Election In The Streets
How The Broadcast Networks Promote
By Tim Graham, MRC Director of Media Analysis
August 28, 2006
December 16, 2005, the House of Representatives passed a bill to curb the flow
of illegal aliens and give the federal government more responsibility for
detaining and deporting them. That night, ABC, CBS, and NBC didnít cover the
vote, even though it was front-page news in the next dayís Washington Post.
Before the vote, the Post suggested Republicans were "driven by the
rising anger of their constituents."
But in the spring, when left-wing advocacy groups for illegal aliens
organized large protests against the House bill, as the Senate considered its
own immigration bill, the networks suddenly, fervently discovered the issue and
gave the advocacy groups not a mere soapbox in the park, but a three-network
rollout of free air time. Protest coverage, often one-sided, stood in stark
contrast to polling data showing that a stricter approach to illegal immigration
was broadly popular in the country. The broadcast networks took the nationís
passion for stricter immigration control and defiantly tried to turn it upside
To determine the tone and balance of network coverage of illegal aliens, MRC
analysts evaluated every ABC, CBS, and NBC morning, evening, and magazine show
news segment on the immigration debate from the outbreak of protest coverage on
March 24, 2006 through May 31, 2006. Analysts reviewed 309 stories, 118 of them
brief anchor-read items. The following trends emerged:
1. While they celebrated "massive" immigration protests with "huge" crowds,
the broadcast networks largely avoided scientific polling data that showed
that the protesters were in an overwhelming minority.
Anchors and reporters emphasized and underlined the awakening of a "sleeping
giant" of protest with 192 numerical descriptions of the size of protests across
the nation or in individual cities. There were 140 superlative adjectives on
attendance ("huge," "massive," "extraordinary"). Eighteen of those superlatives
suggested the rallies were historic.
For instance, on
the March 26 CBS Evening News, anchor Mika Brzezinski touted "mass
demonstrations that matched the biggest of the civil rights movement or Vietnam
War." On April 10, ABC World News Tonight anchor Elizabeth Vargas opened
simply: "We begin with an unprecedented show of support for Americaís illegal
immigrants." CBS anchor Bob Schieffer argued: "Not since the protests of the
Vietnam era has there been anything quite like it." On the May 1 Nightline,
ABC host Terry Moran promised: "We have live reports from the epicenter of the
protests. From the small towns, where the protesters made history." NBC
repeatedly touted what they estimated were the largest rallies in history in
individual towns, from Los Angeles to Dallas to Denver.
The networks didnít even wait for the marches to take place before predicting
the creation of history. ABCís Kate Snow previewed the May 1 walkout with this
opening on Good Morning America: "This is the number one radio show here
in the morning here in NewYork City. Itís called ĎEl Vacilon de Manana,í and it
is one of the forces behind what could be the largest immigrant walkout ever."
On numerous occasions, anchors and reporters told viewers that enormous crowds
were "expected" as the protests approached.
These claims to history or demands from the streets have not been channeled
for the massive annual "March for Life" against abortion, which is routinely
ignored by the networks. On the evening newscasts of January 23, 2006, aired
hours after the pro-life protest concluded, CBS said nothing. NBC aired a
three-sentence anchor brief. Only ABC had a story on abortion, which briefly
used the protests as a news hook for a broader story on pro-life strategies to
overturn Roe vs. Wade. There were no rave reviews of "huge" marches
Certainly, the pro-illegal immigration rallies were large and provided
visuals of waves of protesting humanity. But the networks aggressively pressed
the case that these protests presented a demand that should be heeded in
Washington. On May 2, CBS Early Show co-host Hannah Storm protested to
the Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist: "Monday, over one million immigrants
skipped work and skipped school and marched in streets across America. What is
it going to take, Senator, for Congress to come together and institute some
meaningful immigration reform?"
For one example of the flood of positive adjectives that accompanied the
illegal-alien protests, consider Terry Moranís salesmanship from Los Angeles on
ABCís Nightline May 1:
Today, this city saw a demonstration of epic proportions. A peaceful
army of protesters, marching through the city streets. Theyíre just
cleaning up after them behind me right now. It was a massive show of
strength from Southern Californiaís immigrant community, angered by a proposed
legislation in Congress that would make every illegal immigrant a felon. More
on LA in a moment. But this was a national day of protest by immigrants and
their supporters. About 400,000 people protested in Chicago, where
marchers gathered in downtown park for one of the biggest events in the
day. In Philadelphia today, huge crowds converged on the Liberty Bell.
