LA Times’ sympathetic profile of Fox News’ Bill Melugin lets him off the hook for his role in the network’s racism

As Fox’s top correspondent at the southern border, Melugin is instrumental in shaping the network’s anti-migrant coverage

On February 1, the Los Angeles Times published a glowing profile of Bill Melugin, Fox News’ border correspondent, that obscured his key role in shaping some of the network’s most racist immigration coverage. The piece frames him as a neutral, objective reporter, rather than an active participant in Fox’s dehumanizing depictions of migrants.  

Melugin can be seen on Fox News almost daily, consistently framing migrants as potential terrorists or drug smugglers — bigoted, debunked characterizations designed to paint immigrants as threats rather than vulnerable human beings. He’s willing to engage in absurd fearmongering to hype the danger that migrants pose, as in December when he repeated an unfounded story about a police officer overdosing from touching fentanyl – a common but false myth perpetuated by cops – then seamlessly transitioned into his own claims about supposed migrant drug smugglers.

Melugin’s work since joining the network in May 2021 has served as the foundation for some of Fox prime-time star Tucker Carlson's most explicit segments that advance the racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, a subject the profile deals with only in passing. Even then, the LA Times lets Melugin off the hook, portraying him as a straight reporter with little, if anything, to do with the opinion side of the network.

That depiction is completely inaccurate. The entire dynamic between Melugin and the hosts and anchors he speaks with is premised on him acting as a disinterested observer of the border. Melugin plays this part skillfully, like a professional wrestler embracing kayfabe, but he too is bound to his role.

Instead of recognizing Melugin’s dynamic with his on-air colleagues as a performance, the LA Times’ Stephen Battaglio takes Melugin at face value. As a result, his readers only get half the story; it’s as though Battaglio wrote about Bud Abbott genuinely trying to tell Lou Costello who’s on first without mentioning they’re doing a bit.

Battaglio includes two instances in which Carlson has openly embraced the Great Replacement theory – there are many more – neither of which directly implicate Melugin.

Last year, host Tucker Carlson said the Democratic Party’s border policy is aimed at “trying to replace the current electorate” in the U.S. with “new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” The calamitous tone on the topic has persisted for a while. In 2018, Carlson has said mass immigration made the country “poorer and dirtier and more divided.”

The next paragraph of the story is its most important, where Battaglio frames Melugin as a straight-news reporter delivering the facts and leaving the opinion and editorializing to others at the network.

But the opinion hosts do not try to draw Melugin into debates or commentary on the issue when he appears on their Fox News shows. He’s turned down offers to appear on public forums about immigration. He accepts that Carlson and other opinion hosts riffing off his reports is standard operating procedure at Fox News.

Battaglio here completely misses the point of Melugin’s role at Fox, which is not to offer “debates or commentary on the issue.” His role is to produce images and video that Carlson and others can present to Fox’s audience as evidence to further their racist arguments.  

This dynamic was exemplified by a series of appearances Melugin made on Tucker Carlson Tonight to report on a group of migrants, mostly Haitians, who had taken refuge under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas. Over three days in September 2021, Carlson repeatedly spoke with Melugin or used his footage on-air to build an argument that President Joe Biden was deliberately bringing Haitians and other migrants to the country to replace white people. 

“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 on the third day, September 22, 2021. “In political terms, this policy is called the great replacement, the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from far away countries.” 

To call that “riffing off” Melugin’s work is ridiculous. Melugin’s footage and dispatches were the very foundation upon which Carlson’s racist case rested, not some ancillary filler. 

The only critique of Melugin in the piece comes from Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“If he sees that his reporting is being manipulated on his own network in a way that doesn’t represent the facts as he sees them accurately, he has a responsibility to correct that record no matter how uncomfortable that might make him,” Kahn said. “The truth is that in the current media environment, it’s not enough just to report facts as you see them; you also need to be the guardian of your own reporting.”

