Politics & Policy

Dem Coincidences

The mainstream media discover illegal immigration.

The other evening, flipping through the nightly news shows looking for anything unrelated to Natalie Holloway or BTK Killer Dennis Rader, my husband made a rather astute observation: “Why is it that all the news shows are suddenly doing 24/7 analysis of the immigration problem? You think they’re trying to help the Democrats?”

He had a point. Problems stemming from illegal immigration have provoked strong feelings among voters for years without sparking much more than an NPR/La Raza lovefest. Granted, local news outlets always cover the theft, violence, and drug busts related to the “undocumented” populations in their towns. But as a national crisis that requires talking heads incessantly to gather at the roundtable, the issue of immigration has remained fairly unvisited since the Reagan era. So why all the attention now?

I decided to test my husband’s hypothesis that the mainstream media’s current immigration craze is merely a bid to bolster Democrats. Using the terms “illegal immigration” and “border,” I ran a full-text LexisNexis search for television-news transcripts in 1999–363 were retrieved. I then ran the same terms for 2000 and 2001, and the search returned 332 and 444 hits respectively, the majority of which came from either local stations in southwestern cities or transcripts of congressional hearings. Most of those hits came from the Clinton years.

I expected my post-9/11 retrievals to increase dramatically, given the country’s heightened awareness of security concerns. But even though 9/11 and its attendant terrorist fears did spark a minor upswing for a few months, my search only returned 287 transcripts for the year that followed, indicating that the focus on terrorism actually caused a decrease in immigration coverage. My number for 2003 rose, but only slightly–to 362.

Then, towards the end of 2004, the numbers jumped noticeably, to 612 for the year. And bigger names like Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer started showing up with greater frequency. But the real windfall came when I ran the terms for the first seven-and-a-half months of 2005. Here, the number of transcripts located for “illegal immigration” and “border” came in at 895, already on track to triple or quadruple coverage for past years. Now all the big guns were out. ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer, Hardball with Chris Matthews, and every CNN show were all present and regularly accounted for.

It seemed as though the media powers that be saw that the constant barrage of negative war coverage wasn’t having the impact they had hoped, so they followed the Democrats’ lead and collectively took a different tack. After all, it couldn’t be the story of the Minutemen alone that caused the surge coverage, seeing as how the major networks have never had a problem ignoring stories that aren’t to their liking.

Unquestionably, the rate of illegal-immigration coverage on television began its rise in 2004 as Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric on the subject started to heat up–for example, declaring at her husband’s library opening, “I do not think that we have protected our borders or our ports or provided our first responders with the resources they need.” Never mind that her voting record belies this supposed concern: She voted against an amendment that would have allocated more spending on border agents. What is interesting is that her comments were tailor-made to strike a chord with traditionally conservative voters, leading T.V.’s professional pontificators to trumpet the news that she had outflanked Republicans on the issue.

Nor does it appear coincidental that in the same six months that other Democrats, like Governors Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Janet Napolitano of Arizona, have begun to follow Hillary’s lead of talking tough (but voting weak), the media have begun to cover the issue with abandon–and to ignore the Democrats’ records on it.

Before his politically convenient epiphany about the importance of border control, Richardson had made speeches in which he openly welcomed illegal immigrants to his state, saying they would be protected there. He had also signed legislation allowing illegal aliens to pay in-state tuition rates at New Mexico’s public universities. Napolitano, for her part, has in the past two years attempted to get Arizona’s voter-approved Proposition 200 (which bars illegals from accessing welfare benefits) declared unconstitutional, blocked legislation requiring a photo I.D. to vote, and vetoed a proposal that would have provided state and local police the authority to enforce federal immigration laws.

But that isn’t what the evening shows report. What does make the news is the governors’ declarations that their border counties are in states of emergency. The media are happy to give primetime play to Richardson’s criticism of the “total inaction and lack of resources from the federal government and Congress” and Napolitano’s observation that “this is a federal responsibility, and they’re not meeting it.”

Republican blood is in the water and the mainstream media smell it. They finally have a position, championed by Democrats, that they can shout from the rooftops without turning off the American public. We can expect the feeding frenzy to continue until the White House takes serious measures to enforce immigration law.

Megan Basham, a Phillips fellow, is currently at work on the book Behind Every Successful Man.

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