In Milwaukee, a massive march on the shores of Lake Michigan. And these
are merely a few examples of the giant flex of immigrant muscle
today....Hundreds of thousands of workers, their families and
supporters, took over the city streets today in a massive demonstration
of sheer numerical power. It was breathtaking. And across LA
today, the impact of what was billed as the great American boycott was
Allergic To Polls. In contrast to hundreds of words emphasizing the
"wave" of "pro-immigrant" activism, the networks aired only 16 mentions of
nationwide polls on immigration that might include the opinion of
non-protesters: six on ABC, five on NBC, and five on CBS. That included scant
acknowledgment of the networksí own polls on immigration. The networks were not
so reluctant to make routine mentions of the Presidentís "sagging"approval
ratings, but on immigration, the polls were few.
Oddly, while Nightline was effusive about the protests, they were the
most likely ABC program to offer viewers actual ABC News poll results. On April
10, host Terry Moran noted: "In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released
today, 75 percent of Americans say the government is not doing enough to keep
illegal aliens out of the country, but 63 percent favor a guest worker program
that would allow illegal immigrants now working in the U.S. to apply for legal
status and eventual citizenship."
On May 15, Moran reported: "The governmentís inability to stem the tide of
illegal immigration has enraged Mr. Bushís conservative supporters. And it
clearly troubles the general public. An ABC News poll tonight finds that 77
percent of the public feel the government is not doing enough to keep illegal
immigrants from coming into the country. And 58 percent feel strongly about it."
On air, CBS twice mentioned its polls emphasizing support for a "guest
worker" program after a long list of conditions. As part of the big April 10
protest coverage, CBS reporter Jim Axelrod announced: "According to a new CBS
News poll, 74 percent of Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants to stay and
work if they have been here at least five years, pay a fine and back taxes,
speak English and donít have a criminal record. But even if you wipe away all
those conditions, more Americans still favor allowing illegals to apply for work
permits than oppose the idea." (That number was 49 percent to 43 percent, with a
three percent margin of error.) The next morning, the poll result was shortened.
Co-host Julie Chen declared: "A new CBS News poll shows 74 percent of Americans
favor legal status for immigrants who have been here for more than five years."
What Polls Were
Missing? CBS did not cite its own poll findings that 87 percent (April 6-9)
or 89 percent (May 4-8) of Americans said that the problem of illegal
immigration was "very serious" or "somewhat serious." But CBS used the polls
against President Bush. On March 30, Jim Axelrod noted Bush was facing "strong
Republican opposition" and "attacks from his own party, who paint him as out of
touch with Americans on immigration reform, since polls show most Americans
think immigrants here illegally should be forced to go home."
NBCís polling mentions in March were designed to highlight GOP fissures on
immigration, a favorite NBC theme. On March 25, George Lewis singled out
Republican numbers: "But according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 59
percent of Republicans disagree with a temporary worker program for illegal
immigrants." But in fact, the poll results found 59 percent of all Americans
disagreed with the temporary-worker program, not just Republicans. Two days
later, David Gregory also singled out the GOP: "The public, polls show,
considers illegal immigrants a major problem. But figuring out how to solve it
has divided Congress and split the Presidentís base ó the business community
against grass-roots conservatives."
NBC never passed along that NBCís pollsters asked their sample if they would
be more likely or less likely to vote for a candidate "who favors tighter
controls on illegal immigration," and 71 percent said more likely, and only 11
percent said less likely. But the tiny percentage who agreed with the liberal
stance was not presented as a political problem for Democrats or left-wing
protest organizers. In May, NBC twice acknowledged its own poll showed that
people felt the one-day May 1 boycott against working and shopping would hurt
rather than help the cause of illegal immigrants, by a margin of 57 to 17
percent. The other two networks didnít notice.
Poll Showed Protests Didnít Help. On the April 1 NBC Nightly News,
reporter Kevin Corke touted a new Time poll showing 79 percent of
Americans in favor of a guest worker program, but Time assured survey
respondents that guest workers would be here "for a fixed period of time, so the
government could keep track of them." The question as worded hardly suggested
legalizing illegal aliens. Corke also noted 75 percent said illegals shouldnít
be eligible for government subsidies like food stamps.
None of the networks noticed this question in the Time poll: when
asked if demonstrations by "immigrants and immigration rights advocates" would
make them more likely to favor a guest worker program or more likely to favor
laws that "make it a crime" to enter or work illegally, only 12 percent said
demonstrations made them more likely to endorse the guest-worker program,
compared to 35 percent who said it made them more likely to favor laws to "make
it a crime" to enter or work here, and 49 percent who said protests "donít have
that much effect" on their opinion.
