It was a mistake so egregious and so widespread that even the New York Times, the flagship of liberal journalism — and not the source of the original story — felt it had to devote an article to explaining how it happened.
Last weekend a horrifying tale about the Trump administration “losing” 1,500 children was all over the Internet. The hashtag #Wherearethechildren went viral on Twitter. Adding fuel to the fire was a photo depicting children being kept in cages.
The only problem was that the children weren’t lost and the photo was taken during the Obama administration. The Left’s eagerness to embrace this “fake news” stemmed, according to the Times’s Amanda Taub, from “partisan polarization,” and as a result the tale “spread across liberal social media.”
Yet the problem goes a lot deeper than that. Anti-Trump readers and viewers may have fallen victim to confirmation bias, but prestige media outlets also deserve a lot of the blame. Even when such stories are later debunked, as this one was, these outlets habitually feed viral myths to the public and create a climate in which any anti-Trump claim seems believable. Instead of asking readers to engage in some introspection about their credulousness, liberal journalists should look at their own behavior.
For starters, it wasn’t just social media that spread the “missing children” myth. Some media outlets ran headlines asserting that the government had “lost track” of immigrant children, a claim easily conflated with Trump’s decision to separate parents and children at the border. Most egregiously, an Arizona Republic story (republished at USA Today and corrected about a week later) reported as fact that the government had lost children in its own custody.
But as the Times explained, these children were not separated from their parents but rather had arrived illegally at the border on their own, seeking asylum. Most said they had fled their homes in Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala to escape drug-cartel and gang violence. They were then placed in the homes of adults who had agreed to sponsor them, often relatives. But, as has happened for years, including during the Obama administration, many of these children ran away or left the United States, or the adult sponsors (who might have their own troubles with the law) refused to pick up the phone when the government checked up on them. Hence, the figure of 1,475 children “missing.”
The policy of separating parents from children is not entirely new, either. Indeed, it is standard when adults who have committed a crime are arrested. The only alternatives are to create a detention system for families, a policy to which the ACLU objected under Obama (the policy is barred under a 1997 consent decree), or simply not to detain illegal entrants at all before their court hearings, allowing them to disappear into the country.
Arrests are up, of course, thanks to the Trump administration’s attempts to deter illegal immigration. This was a necessary departure from the previous administration’s soft approach to this serious problem.
The knee-jerk anger of the Left against Trump’s policies doesn’t really stem from the debate over the issue, though of course Americans are divided about how to deal with illegal immigrants. More fundamentally, it stems from the polarization Taub discusses — and more specifically, from the divisions the media constantly reinforce. Americans read, listen to, and watch different media and have largely forgotten how to deal with disagreement except through demonization. To consume what was once called “mainstream media” is to enter into a world not only where Trump is never given the benefit of the doubt but where everything he does or says is not reported so much as presented as evidence against him in a daily trial.
It is the rabid partisanship of the media that is causing so many Americans to buy whatever myth the Internet is serving up against Trump on any given day.
There is much to criticize about Trump’s tweets, utterances, and behavior. But anger at his presence in the White House has caused many journalists to discard their professional principles and any sense of restraint. At places like CNN, and even at the Times to some extent, the church–state divide between news and opinion has completely broken down. Panel discussions have become competitions in Trump-bashing. News reports are slanted to take Trump’s guilt or incompetence as a given.
Even when myths are exposed, there’s no letup in the drumbeat of incitement against Trump. As an example, the day the Times published the column about liberals’ being led astray by the “missing children” meme, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an anti-Trump screed on immigration in which he described the president’s policies as veering from “abhorrent to evil.”
At this point, confirmation bias on the part of the readership is not the core issue. After the last 16 months of media coverage, why would anyone who identifies as liberal or a Democrat not believe the most outlandish or false tales about the president?
If media analysts such as Taub want to understand why the loss of trust between liberals and conservatives is so extreme and how stories like this spread, they should start by looking in the mirror. It is the rabid partisanship of the media that is causing so many Americans to buy whatever myth the Internet is serving up against Trump on any given day.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its original posting, to clarify that the USA Today piece discussed here was republished from the Arizona Republic.