Young asylum seekers watch a movie at a tent facility Friday in Donna, Tex. (Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters) (Veronica Cardenas/Reuters)

One of the standard responses to a comment or tweet by President Trump that spurs a broad outcry is that it was done on purpose. Trump, the master of the media, will throw out something controversial, the theory goes, and watch journalists and cable news talking heads go scrambling after it. Just like that, the country is talking about something else.

In the wake of Trump’s racist tweets over the weekend suggesting that four Democratic congresswomen of color should “go back” to their dirty, crime-ridden home countries, it took very little time for the “it’s a distraction” cadre to emerge. Search social media for “distraction” and examples tumble forth.

The prevailing theory seems to be that Trump tossed out the tweets to distract the media from covering the ongoing situation at the border and the detention camps housing migrants. Late last week, Vice President Pence took a trip to the border, in the company of members of the media and other officials, as part of a purported effort by the administration to share a more positive side of the situation. Pence’s trip, though, wasn’t exactly a home run.

A review of cable news broadcasts, though, suggests that it’s not the case that coverage of Trump’s Sunday tweets drowned out the migrant camp issue. The migrant camp issue wasn’t getting much coverage anyway.

The Internet Archive has a catalogue of closed captioning from cable news networks. It presents coverage in 15-second chunks, allowing users to see how regularly subjects were raised in any given hour. In the wake of Trump’s tweets (the vertical dashed line on the graph below), coverage of those tweets spiked. Mentions of the migrant camps dropped slightly, but were never that high to begin with.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

The coverage patterns varied by network. CNN and MSNBC were covering the migrant situation more than Fox News or Fox Business before Trump’s tweets. The subject was mentioned less frequently after his tweets came out than it had been.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

But again, it’s not as though the subject was dominating beforehand. Here’s the hour-by-hour breakdown for each network. To give some sense of scale, we’ve added mentions of “Clinton” to the Fox News graph to give a sense of how much coverage the migrant situation was getting.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

While it doesn’t seem as though cable news was covering the detention centers as much as Trump critics seem to think, the above data alone doesn’t disprove the idea that Trump was trying to distract. After all, the most important viewer of these broadcasts in that regard is Trump himself. If Trump thought that they were covering the camps too negatively, perhaps he was trying to offer a distraction.

But Trump normally watches Fox News, where that was unlikely. In fact, he appears to have been watching Fox on Sunday morning. His tweets about the Democratic lawmakers came about 20 minutes after a segment about the Democratic lawmakers.

Perhaps there wasn’t a grand strategy at play after all.