattle, Jayapal described “frigid holding cells where women are held for days without clean drinking water,” according to the Los Angeles Times — a characterization that irked DHS.
As a result, said the DHS official, the agency published the following passage in a news release:
DHS detention facilities are in poor condition and do not provide clean drinking water.
DHS facilities are safe and sanitary, and adults and minors are provided access to food and drinking water, medical care as needed, and adequate temperature control and ventilation.
Hillary Manning, director of communications for the Los Angeles Times, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that she has checked with the paper’s Washington editors. “They have not heard from DHS on this,” writes Manning in an email.
According to a DHS official, there’s a general failure in coverage wherein reporters grab anecdotes on the treatment of children and families without first checking them with DHS. “You can see that frustration,” said the official when asked about Nielsen’s broad-brush dismissal of “the press.” “There’s not one day that goes by with at least a handful anecdotal stories without the opportunity to respond,” says the DHS official.
When news organizations publish controversial and inflammatory facts without first running them by the authorities, that’s a problem. DHS has every right to insist that they be given a chance to rebut any allegation that a women was cleaved from her child while breast-feeding. That is horrific.
And yet: Hundreds — maybe thousands? — of media organizations have descended on the traumatic events unfolding along the U.S. southern border. Thousands — tens of thousands? — of reports and television segments have been produced in recent weeks concerning the treatment of these families. Do the alleged transgressions cited by the DHS press office justify Nielsen’s don’t-believe-the-press guidance? Not even close. Nielsen, like her peers at the Environmental Protection Agency and other departments, is following the lead of her boss, who once told a “60 Minutes” correspondent his motive for media-bashing: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe it.”