2. Advocates of opening a wider path to citizenship were almost twice as
likely to speak in news stories as advocates of stricter immigration control.
Advocates for amnesty and guest-worker programs drew 504 soundbites in the
study period, compared to just 257 for tighter border control. (Sixty-nine
soundbites were neutral). Soundbites were classified by the position they
emphasized, meaning that for example, President Bush ended up on both sides of
the soundbite count, depending on if he was emphasizing the need for a guest
worker program or the need for a stiffer border presence.
On the days of pro-illegal-alien rallies, their critics nearly disappeared
from the screen. On the night of April 10, the soundbite count on the three
evening newscasts and ABCís Nightline was 43 to 2 in favor of the
protesters. On the night of May 1 on the same four shows, the soundbite count
was 62 to 8.
The soundbites were designed to persuade the audience that aliens were
Americans. On NBC, "Jorge, a Phoenix plumber," in the country illegally for 11
years, proclaimed "I pay taxes, I pay bills. Weíve sent kids to school. I take
all responsibilities of any American." On ABC, one demonstrator, a New York
union leader, decried the House bill as "entirely un-American. And itís a shame.
Itís hypocritical." The man explained he was "proud" of his "undocumented"
entry: "I found my opportunity... I was able to build a family and get a shot at
the American dream."
When the debate
shifted from the streets to the Capitol in May, coverage grew more balanced. In
late March and April, the soundbite disparity was 294 to 132. In May, it was 210
to 125. One reason for the shift in soundbites was the shift in stories.
President Bushís decision to ask the National Guard to help in controlling the
border in May led to network stories on immigration enforcement.
Incoming CBS anchor Katie Couric told The Washington Post she hopes to
take her newscast outside the Beltway and "hear from real people." For example,
"On immigration, she says, CBS might interview a restaurant owner about illegal
immigrants or a recent emigre from Guatemala." In fact, immigration coverage
during the study period was loaded with recent immigrants and employers outside
the world of the Beltway elites. On May 1, CBSís Kelly Cobiella reported from
Dodge City, Kansas, focusing on meat-packing immigrant Clemente Torres, now a
legal citizen, who marched in the boycott, and a local furniture-store owner who
insisted his employees come to work.
Itís inside-the-Beltway politicians who were barely included until the
congressional debate in May. Even then, the most prominent politicians in the
aftermath of President Bushís proposal to add National Guard troops in support
of the Border Patrol were border-state governors.
3. While conservative labels were common, liberal labels were rarely or
One classic example of how national media outlets skew political news
coverage is how the epic political battles of our time are presented as the
conservatives versus the nonpartisans. The fight over illegal immigration was no
different. In the study period, reporters referred to "conservatives" or
"conservative" groups 89 times, most intensely during legislative debate in May,
when President Bush was presented as having to "appease" his "conservative"
base. NBCís Matt Lauer even referred on Today to Bushís base as the "far
right." By contrast, the "liberal" label was used only three times ó all of them
by ABC. CBS and NBC never used the word.
ABC used 25 conservative labels to 3 liberal labels. CBS carried 19
conservative labels and zero liberal tags. The disparity was greatest at NBC, a
label-happy 45 to 0.
The word was
sometimes used in rapid-fire repetition. On the May 14 World News Tonight,
ABC White House correspondent Martha Raddatz asserted the President is
"under tremendous pressure from his conservative base. He wants to reach out to
that conservative base and say, look, weíre really beefing up border security."
Two sentences later, she repeats: "He hopes if he beefs up security on the
border, he will appease his conservative base."
On the May 15 Today, Tim Russert insisted President Bush "is losing
conservative support. How does he get it back? He tries to tackle an issue like
immigration, talking like a conservative in terms of shoring up the borders, and
like a compassionate conservative in terms of the 11 million [illegal aliens]
who are still in the country."
The House bill
drew other adjectives indicating a strong ideology in the early weeks of the
study period, offering a vibe of mean-spirited neighbors that would "roll up the
welcome mat." The House gave America a "harsh anti-immigration bill" a
"heavy-handed approach," a "hard-nosed"proposal, a "harsh clamp-down," a
"harsh-edged call to arms," a set of "hard-ball measures," offering President
Bush a "hard line."
