Bill Melugin is Fox News’ top anti-migrant reporter
Melugin plays the role of a straight journalist, but he uses Border Patrol talking points to push an anti-immigrant agenda
Fox News correspondent Bill Melugin and his fans in right-wing media want their audiences to think he’s a straight news reporter -- the kind of dispassionate journalist who follows the facts wherever they take him. In reality, Melugin is a far-right propagandist masquerading as a neutral, disinterested voice.
“You know what I love about him, he just calls balls and strikes,” Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz said in December. “Bill, you do excellent work and we’re going to continue to follow your investigative reporting,” former NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch claimed on her podcast in 2020. “God bless Bill Melugin for seeking the facts,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) said on a recent episode of Fox & Friends. “He’s one of the only journalists in this country covering the undeclared invasion of the United States,” Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson gushed on January 26.
This explanation of his job is similar to how Melugin describes himself. “The reason why I was an investigative reporter for six years before I started at Fox News is because I like shining light where others don’t want it,” he told Chafetz in December, adding, “My job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” This framing allows him to launder pro-cop, anti-immigrant propaganda into the news cycle with a veneer of objectivity.
Melugin is ubiquitous on Fox News, having logged 421 segments since he became an official Fox News correspondent in April 2021, according to Media Matters’ internal database. As the network’s lead voice at the southern border, he will likely only appear more in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections as Republicans recycle their predictable anti-migrant fearmongering. He has appeared on Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show at least 58 times and played a prominent role in the Season Two premiere of Tucker Carlson Originals on Fox Nation. Prior to joining Fox News full time, he was a reporter at Fox Television Station’s KTTV channel in Los Angeles, and he has been making regular appearances on the cable network since at least January 2020. His job at both outlets has been to frame immigration issues and reform of the criminal punishment system in a sensationalistic way, adopting wholesale the opinions and concerns of law enforcement and restrictionist, anti-migrant activists.
But unlike the unhinged anti-immigrant monologues of opinion hosts on the network like Laura Ingraham and Carlson, Melugin’s contributions to the Fox News propaganda machine are news packages and live standup shots at the border. He plays the straight man to Carlson's and Ingraham’s howling comedians, and his presence on the border and posture of journalistic impartiality give his words — and therefore Carlson’s and Ingraham’s — more weight than they would otherwise have. As the old vaudeville saying goes, comedians are a dime a dozen, but if you've got a straight man you've got an act.
The terminally online may remember Melugin from his stint as Twitter’s main character in the summer of 2020 after he credulously reported that a Starbucks employee had placed a tampon into a Los Angeles police officer’s coffee cup. The cop’s claim was ludicrous from the outset, as Melugin’s own post made clear. The foreign object looked nothing like a tampon. But for Melugin, all that mattered was that a cop told him it was. A subsequent LA sheriff's department investigation found the offending object was a cleaning cloth, not a tampon.
This episode isn’t just an embarrassing example of a journalist getting a story wrong. Even the most diligent reporters need to issue corrections over the course of their career. Instead, this screw-up is a microcosm of Melugin’s entire approach to reporting. He acts as a mouthpiece for law enforcement, thereby ingratiating himself into its ranks, even at the expense of his own professional reputation. By his own admission, if he wasn’t in journalism, he would go to law school to become a prosecutor. He excels at manufacturing what left-wing activists call copaganda, and he has been handsomely rewarded for it.
The Del Rio bridge story
Melugin’s primary beat is the southern border, a region he consistently portrays as lawless, dangerous, and porous as a result of liberal politicians’ fecklessness. Migrants in his stories appear as threats — either as vectors to spread COVID-19, or as terrorists, criminals, or undesireables who will be a drain on society. In Melugin’s coverage, the U.S.-Mexico border is not simply a demarcation between countries. It is a line that divides the civilized world from the uncivilized, order from chaos, producer from parasite, deserving citizen from undeserving alien. It’s a region where under-resourced Border Patrol agents must heroically stave off invasion from unrelenting hordes of criminals-in-waiting, all while being persecuted by the Woke Industrial Complex back home.
Melugin was the key driver of one of the biggest immigration stories of 2021, the perceived crisis of Haitian migrants who had established a small camp under the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas. There was a crisis, but it was for the Haitians who were relegated to extreme deprivation, humiliation, and stigma — not for the residents of Del Rio or for the United States more broadly.
