The exodus of migrants walking through Mexico is, no doubt, a real story.
An “army,” was how the Associated Press described the migrants in a much-criticized tweet that was later deleted.
It’s all a wonderful pre-midterms gift to President Trump, who on Monday declared those moving northward through Mexico a national emergency for the United States.
An “onslaught,” he called it — a word that was quickly picked up as a quote in headlines everywhere. In one tweet, he referred to an “assault on our country.”
Revving things up a notch, Trump floated the baseless idea that criminals and “unknown Middle Easterners” were among the group.
Fox News was there, as always, to help spread the word.
On “Fox & Friends,” host Pete Hegseth aimed a hose full of kerosene on the fire: “You got the president of Guatemala saying to a local newspaper down there just last week, they caught over a hundred ISIS fighters in Guatemala trying to use this caravan . . . ”
There was no verification for this, he soon admitted.
Those much closer to the situation quickly tried to douse that particular flame.
“Have not seen a single ‘Middle Easterner’ in the caravan, @realDonaldTrump. Have seen hundreds of women and children and babies, though,” tweeted Kate Linthicum, who covers Mexico for the Los Angeles Times, and was on the scene.
And Kevin Sieff, Latin American correspondent for The Washington Post, tweeted that “no one covering the caravan has met anyone from the Middle East, and there is no way to discern anyone’s criminal history.”
But such valid correctives are lost in the much louder — and greatly amplified — sense of impending doom. It’s an exaggerated replay of an earlier migrant caravan that brought several hundred people to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Even those news organizations and journalists who brought factuality and skepticism to their coverage were inadvertently playing into Trump’s hands, merely by giving it such large doses of attention.
By the weekend, every network news broadcast was treating the caravan as huge news, even as the migrants themselves were hundreds of miles away from the U.S. border.
On Monday, the New York Times and The Washington Post used dominant photos of the exodus above the front-page folds of their print editions; the accompanying articles were placed inside.
From the president’s viewpoint, the focus on the caravan serves multiple — and certainly welcome — purposes.
It competes for attention with the dreadful killing of Jamal Khashoggi, helping to push that political disaster away, even as the story begins to fade of its own accord, as every news story does.
And the “immigration crisis” works as a proven winner for him, allowing him to stoke fear and resentment as he did so successfully during the 2016 campaign, where cries of “build the wall” reverberated at every rally.
Recall that a year before the election, when Americans were asked by Gallup what they remember reading or hearing about Hillary Clinton, the dominant word was “email.” (“Benghazi” was a minor contender.)
What they remember reading or hearing about Trump was dominated by the word “immigration.” Later, of course, he blamed his loss in the popular vote on illegal voting by undocumented immigrants; the claim is false, but it resonated with the true believers.
Amid the media frenzy, it was heartening to see that some citizens were managing to bring critical distance to the suddenly pervasive coverage.
In fact, comments from a panel of independent voters provided a dose of humanity — in the unlikely setting of “Fox & Friends,” normally a Mobius strip of agreement with the president.
“There’s a humanitarian crisis taking place in Central America,” one panelist said. “And yet, this issue gets turned into a complete political football. There’s very little honest discussion about what’s actually happening, it gets turned into talking points.”
As Aidan McLaughlin wrote in Mediaite, the panel members rejected fearmongering in favor of what sounded strangely like that forgotten balm: good sense.
“Treating this as an ‘invasion’ is a bad idea, and it’s going to end horribly,” one panelist said. “People have to realize these are human beings coming here, and there needs to be a real solution offered in dealing with it.”
In the meantime, though, the migrants — trashed as criminals and maybe even terrorists — serve as a perfect foil for Trump, at the perfect time.
The president needs a dependable enemy, as he proves constantly in his harsh rhetoric against the news media.
But once again, that despised enemy manages to help him at every turn.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan