President Donald Trump has taken Fox News’ advice and successfully turned the network’s fearmongering about an “invasion” by a caravan of migrants moving through Central America and Mexico with the intent to seek asylum in the United States into a major issue for the upcoming midterm elections. While the caravan is shrinking and remains more than 1,000 miles away from the U.S. border -- a journey of weeks on foot -- Trump has been able to use his bully pulpit to move it to the top of the media agenda.
Notably, The New York Times and The Washington Post have run a total of 115 news stories in their print editions mentioning the caravan over the last three weeks. Each paper has run at least one such story on its front page on nine of the last 10 days.
The caravan formed in Honduras on October 12, but neither paper mentioned it in print until October 17. The previous day, Trump had tweeted a threat to cut aid to Honduras after watching a Fox & Friends segment about the caravan. Each paper covered that threat, the Times on A8 (with a story headlined “Trump Warns Honduras Over Migrant Caravan”) and the Post on A10 (“Migrant caravan moves north, drawing outrage from Trump”).
Since then, both papers have regularly featured the story in their news pages, including on A1. Many of these articles are, on their own merits, laudable. They provide the compelling stories of the migrants themselves, debunk the president’s lies and conspiracy theories, and point to the facts that undermine his demagoguery.
But the sheer volume of the coverage can’t help but fuel Trump’s claims that the caravan’s approach represents a crisis and suck oxygen away from other stories in the lead-up to the midterm elections. This plays into the GOP’s deliberate strategy, developed by Fox commentators and adopted by the White House, of focusing attention on the caravan in order to drive conservative voters to the polls.
The Post has run 65 total news articles mentioning the story in its A section, running at least one on each subsequent day. On nine different days the paper ran four or more pieces, topping out at seven articles on October 30. Thirteen of the articles ran on the paper’s front page, the first one coming October 20.
The Times has run 50 total news articles mentioning the story in its A section, skipping it on only two days since its initial piece ran. The paper ran four or more pieces on eight different days, publishing a maximum of seven articles on October 24 and 30. Twelve of the articles ran on the front page; the story first hit A1 with two October 23 articles.
The increasing print coverage of the caravan mimics the way the story came to dominate cable news. Fox has been flooding the zone with coverage, creating a feedback loop with Trump in which the president and his favorite network are regularly pushing alarmist conspiracy theories about the migrant “invasion.” Meanwhile, CNN and MSNBC responded to the president’s Fox-fueled obsession with the caravan with their own coverage. As with the Times and Post, these cable networks often sought to fact-check the president’s lies and put the story in context, but their coverage nonetheless pulled attention away from other pressing issues and put it squarely on the subject Trump wanted to discuss.
Cable news coverage of the migrants dropped substantially on all three networks last week after a Trump superfan allegedly sent bombs to more than a dozen Democratic politicians and leaders as well as to CNN. But Fox’s coverage rebounded almost immediately, and coverage on the other networks has also ticked upwards over the past few days as Trump has continued to rant against the migrants, ordered U.S. military forces to the border in response, and called for the end of birthright citizenship.
As I wrote earlier this week for HuffPost, the facts simply don’t match the crisis narrative Trump is promoting -- or the level of coverage journalists have given the caravan in response to his demagoguery:
Trump’s Fox-fueled commentary turned the caravan story into a major national news story as reporters sought to explain and contextualize what he was talking about. But the situation does not, on its face, justify the coverage the caravan has received. The migrants are currently in southern Mexico, their numbers are dwindling and, depending on which route the caravan chooses, they face a journey of 1,000 to 2,000 miles to the U.S. border that will take weeks or months. Those who make it to the border have the right to seek asylum, and those whose claims are rejected will be turned away. That’s what happened when a similar caravan ― which also drew vitriol from Fox News and then from Trump ― reached the U.S. border in May. The caravans have been going on for roughly a decade without issue.
But with the caravan dominating the media conversation, immigration has taken on increasing salience among Republican and independent voters, perhaps in a way that could make a difference in key races next week.
Seeking to explain to readers why the Times had devoted so much attention to the caravan, Times deputy editor for International, Greg Winter, wrote on October 26, “It’s not our job to pretend that the caravan and the president’s response are not happening. To the contrary, it’s our mission to explain, with clarity and fairness, what is real, what is not and why it matters.”
But the paper’s resources are limited, and A1 space is precious, so it’s also the Times’ role -- and the Post’s -- to determine how much coverage one story gets and another doesn’t. Those decisions display the papers’ priorities and tell the public which issues are most worthy of debate.
Column inches devoted to the caravan can’t be used to cover other critical issues, like health care policy, or Trump administration corruption, or Republican plans to dismantle the social safety net. And in the weeks leading up to the midterms, time and again, the story that got the most attention was the one the president wanted to get attention.
This is not a new problem for the press. Ironically, one of the Times pieces on the caravan cites data we published in 2014 about the outsized television coverage the Ebola outbreak received in 2014, when Republican leaders were similarly determined to engineer a crisis in order to benefit in upcoming elections. A similar press fixation on then-FBI Director James Comey’s late-October letter about Hillary Clinton’s emails may have played a critical role in the 2016 presidential election.
The only caravan crisis is the one Fox and Trump wanted to create in order to help Republicans triumph in the midterms. But the crisis in political journalism is real and ongoing. It doesn’t seem like editors and producers have learned much from their failures in recent years. They remain stymied by how to respond when political leaders seek to manipulate them in order to focus the public’s attention on the issues of their choice.
Correction: We've replaced earlier charts due to a labeling error on the Y axis. The data has not changed.
Media Matters searched the Nexis database for The New York Times and The Washington Post for articles mentioning the caravan between October 12 and November 2. We included articles from only the print editions of each paper, and we limited the results to articles from the news (A) sections; articles from editorial, opinion, op-ed, business, sports, and other sections were excluded.
Shelby Jamerson contributed research