Melugin initially used an airborne drone to cover the story, later appearing on Tucker Carlson Tonight repeatedly to discuss his footage. When the Federal Aviation Administration instituted a two-week flight restriction over Del Rio, the Texas Department of Public Safety allowed him to embed in an agency helicopter to continue his coverage. The FAA later gave Fox clearance to fly the drone again, which Melugin did, keeping the manufactured crisis in the headlines.
The Del Rio bridge story is a point of pride for Melugin, a story that forced national news outlets to cover a topic he believes they regularly ignore. “What we’re doing with the border right now — there’s no other national networks down there,” Melugin told Chafetz during an appearance on his podcast. “The only time they showed up was with the Del Rio bridge situation, with all the Haitians, and the only reason they showed up is because we were down there with the drone.”
As much as Melugin wants to portray himself as a straight reporter, he clearly favors a restrictionist approach to immigration that’s heavily reliant on criminalization of border crossing. “I’ll be frank with you, I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall,” he told conservative radio host and Fox News contributor Guy Benson in January. “I don’t know what else I have to show to wake people up. It almost seems like half the country wants to plug their head in the ground and pretend it’s not happening.”
This bias often shows up in subtle ways, like when Melugin internalizes Border Patrol lingo. He regularly refers to families as “family units,” the official, and dehumanizing, term used by the Department of Homeland Security. His reports often sound like he’s on safari, hunting prey. “Just a short time ago we had a group of runners come zipping right by us,” he said in November. “We found two of those runners hiding in a bush. Very difficult to see them.” Later in the segment, Melugin referenced a “remarkable” video published by far-right website Breitbart that showed a man trying to sink rafts migrants were using to cross the Rio Grande.
He often speaks about “got-aways,” that is, human beings who crossed the border without authorization that Border Patrol failed to apprehend. “A very, very high-level DHS source told me that since October, there have already been more than 220,000 known got-aways,” Melugin said in March. The term increased in popularity with conservatives following a September 2020 Border Patrol propaganda video called “The Gotaway,” reportedly inspired by Trump advisor and white nationalist Stephen Miller, that falsely presented immigrants as dangerous, criminal threats. More responsible reporters will occasionally use “got-away” to reference Border Patrol statements, but with Melugin the sinister connotations are just below the surface. “Just in the last six months alone here at the border there have been more than 300,000 known got-aways,” Melugin said during a segment that framed migrants as potential terrorists. “Former ICE Director Tom Homan says these terrorist numbers, these guys caught at the border last year, are a major concern.”
Melugin’s restrictionist approach frames his entire body of work, which treats increased levels of border crossing as inherently negative, and naturalizes prejudice against people from the global south. “Migrants just walking across the river, illegally entering the state of Texas,” Melugin said in March. “Border agents tell us you can expect this to get a whole lot worse if and when Title 42 drops,” he reported, referring to a racist Trump-era policy that allows officials to immediately expel asylum-seekers. He treats the release of single adult migrant men as inherently scandalous, implying that they are invaders disappearing into the shadows, lying in wait to commit violence. “We’re watching bus after bus after bus dropping off 50, 60 adult men at a time, sometimes with ankle monitors,” Melugin reported in January. “They get on a bus, they call a taxi, they go to the airport, and they’re gone.”
At the height of the interest in the Del Rio bridge story, Melugin used his on-the-ground presence to run interference for Border Patrol and sow confusion about its mistreatment of the migrants there. An iconic photograph taken by Paul Ratje appeared to depict a Border Patrol agent on horseback whipping a Haitian migrant, prompting national outrage, including from President Joe Biden. “I’ve never seen them whip anyone,” Ratje told local Texas TV station KTSM several days after it went viral. “[The agent] was swinging it, but it can be misconstrued when you’re looking at the picture.”
Melugin tweeted out that interview, claiming the photographer said “he and his colleagues never saw agents whipping anyone and the photos are being misconstrued. However, the false narrative is off and running.” Melugin’s tweet, which told a straightforward story of a photographer unequivocally distancing himself from how his work was being interpreted, was later picked up by The Federalist in a piece attacking the Biden administration for criticizing Border Patrol. The narrative that Biden was lying about the mistreatment of Haitian migrants at the border took hold and continues to be a story among anti-immigrant news outlets and organizations.