The "liberal" label was much less forthcoming. When large national groups
like the National Council of LaRaza were interviewed, as on the March 28
Today, NBC substitute host Campbell Brown merely described them as "the
largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States."
On the March 27 Good Morning America, ABCís Charles Gibson came out of
an interview with Sean Hannity agreeing that both predictable sides of the
debate are split: "Itís no conservative [unanimity], no liberal. There is as
wide a range of opinions as there are members of Congress."
On the April 9 Good Morning America, ABCís Kate Snow quoted from
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reidís statement that President Bush and GOP
leaders failed "to stand up to the extreme right wing of their party," which she
called "pretty tough words." ABC political analyst George Stephanopoulos replied
that both sides of the aisle were nervous and getting "buyerís remorse" about
the Senate bill, both "conservative Republicans" and "liberal Democrats." On the
May 2 Good Morning America, co-host Charles Gibson introduced his guest
Lou Dobbs of CNN as "an outspoken critic of open borders and more liberal
immigration policies." In none of these cases did ABC identify the protesters or
their organizers as liberal or left-wing.
L-word was avoided even as the same protest organizers that appeared in network
news stories denounced the House bill on public radio as full of "horrendous and
macabre clauses, fascist clauses." On the March 27 edition of Pacifica Radioís
"Democracy Now" program, broadcast on public radio stations and public-access TV
channels nationwide, Javier Rodriguez, one of the principal protest organizers
for the Los Angeles group called the March 25th Coalition Against HR
4437, explained they had a political strategy and a media strategy: "The
political was to send the message of hope and, of course, to stand to stop the
Sensenbrenner bill because of its horrendous and macabre clauses, fascist
clauses." He was blunt: the goal was complete amnesty for every illegal alien:
"The main demand is legalization for the 12 million undocumented."
Diaz, another leader of the March 25th Coalition, told Socialist
Alternative.org he had the same radical agenda: "The principle of the immigrants
rights movement has been, has always been for full amnesty. Full, immediate,
unconditional, universal, immediate amnesty for everybody." He wanted no part of
the congressional compromises with Bush: "I was asking myself ĎWhy do they want
this compromise guest worker program and all that bull [expletive]?í" He
demanded a new party line: "I think that you really canít have it both ways. You
canít be in the immigrant rights movement and take a moderate stance. Itís got
to be a very progressive stance." But the networks wouldnít even describe him as
a liberal when they quoted him.
May 1, NBC Nightly News quoted Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, but carried just
her name on screen. NBC didnít note her membership on the steering committee of
International ANSWER, a hard-left protest-organizing group affiliated with the
Trotskyite Workersí World Party. Verheyden-Hilliard merely told NBC she was
boycotting for a "very clear message." They didnít capture her at a press
conference berating immigration agents, as reported by KABC-TV: "At this moment,
across the United States we have been witnessing violent, cruel, terrorizing
raids on working people. Racist attacks, racist raids that we condemn
unequivocally." Following the usual pattern of sanitizing protest coverage,
protest leader press-conferences and podium speakers at the rallies were
ignored, as well as the point that many podium speakers did not speak in English
to the assembled crowds.
networks were so lax in describing protest organizers they didnít seem to notice
when they were former diplomats for foreign governments. A March 24 ABC story on
a Georgia protest by Steve Osunsami quoted Teodoro Maus, listing him on screen
as a "community leader." They didnít tell viewers Maus was Mexicoís consul
general in Atlanta from 1998 to 2001.
4. While protests centered on underlining the vital role illegal aliens
play in the American economy, the burdens of illegal immigration in added
government costs or crime were barely covered.
While the networks poured out their air time to offer sympathetic stories of
hard-working immigrant families, only six stories mentioned studies that illegal
aliens cost more to taxpayers than they provide in tax dollars. Only six stories
gave even a mention to the problem of the cost or threat of criminal aliens.
This issue is
strongly felt in poll results. On the August 10 Today, NBCís Tim Russert
explained his sense of public opinion: "In the generic sense, people say ĎWe
need strict enforcement. Build fences. Keep illegal immigrants out. We have to
deal with this problem.í When you humanize the problem and you have high school
kids in the street marching, saying ĎI was born here, Iím an American citizen,
donít ship my Mom and Pop home,í then it becomes a much different debate, and
thatís whatís playing out in the streets and the halls of Congress." By focusing
heavily on illegal aliens and their families, the networks were also hosting a
"much different debate," not a debate about cost burdens or criminal aliens.
