Media critic

Pundits based in Washington and New York make a lot of statements about the southwestern border with little on-the-ground familiarity about the conditions down there. So good on the Washington Examiner for sending Anna Giaritelli on a recent fact-finding trip to Animas, N.M. She came back with this headline:

Border rancher: ‘We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal.’”

The story was published on Wednesday amid great journalistic competition for stories on immigration. It sat around, until this happened on Friday morning:

There are several layers to this fearmongering expedition: The story in the Washington Examiner takes the comments of a rancher from Animas who declines to give her name “for fear of retaliation by cartels who move the individuals" crossing into the United States. The point of the story appears to be that this anonymous rancher has heard that large numbers of people other than Mexicans — “OTMs,” she says — are flooding across the border. “People, the general public, just don’t get the terrorist threats of that. That’s what’s really scary. You don’t know what’s coming across. We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal. It’s not just Mexican nationals that are coming across.”

The invocation of “prayer rugs” is key. They are a “traditional way for many Muslims to ensure the cleanliness of their ​​place of prayer, and to create an isolated space to concentrate in prayer.”

The rancher tells the Washington Examiner:

“I’ve talked to several agents that I trust. There’s not a lot that I do trust, but the ones I do trust, I talk to them,” she said during a tour of her property. “What Border Patrol classifies as OTMs [other than Mexicans] has really increased in the last couple years, but drastically within the last six months. Chinese, Germans, Russians, a lot of Middle Easterners, those Czechoslovakians they caught over on our neighbor’s just last summer.”

The story leaves out a remark from the rancher that prefaces the quote: “Obviously don’t have ... any proof of it.” That disclaimer does surface, however, in a video that the Washington Examiner posted along with the story. Also on the video but not in the story is a question about whether the rancher has seen “some of these people.” She responds, “No, I’ve never run into any what they’d consider OTMs...I’ve never seen any Middle Easterners. I’ve seen prayer rugs out here."

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias tweeted that border-area prayer rugs got a turn in the 2018 movie “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”:

Prayer rug hysteria has previously drawn well-grounded skepticism. “Prayer rugs have recently been found on the Texas side of the border in the brush," said then-Texas lieutenant governor David Dewhurst in a 2014 speech before the Values Voter Summit. PolitiFact slapped that claim with a “Pants on Fire” rating. The site explained: “This claim is weakened because it’s not backed up by sourced-by-name witnesses nor did any authority confirm such a find when we inquired. If prayer rugs were showing up to someone’s alarm, we think there’d be legitimate photographs and the rugs themselves available for inspection.”

The same void applies to the Washington Examiner’s report: Where are the photographs of these prayer rugs? We asked to interview Washington Examiner Editorial Director Hugo Gurdon as well as Giaritelli. No reply just yet.

To buttress the claim that people from across the world are attempting to enter the United States across its southern border, the Washington Examiner embedded this tweet from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP):

An inquiry to CBP was victimized by the government shutdown: “I will not be able to return emails or telephone calls until I return to duty upon conclusion of the funding hiatus,” read the CBP employee’s automatic reply.

Read more:

David Von Drehle: I’ve been to the border. Here’s what I learned.

Janet Murguía: End the telenovela. It’s time for a real solution for dreamers and the border.

Josh Rogin: Will Trump go after foreign aid to pay for his border wall?

Sister Norma Pimentel: Welcome to the border, Mr. President

Marc A. Thiessen: Democrats were for a wall before they were against it