With midterm elections just 14 days away, you might not think that a group of migrants more than 1,000 miles away from the nearest U.S. border would be a leading story across all three cable news networks. You would be wrong.
What started out as one of Fox News’ pet issues has become a major media narrative thanks to the feedback loop between the network and President Donald Trump. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC spent a combined 15 hours covering the migrant caravan between Monday, October 15, and Sunday, October 21. Fox News led the charge, covering the story both first and the most -- for nearly eight hours. In the same week-long period, CNN covered the issue for four and a half hours, while MSNBC devoted two and a half hours to the migrant caravan. While the tone of the coverage varied among the networks, one thing is clear across all three: Their priorities just two weeks out from midterms elections are skewed.
Fox had spent 20 minutes over the mornings of October 15 and 16 talking about the migrant caravan before Trump first tweeted a threat to take aid away from Honduras if the caravan wasn’t stopped. He tweeted a similar message Tuesday night. Trump’s tweets -- which were undoubtedly spurred by Fox News’ coverage of the caravan -- are what first gave this issue life on CNN and MSNBC. CNN’s and MSNBC’s first mentions of the migrants occurred Tuesday night, when a host on each network reacted to Trump’s tweets about cutting aid.
By Wednesday, October 17, Trump was already trying to use the caravan to try to benefit Republicans. In a tweet that morning, the president called the caravan a “Great Midterm issue for Republicans!” Wednesday night, Newt Gingrich appeared on Fox News and stated, “I think two words are going to define the night of the 2018 election in the next three weeks. One is Kavanaugh and the other is caravan,” referring to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Trump picked right up on that talking point, echoing it at a rally the next day in Montana, after falsely tweeting that there are “MANY CRIMINALS” in the group of migrants and threatening to use the military to “CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!” As the days passed, Trump continued to tweet misspelled lies about the caravan creating “a National Emergy” and somehow blamed Democrats for the issue even though Republicans have control of all three branches of the federal government.
As Trump’s focus on the caravan ramped up, so did the networks’ coverage:
Not only did Fox News successfully spur coverage of the caravan across the other networks by getting Trump to tweet about it, but it also managed to frame the conversation around the midterms. MSNBC repeatedly aired clips of Gingrich’s “Kavanaugh” and “caravan” comments to drive conversation about immigration and the midterms.
While all the networks overplayed coverage of the caravan, their tones varied. CNN and MSNBC were more likely to highlight Trump’s lies and fear tactics, as well as the plight of the migrants, while more often than not Fox’s coverage was aimed at stoking fear. Nonetheless, the sheer amount of time devoted to the topic across all three networks is disproportionate, creating the false impression of a real crisis.
The wall-to-wall coverage is reminiscent of the networks’ treatment of the federal government response to Ebola in 2014. Shortly before that year’s midterm elections, Republicans settled on a strategy of using the diagnosis of Ebola in a handful of U.S. patients to inflame fears about the Obama administration’s management of the disease. Television media played into the GOP’s hands, running nearly 1,000 frequently alarmist segments about the virus in the four weeks before the election.
Instead of focusing on issues more pertinent to the currently impending election -- like health care or voter suppression -- cable networks have fallen for a disingenuous trap created by Fox News and the president that plays right into the GOP’s hands.
On Monday, October 22, coverage of the group of migrants rocketed up with a combined six and a half hours across CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. Once again, Fox News had the most coverage, with over three hours of programming devoted to the caravan. CNN was close behind with nearly two and a half hours of coverage, and MSNBC had just over an hour.
Coverage continued to tick up on Tuesday, October 23, with the networks devoting over seven hours to the group of migrants. Fox News spent nearly four hours, CNN spent over two hours, and MSNBC spent nearly an hour and a half covering the migrants.
It wasn’t until a spate of bombs were sent to Democratic figures and leaders that coverage of the migrant caravan started to decline. On Wednesday, October 24, cable news focused primarily on the bomb threats. Almost all of the coverage of the caravan came before the pipe bomb story picked up. CNN spent nearly an hour on the caravan while MSNBC spent just over half and hour on the group of migrants. Fox’s coverage of the caravan remained the highest, with the network devoting an hour and 45 minutes to the migrants.
Fox’s coverage spiked back up the next day, October 25, to nearly three hours. CNN and MSNBC remained focused on the still-escalating number of bomb threats; each network spent less than 10 minutes on the caravan.
It's clear that Fox News is doing the best it can to make sure that the migrant caravan stays in the news cycle. On October 25, Fox anchor Martha MacCallum reported live from the border, conducting an extensive on-site interview with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen that led off with discussion of the caravan rather than the bombs being delivered across the country.
Fox News continued its amplified coverage of the migrant group from Friday, October 26, through Sunday, October 28, even after news broke on Saturday morning that a shooter targeted a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, killing 11 individuals. The shooter alluded to the caravan, and claimed the Jews were behind such caravans, as part of the reason for the attack, calling the migrants “invaders.” Fox News figures have frequently engaged in this “invasion” rhetoric while talking about the caravan. Nonetheless, Fox continued its steady drumbeat of fearmongering about the migrant group the day of and the day after the shooting.
In comparison, CNN and MSNBC dropped their coverage of the caravan mostly to mentions, oftentimes in conversations about Trump’s attempts to shift the focus back to the topic. In the three-day period, CNN spent 17 minutes, MSNBC spent 35 minutes, and Fox News spent over four hours discussing the migrants.
In total, from October 15 through October 28, the three cable news channels devoted over 40 hours to the group of migrants in the south of Mexico. Fox News has spent nearly 23 and a half hours covering the topic, CNN has spent 10 and a half hours, and MSNBC has discussed the migrants for six hours and 20 minutes.
Media Matters will continue to track the cable networks’ caravan coverage.
Gabby Miller, Tyler Monroe, Zach Pleat, Sanam Malik, Stephen Morris, Chris Shields, and Kaitlyn Angrove contributed research.
Media Matters searched SnapStream for any mention of “caravan,” “Mexico,” “migrants,” “illegals,” “Guatemala,” or “Honduras” on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC between the hours of 4 a.m and midnight starting October 15 and ending October 28. We included any teasers, passing mentions, or discussions specifically about the caravan. Conversations that weren’t specifically focused on the caravan but were about immigration at large were excluded. Shows that re-aired during the hours of the study were included in the results. Mentions of the caravan specific to discussion about the motive of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting were not included.