The reality of the situation, and Ratje’s feelings about his photo, are far more nuanced. Ratje told Time magazine in March that after his initial comment to KTSM saying he never saw the agents use their reins as whips, he was “portrayed” as giving the agents “a pass.” He tracked down the man in the photograph, Mirard Joseph, who attested in court documents that Border Patrol “lashed at” him. But more broadly, Joseph described his contact with Border Patrol as humiliating and dangerous and said the day the photo was taken was one of the worst of his life. Ratje’s determination to present Joseph and his family as fellow human beings, deserving of dignity and respect, stands in stark contrast to Melugin’s own coverage.
Groundwork for Carlson’s and Ingraham’s racism
The way Melugin’s coverage gets operationalized on Fox News is just as important as the coverage itself. The network’s two most open bigots — Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham — are, not coincidentally, two of Melugin’s biggest fans.
Beyond giving Melugin a central role in his paranoid documentary, Carlson regularly has Melugin on his show or otherwise references him and praises his work. Melugin’s coverage in some cases has served as the foundation for Carlson’s most extreme white nationalist programming, specifically his repeated endorsements of the racist “great replacement” theory, which holds that there is an international conspiracy by global elites to bring nonwhite people to the United States and Western Europe to seize political and cultural power through immigration.
Although Melugin had been appearing on Fox News regularly since at least early 2020, it was in September last year, during the Del Rio bridge story, that Melugin and Carlson's symbiotic relationship fully developed. Over the course of three nights, Carlson became progressively more racist, culminating in his embrace of the great replacement theory. Carlson aired a report from Melugin on the first show, and Melugin appeared as a guest on the following two nights. His dispatches over this period laid the foundation for some of Carlson's most xenophobic, openly racist rhetoric to date.
On Monday, September 20, Carlson played some of Melugin’s weekend footage from the bridge. “Bill Melugin has been on this story like nobody else,” Carlson said while introducing the footage. In the prerecorded segment, Melugin described the number of Haitians crossing the river as a “never-ending stream,” saying that the situation “is insane” and that the “federal government has to wake up.” Carlson then conspiratorially asked “how did they afford it,” the implication being that George Soros-aligned organizations were footing the bill for the migrants’ travel. He then claimed the Border Patrol chief had said only the single adult men among the migrants will be deported. “Yeah, right,” he exclaimed. “The rest will be processed and released into what you thought was your country but turns out isn't.”
On Tuesday, Melugin appeared live on Carlson’s show in the lead segment, arguably the most important real estate in all of cable news. “Look, it's hard to believe that this camp over my shoulder is actually in the United States,” Melugin said gravely. “It's more reminiscent of somewhere from the Third World, and law enforcement out here is on record as saying that.” Later in the segment, Carlson said the Haitians are “eager for the free health care, the education, the housing vouchers, food stamps, and much more that Joe Biden has promised them.” He warned his audience that “the people you just saw on your screen could very well be choosing your president at some point” and invoked the great replacement theory in all but name, saying, “This is an attempt to change the demographics of the United States in order to give permanent power to the Democratic Party.”
On Wednesday, Carlson invited Melugin back, again fueling one of his most overtly white-supremacist segments to date, as he fully endorsed the great replacement theory. “What Joe Biden is doing now will change this country forever, so again, why is he doing it? There's only one plausible answer. You're not allowed to say it out loud,” Carlson said. “In political terms, this policy is called the great replacement, the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from far away countries.” Around the same time, other Fox News personalities began pushing the racist conspiracy theory as well.
From this period onward, there is no shortage of examples of Carlson using racist, dehumanizing, or otherwise bigoted language when discussing Melugin’s reporting. On December 17, Carlson argued that “demographic change underway right now in the United States” is a “direct assault to democracy,” before tossing to Melugin.
In January, Carlson used the word “invasion” multiple times in conjunction with Melugin’s reporting. The following month, Carlson suggested that the Biden administration is allowing fentanyl smuggling across the border because opioid overdose deaths are harming white people, and “their deaths may have helped the equity agenda by changing the demographics of the country in a way that benefits the Democratic Party.” He then went to a report from Melugin from the border, sourced to law enforcement, to underscore his point.
The dynamic is the same when Melugin appears on The Ingraham Angle, which he’s been on at least 15 times. “Every crime they commit, every tax dollar they consume, every disease that is spread, every cartel member that's enriched, all of it is on Joe Biden,” Ingraham said on September 20, at the height of the Del Rio bridge panic, after she cited Melugin’s reporting. Earlier that month, channeling the great replacement theory, Ingraham said Biden saw migrants as “fodder for cheap labor and easy votes.” She often characterized migrants as a public health risk, as on January 25, when she said in response to a Melugin segment, “Presumably many unvaxxed illegals can just get free rides to wherever they please.”
