Election in The Streets:
Table of Contents:
- Executive Summary
- 1. While they celebrated "massive" immigration protests with "huge" crowds, the broadcast networks largely avoided scientific polling data that showed that the protesters were in an overwhelming minority.
- 2. Advocates of opening a wider path to citizenship were almost twice as likely to speak in news stories as advocates of stricter immigration control.
- 3. While conservative labels were common, liberal labels were rarely or never used.
- 4. While protests centered on underlining the vital role illegal aliens play in the American economy, the burdens of illegal immigration in added government costs or crime were barely covered.
- 5. The networks have not dropped the word "illegal" in favor of "undocumented" immigrants, although some reporters struggled to adopt clumsy liberal-preferred terminology.
In reviewing all of these stories, it seems quite apparent that the broadcast news makers see illegal immigrants through a very sympathetic lens, as downtrodden racial minorities who almost uniformly work hard, even if they obviously don’t play by the rules. They are family men and women. They even presented them as more American than Americans.
Patriotism is often seen as the refuge of political scoundrels, but not with illegal aliens. The networks seemed to offer honorary citizenship to anyone crossing the border. Network anchors hailed them as "emerging from the shadows" to speak out. Their protests "looked like a Fourth of July parade." CBS’s Harry Smith found protesters "draping themselves in the American Dream." ABC’s Terry Moran blatantly editorialized at the end of the May 1 Nightline that when you walk among the protesters, they are so "decent, polite and, well, neighborly," and their gathering in "great numbers" to send a nonviolent message to government "all seems very American, for what it’s worth." (Only ABC, never CBS or NBC, found the wide use of the flags of other countries in the protests as a controversy worth mentioning.)
In this civics lesson on what it means to be a citizen or a patriot, there was no debate on whether it was proper for the illegal-alien protests, treated like a slam-dunk election in the streets, to cancel out the opinions of tens of millions of voters. The networks never once considered that some people would find it bizarre for illegal aliens to participate in the making or unmaking of legislation when they have entered the country in violation of the law. In his book The Image, Daniel Boorstin inspired many media critics to scorn the "pseudo-event," an event solely designed to attract publicity. With these protests, conservatives could argue they were pseudo-events populated by pseudo-citizens.
The networks also found no cause for questioning protest organizers when a major rallying cry in the protests was "Today we march, tomorrow we vote." Does that mean that protest groups are encouraging voting by illegal aliens? The networks never wondered. Critics of illegal immigration note that in 1996, conservative California Congressman Bob Dornan lost his seat to Loretta Sanchez by fewer than 1,000 votes. State elections officials found that at least 300 votes in that election were cast illegally by non-citizens.
If the broadcast networks are interested in presenting a truly balanced picture of America’s immigration debate in their news coverage, they need to consider a few recommendations:
1. Newscasters need to acknowledge that protests, even large ones, are often an incomplete measure of public opinion. It’s strange for the networks to tout polls when they bolster liberal causes, and then bury them when they don’t. It’s also strange for the networks to tout large protests when they bolster the left, and ignore large protests (like pro-life marches) when they don’t. In either case, protests offer a good visual display of political passion, but they ought to be incorporated into a broader, more realistic evaluation of where the overall American public stands, even if public opinion is complex.
2. Both sides of the debate deserve a chance to speak in news stories, not just voices "emerging from the shadows" that reporters sympathetically promote. Both sides deserve tough, skeptical coverage, too. Major protests can fairly be covered with more emphasis on the protesters on that day, since that is what is "new." But network producers need to work harder to insure that over the weeks or months of coverage of an issue like immigration, that critics of the immigration protests are heard as well. That includes more emphasis on critiques of the protests and protest groups in particular, which often seemed to attract the praise of "objective" network observers.
3. On this issue, as well as many others, network newscasts ought to reflect the reality that the political debate is between conservatives and liberals, not conservatives and supposed nonpartisans. This recommendation cuts across all political stories, in nearly every debate between conservatives and liberals. It’s not a persuasive argument that stories don’t include the L-word because liberals don’t like the word "liberal," or don’t feel the word "liberal" describes their views. Any journalist attempting to balance a story should either use both labels when they apply, or avoid both labels. It’s unfair to paint one side as the "far right" and then pain the left in gauzy terms like "immigrant rights groups" — even as they harshly decried "fascist" opponents.
4. The network news ought to borrow from the arguments of both sides to tell the immigration story, and not avoid stories that seem to underline a conservative argument. In this study period, the networks seemed allergic to sentences (let alone entire stories) that discussed the problem of illegal-alien cost burdens to taxpayers and illegal-alien crime and imprisonment issues. There were stories on the Minutemen, and other illegal-immigration opponent efforts like WeHireAliens.com. There were stories on life with the Border Patrol, even if those mostly came in May, after the White House put the idea of bolstering border control in the headlines. But stories often seemed designed to persuade people to welcome illegal aliens and support liberal policies. Introducing one story on the March 31 20/20, host John Stossel explicitly pleaded that "before you choose sides" on illegal immigrants, you needed to watch a heart-warming story on two illegal immigrants who put their kids through college by dumpster diving seven days a week for aluminum cans.
5. It would be wise to wait for time to elapse before defining "history" and "landmark" legislation, and to wait for protests to occur before describing them as attracting
"millions." Perhaps nothing betrays a rooting interest by reporters more obviously than people in a 24-hour news cycle identifying an event as historic before it happens, or six hours after it occurs.
Anchors like Katie Couric are now promising to go beyond the headlines on the evening news: "The biggest job isn’t telling people what happened. It’s getting them to understand why they should care." The overcoverage and gushing tone of illegal-alien protests sounded just like that. It was not so much "news" as salesmanship: a collection of positive, panoramic visuals for helping reporters "tell people why they should care" — care about what liberals care about.