Battaglio then provides Melugin’s response.

Melugin countered that he will go on shows such as “Tucker Carlson Tonight” so he can control the way his stories are told. “I am willing to report for any show, anytime, anyplace, because if my reporting is going to be used, then who better to make sure it’s done right, and done accurately, than me?” he said.

The question then obviously becomes: Does Melugin think Carlson’s use of his reporting was “done right, and done accurately”? Does he take issue with the way his footage is operationalized in the service of white supremacist arguments? Battaglio doesn’t say, and his omission allows Melugin to save face and avoid breaking character.  

Battaglio could have asked a follow up question as well: What does Melugin think of the legions of white nationalists who adore his reporting? Does that give him any pause? Does it make him rethink how he frames his coverage and makes his reportorial decisions? 

Battaglio appears uninterested in these questions. The little that readers get of Melugin’s thoughts on how his coverage is used is self-serving, a thin attempt to bolster his own persona.

“I’ve seen our footage spun on both sides of the aisle,” Melugin said. “You’ll sometimes have people on the right wing using the footage to say there’s an invasion on the border. I’ve seen our same footage used by people on the left to say ‘We’re being so cruel to these migrants. This country is showing no humanity.’ All we’re doing is putting a mirror up and showing what’s happening. People are going to use it for their representative political commentary and that’s fine.”

Melugin here is invoking one of the oldest tricks in the book and out of an abundance of caution Battaglio should probably avoid anyone wearing a “wallet inspector” t-shirt. As the link above shows, overt racists have consistently embraced Melugin and his coverage, while Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, has spent years correcting Melugin’s errors and misleading framing on Twitter (vital fact-checking which goes unmentioned in the LA Times piece). The idea that Melugin is somehow equally regarded on the right and the left is nonsense.

Battaglio goes on to praise Melugin’s sourcing in law enforcement, without any context about why he might be so beloved by border cops.

Melugin is clearly well-sourced in the border enforcement community as well. Last July, he reported on leaked audio of DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas telling Border Patrol agents during a private meeting in McAllen, Texas, that “we’re losing” and the border situation is “unsustainable.”

One reason that Melugin has such good law enforcement sourcing is that he almost exclusively speaks with cops for his stories. He also has shown himself willing to frame a story in a way that’s beneficial to police, even when it makes no sense – most famously, when he got duped and falsely reported that someone had placed a tampon into an officer’s coffee, even though the object was clearly a dish rag.

More substantially, Melugin incorrectly reported last October that a migrant who was shot and killed in Border Patrol custody had lunged for an agent’s gun. The next day, an FBI investigation determined the migrant had in fact “grabbed an edged weapon off a desk in the processing area.”

What about Melugin’s interactions with migrants themselves? Here is how Battaglio presents it:

He’s says he’s watched migrants drown as they cross the Rio Grande, children being sexually assaulted and illegal drugs being seized. Using conversational Spanish, his interviews with those who cross — most originating from Venezuela and Cuba — are brief, as they can no longer talk once they are apprehended by Border Patrol authorities. He recounts the painful stories of why they risked their lives to come to the U.S. Cameras also capture the movements of camouflaged figures crossing illegally at night.

What that means in practice is shoving a camera, unasked, in the face of someone who is likely experiencing one of the worst days of their life, with little regard for whether or not they want to appear on Fox News. Battaglio also could have mentioned a clip from November 2021 in which Melugin described a vigilante’s attempts to sink a migrant’s raft with dehumanizing detachment. He characterized the video, originally obtained by right-wing website Breitbart, as “pretty remarkable.”

As Battaglio correctly assesses, Melugin is “a rising star” at Fox News, covering one of the network’s most high-priority topics. Unfortunately, that’s where the LA Times’ journalist’s insight ends. He winds up as another mark, laundering Melugin’s one-sided reporting into supposedly neutral border coverage. He played his role just like Melugin does for Fox.