Fox News' coverage has clearly had an effect. A recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that “about 1 in 3 U.S. adults believes an effort is underway to replace U.S.-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.” The consequences of popularizing that racist conspiracy theory have been disastrous. On May 14, an 18-year-old man shot 13 people, killing 10, in Buffalo, New York, in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Most of his victims were Black, and in his manifesto he espoused racist, antisemitic, xenophobic, and explicitly fascist views.
Although he wrote that he had been radicalized on extremist message boards during the pandemic, the shooter’s alleged manifesto repeatedly cites the great replacement conspiracy theory popularized and embraced by Tucker Carlson, which has in turn been widely embraced by mainstream elected Republicans. In that way, the massacre mirrored racist attacks carried out in El Paso, Texas, and Christchurch, New Zealand. Fox News, and Carlson specifically, have taken this once-fringe idea and normalized it. Melugin's alarmist border dispatches are an indispensable element of the network's formula, and he bears significant responsibility for the mainstreaming of the racist great replacement theory and the consequences it entails.
The terrorist threat that wasn’t
For Melugin, people who cross the border without authorization pose an urgent danger, especially if they can be tied to the underground drug economy, or, even better, associated with the threat of terrorism. Reactionaries have promoted the idea that the southern U.S. border is a ripe avenue for terrorists to enter the country since the 9/11 attacks. That myth has been repeatedly debunked, but Melugin has been happy to resurrect it to further stigmatize migrants.
On April 18, Melugin co-wrote an article for Fox News’ website with an alarmist headline warning that Customs and Border Protection had “stopped 23 people on terrorist database at southern border in 2021.” As Media Matters documented, that story served as the basis for seven segments that day on Fox News and was picked up by far-right network competitors Newsmax and One America News Network as well.
The Terrorist Screening Database, which Melugin’s story referred to, is notoriously unreliable as an indicator of past, present, or future violent acts or tendencies. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, responded to Melugin’s article by laying out how easy it is for people to be added to the database through nothing but a chain of unrelated telephone calls. The government regularly keeps people in the database even after they’ve been cleared of wrongdoing, and experts have called for the judiciary to rule the database unconstitutional based on the fact that it’s arbitrary, shrouded in secrecy, and overly broad in its data collection and retention. In other words, the fact that 23 of the people CBP stopped were associated with that database could be, by itself, almost entirely meaningless.
Still, for Melugin, the arbitrary number 23 could be even further abstracted into fuel for xenophobic paranoia. “Those are only the ones they caught, only the ones they know about,” Melugin told Carlson on the evening his story was published. “That's a major concern, because CBP officials tell us in the last six months alone here at the border, there have been more than 300,000 known got-aways.”
Wow, what a big number. What a big number that means absolutely nothing.
The Los Angeles beat
Melugin’s secondary beat is Los Angeles, specifically crime and disorder. Like the southern border, the Los Angeles of Melugin’s coverage is a violent, dystopian land where a small band of champions — police and prosecutors, in this case — fight against all odds to preserve the thin line between civilization and a total societal collapse.
Melugin is heavily featured in the two-part Season Two premiere of Tucker Carlson Originals — one of Carlson’s Fox Nation imprints — titled “Suicide of Los Angeles.” Carlson’s Originals seem like documentaries but serve as fascist propaganda, and Melugin acted as his well-coiffed Virgil, shepherding the viewer through the hell that is modern Los Angeles. Carlson’s antagonist is LA District Attorney George Gascón, a moderate criminal justice reformer who — according to Melugin — has transformed the county into a living nightmare. “All of my best sources in all of LA are deputy DAs within the DA office, dozens of them,” he intoned dramatically. “I typically know what happens in that office before the ink dries on something, because people are so pissed off about what’s going on.” Gascon, a former police officer himself, now faces a recall election as a result of right-wing pressure.
Obviously, having sources inside the DA’s office or the police department is crucial for a beat reporter. The problem arises when a journalist’s reporting becomes indistinguishable from the press releases of those organizations. Melugin continues to rely on a stenographer model of “reporting,” running with whatever cops feed him, regardless of the truth. In 2020, for example, when Melugin was still with Fox’s local LA outlet, he tweeted out information about Los Angeles City Council member Mike Bonin that aligned with a smear campaign the LA police union had just initiated against Bonin, which Bonin called “demonstrably false.”
