Magazine | March 20, 2017, Issue

Real News, Fake Panic

Protesters at Philadelphia International Airport, January 29, 2017. (Reuters photo: Charles Mostoller)

It’s a horrifying story that should petrify any international traveler: A perfectly harmless person headed to speak at a conference is detained for hours because he has the wrong kind of visa.

Officials were curious about a foreign government’s paying for the speech, and you can just imagine how you’d feel: It’s Kafka without the charming yet somehow ominous architecture! You traveled across the ocean to give a nice talk to some smart people, and now you’re treated like you left the plane wearing a bin Laden mask and with bricks of modeling clay strapped to your chest, ululating fealty to the jihad.

Here’s the odd thing: This happened in March of last year. Well, you say, the growing wave of Trump enthusiasm empowered border bullies to give vent to their darker instincts.

But it happened in London. Rachel Nabors, an American, was going to Oxford to give a speech, and there were visa complications. She wrote an account of the petty, anal-retentive, unpleasant British officials who turned her away and put her on a plane back home. I thought of her when I read the New York Times account of Henry Rousso, a French historian detained at a Texas airport because of . . . visa complications. You knew the Times would put the event in context, in case you didn’t realize what dark times have descended:

Since Mr. Trump took office in January, immigration authorities have engaged in several high-profile actions against immigrants. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said on Tuesday that the president wanted to “take the shackles off” of agents who had, under President Barack Obama, been under orders to focus only on serious criminals.

Well, there you go! Shackles removed from the agents and clapped on the shanks of a harmless intellectual who happened to be a Holocaust scholar. We’re supposed to infer the relevance, right? As if the brown-shirted agents figured he was one of them Jew-symps riling up fake news about Hitler’s camps, which were really a jobs program, when you think about it.

The only reason the story went national was that it fed the narrative: Swaggering louts with mirrored sunglasses and billy clubs stand ready to expel decent, smart, harmless people who come from France. What other conclusion could you draw from an administration that wanted to throttle immigration from Yemen? It’s like the bomb threats on Jewish community centers and the headstone toppling in Jewish graveyards: Apparently there’s nothing that emboldens anti-Semites more than a president with a Jewish daughter who wants to limit immigration from countries that want to destroy Israel.

Perhaps one of the reasons the media are in a 24-hour sweaty trembling panic is that they finally have a literal version of their previous conservative caricature. In the old days:

Republican administration: We are drafting a series of regulations that will extend the timetable for the phase-out of coal from 2036 to 2041.

Environmentalists: OMG you are literally dumping coal-fired-power-plant waste into pristine streams!

Republicans: What? No! We are tightening standards on emissions as they pertain to the 1996 International Tributary and Estuary Purity Concords –

Environmentalists: Why don’t you just go in the rivers and strangle dolphins, because that is literally what you people want to do.

Republicans: Okay, after additional consideration, we are tightening the timetables to phase out coal by next Christmas.

Environmentalists: Not everyone celebrates Christmas, you theocrats.

And so on. Now:

Trump administration: We are scrapping Obama-mandated regulations that forbade the dumping of coal-mining runoff right into the local streams.

Environmentalists: Why don’t you just allow coal-mining runoff to go right into the local streams, because that’s what you want to — hold on, what did you say?

Trump administration: Have a nice day.

Sure, there’s some satisfaction in seeing the hyperventilating Left confront the actual embodiment of its hyperbolic accusations. “You guys just want to destroy the Department of Education because you hate poor kids’ learning!” No to the second part, but yeah, sure to the first. Since they can’t get any angrier about the anti-human perfidy of the Right, what’s the downside?

Here’s the problem. When I read news-alert headlines about the administration’s permitting the dumping of stuff into water, I thought: That might be bad. Just because the perpetually aggrieved are stroking out doesn’t mean it’s good. If a news story said, “In a surprising reversal, the Trump administration announced it would reclassify plutonium as a vegetable,” I wouldn’t think, “Ha, they got upset when Reagan did that with ketchup. Typical overreaction.”

But if the media set their hair on fire every time the administration does something, anything, you get fatigue fatigue: You’re tired just thinking about how you’ll feel tired of another mischaracterization. You think they’re the boy crying wolf — except you also remember that the story contained an actual wolf, eventually.

Reader: Hey there, media, you might want to watch out for wolves and make their appearance reason for concern.

Media: All dogs are genetically wolves.

Reader: Yeah, technically, but can you ramp it back so I know you can tell the difference between a Bichon Frise and a feral canine that would eat a baby?

Media: Next Sunday, every word in the New York Times will be “wolf,” because we are resisting wolves.

Reader: Even the wedding announcements?

Media: No, unless “Wolf” is the surname of the bride.

Facts matter; we can agree on that. Reporting on the detention of an academic is reporting a fact. It’s not fake news. But it’s a fake controversy.

Real news. Fake panic. Two guesses which one’s more popular.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners

City Desk

A City of Shopkeepers

The city is full of walk-in businesses — shops, stores, eateries, bars, banks, fix-it places. That means the streets are full of business names. Many belong to chains — Victoria’s ...


Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ We’re told the envelope given to Warren Beatty actually contained Nate Silver’s projection. ‐ To replace Michael Flynn as national-security adviser, Donald Trump selected someone uniquely suited for the position. ...
Politics & Policy


GLOUCESTER Lizard-voiced, the seagull, esurient And flush with light, cuts through sapphire and salt Waves, to gratify pure appetite. Granite endures like graves. Briars bloom. On planks and shelves, books dock like sailing ships And wait ...
Politics & Policy


Pain and Punishment Psychiatrist Sally Satel’s piece “Treating Opioid Addiction” (March 6) favors “benign paternalism” in public policy regarding what some have hysterically called an “epidemic” but Dr. Satel more soberly ...

Most Popular

White House

More Evidence the Guardrails Are Gone

At the end of last month, just as the news of the Ukraine scandal started dominating the news cycle, I argued that we're seeing evidence that the guardrails that staff had placed around Donald Trump's worst instincts were in the process of breaking down. When Trump's staff was at its best, it was possible to draw ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren Is Not Honest

If you want to run for office, political consultants will hammer away at one point: Tell stories. People respond to stories. We’ve been a story-telling species since our fur-clad ancestors gathered around campfires. Don’t cite statistics. No one can remember statistics. Make it human. Make it relatable. ... Read More
National Review


Today is my last day at National Review. It's an incredibly bittersweet moment. While I've only worked full-time since May, 2015, I've contributed posts and pieces for over fifteen years. NR was the first national platform to publish my work, and now -- thousands of posts and more than a million words later -- I ... Read More
Economy & Business

Andrew Yang, Snake Oil Salesman

Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur and gadfly, has definitely cleared the bar for a successful cause candidate. Not only has he exceeded expectations for his polling and fundraising, not only has he developed a cult following, not only has he got people talking about his signature idea, the universal basic ... Read More

Is America Becoming Sinicized?

A little over 40 years ago, Chinese Communist strongman and reformer Deng Xiaoping began 15 years of sweeping economic reforms. They were designed to end the disastrous, even murderous planned economy of Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. The results of Deng’s revolution astonished the world. In four decades, ... Read More