For years, Melugin has been happy to pass along the subjective, unfalsifiable claim that, as a result of some relatively modest reform, morale at the various law enforcement agencies he covers has never been lower. At ICE, the “morale is as low as it gets,” Melugin said on January 27. “Everybody is feeling super down and morale is in the toilet,” Melugin said again three days later on a Fox News radio show. “Morale has never been this bad. They see it as absolutely rock bottom,” Melugin said about the Los Angeles Police Department in a June 2020 radio interview. “One prosecutor told me the way it feels working for George Gascón right now, he likens it to what he imagines it felt like at the end of the Vietnam War,” Melugin said in “Suicide of Los Angeles,” which was released in April.
Unsurprisingly, this is the exact same line law enforcement officers and unions take when their power is challenged even moderately. Again, reporting that a union has issued a statement is one thing, but when the reporter privileges anecdotal concerns of cops over every other detail in the story, including the voices of activists, public defenders, immigrants, and prison abolitionists, it is stenography, not reporting. In Melugin’s reporting, public defenders and defense attorneys are dangerous radicals, and left-wing activists are coddled by the criminal punishment system. It’s not clear that Melugin has ever written a story about police or prosecutorial misconduct. (Melugin’s labor sympathies appear to be restricted to law enforcement, as he was willing to cast the LA teacher’s union in an extremely negative light during negotiations to resume in-person classes.)
On the rare occasion that he does present a perspective other than that of the police, he typically undercuts it immediately. In a radio interview on April 2, Melugin said Black Lives Matter activists were pleased that Gascón was planning to disband, or at least downsize, the Hardcore Gang Unit, because they felt the unit engaged in racist policing. “One of the prosecutors I talked to in that unit says that argument is BS,” Melugin immediately clarified.
Melugin has been lavishly rewarded by law enforcement for his copaganda. He is a regular beneficiary of leaks, including for the Tucker Carlson Originals episode. The fact that he’s able to obtain privileged or classified information, and then disseminate it, further perpetuates his reputation as an investigative journalist. It just so happens that virtually every leak he gets paints cops in a positive light and reformers or activists in a negative one.
Melugin’s bad data
No one would confuse Melugin for a rigorous statistician or political scientist, but his misrepresentation of data is egregious even by cable news standards. He’s happy to omit research when it doesn’t fit his predetermined, anti-immigration narrative, as one example from last year illustrates.
On September 22, Melugin reported that a Border Patrol source told him the migrants under the International Bridge at Del Rio were being processed and released with “notices to report,” rather than the stricter “notice to appear.” Melugin then tweeted: “When those migrants never show up to immigration/court dates, there is no more law enforcement interaction, no way to track them. They are gone into the shadows in the U.S.” As Media Matters noted at the time, all the available evidence contradicted Melugin’s innuendo that migrants skip out on their hearings. As the American Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick noted in response to Melugin’s tweet, from 2008 to 2018, 83% of migrants appeared for their hearings.
Melugin is also happy to present data, or leaked government documents, stripped of context to convey a similar sense of danger and foreboding that migrants present. In February, Melugin claimed there had been a “huge surge” in Border Patrol encounters in Del Rio when compared with January 2021. Reichlin-Melnick responded to that tweet as well, arguing that Melugin’s framing was misleading, that numbers were not in fact surging, and that the year-over-year comparison served only to manufacture a perceived crisis.
“You look like a white supremacist”
In the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, protests against rising fascism and racist institutions erupted throughout the country. Melugin, still a reporter at the local KTTV channel, covered an August 2017 march in LA and was accused of looking like a white supremacist by the demonstrators. To be fair, in the video Melugin just appears to be doing his job, and although he wasn’t wearing his own press credentials, his photographer was. Melugin grew understandably upset at the accusation, countering, “You know nothing about me.”
It’s a fair point, and, sartorial missteps notwithstanding, the protesters that day were ungenerous to Melugin. Had they been able to see what his coverage over the next 4 ½ years would look like, they may have been on firmer ground. Either way, if Melguin doesn’t want to be characterized as a white supremacist in the future, he should probably stop working for a company run by them.
Correction (5/19/22): This piece originally stated that the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally was in Charlottesville, North Carolina, rather than Virginia.