When CBS asked respondents in May if "illegal immigrants do more to
strengthen the economy because they provide low-cost labor and they spend money,
or do illegal immigrants do more to weaken the U.S. economy because they donít
pay all taxes, but use public services," only 22 percent said they strengthen
the economy, and 70 percent felt they weaken the economy by draining public
A Fox poll in April read respondents a list of possible concerns over illegal
immigration, and two led the list: 87 percent were concerned that aliens
"overburden government programs and services" and 75 percent were concerned they
"lead to an increase in crime."
ABC carried one mention of costs, and three of crime. CBS had three mentions
of costs and two of crime, and NBC had only two mentions of cost and one of
Costs. On the March 26 Sunday Morning, CBS reporter Sharyl
Attkisson noted: "While more than half the undocumented workers do pay federal
taxes, itís not enough to offset their much bigger drain on the federal budget
for services like Medicaid, health care, and food stamps." An on-screen graph
credited the Center for Immigration Studies. Attkisson mostly repeated that
sentence two days later on The Early Show.
A handful of reports mentioned local cost burdens, not national ones. On the
April 19 Nightline, ABCís Chris Bury reported from Cochise County,
Arizona that illegal aliens cost a small hospital there about $400,000 in health
care just from May to December. NBCís George Lewis passed along on May 17 that
the mayor of Yuma, Arizona "says his cityís social services are burdened by
illegal immigrants, that he wants Washington to crack down hard."
CBS, on the other hand, aired stories emphasizing the costs of deportation
and decrying the "nasty" idea of keeping illegal aliens out of federal
entitlement programs. On the April 18 Evening News, anchor Bob Schieffer
introduced a story on how a new law signed by President Bush to keep illegal
aliens out of the Medicaid program "could have a nasty side that is harmful to
many U.S. citizens as well." Reporter Sharyn Alfonsiís one-sided report used
only liberal activists as she claimed the law "could hurt millions of honest
Americans" who "donít have the paperwork" of citizenship, "like the elderly and
the mentally ill." On the April 19 Evening News, CBS reporter Byron Pitts
underlined the cost of enforcing immigration laws: "Detaining and deporting
aliens is an expensive business. Last year, it cost taxpayers $56 million in
Crime. No story in the study period mentioned the problem of Latino
criminal gangs, often heavy with illegal aliens, like the El Salvadoran gang
Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13, with an estimated 10,000 members. The biggest
focus on crime came in stories on the town of Costa Mesa, California. Even when
the subject featured more conservative spokesmen, the networks found controversy
and threatening trends on the right, something they often underplayed or ignored
on a day of celebrating protests. On the March 28 CBS Evening News,
reporter Bill Whitaker reported the town voted to train police to perform the
duties of federal immigration agents "to nab and deport criminals here
illegally." The mayor of the town, Allan Mansoor, made friends with conservative
Minuteman activists, described by Whitaker as "patriots to some, vigilantes to
others." He concluded: "Costa Mesa is changing in ways both sides find
On that same night, NBC Nightly News reporter George Lewis also
reported on Costa Mesaís effort to "get rid of illegal immigrants who commit
crimes." Lewis found "The mayor says that will make the city safer. His critics
accuse him of grandstanding." The Minutemen were a "controversial citizens
group." The mayor was given two soundbites, and his critics were given five.
On April 20, CBS anchor Bob Schieffer read this brief dispatch: "It turns out
that immigration laws are also useful tools for getting sexual predators off the
streets. Seen in this exclusive CBS News video, Immigration and Customs
Enforcement agents in New York arrested 52 convicted child-sex offenders today
from 14 countries. Theyíll be deported for immigration violations." With
exclusive video and a dramatic storyline, why couldnít CBS manage more than a
few seconds of anchorman air time on this?
Crime came up only once for ABC, only briefly mentioned by reporter Martha
Raddatz as a GOP argument in favor of the wall in the San Diego area on the May
17 World News Tonight: "The senators say the 14-mile-long and
14-foot-high barrier has reduced crime and improved the economy in southern
California," followed by Democrats doubting the effectiveness of more fencing.
5. The networks have not dropped the word "illegal" in favor of
"undocumented" immigrants, although some reporters struggled to adopt clumsy
like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have urged their
colleagues to avoid the word "illegal" (see text box), but the word was still
more than five times more common than "undocumented." In 309 stories, there were
381 uses of the word "illegal," and 73 utterances of "undocumented." The words
often appeared in the same story together as interchangeable terms.
In March, CBS seemed to be the most enamored of "undocumented," using
"illegal" 20 times and "undocumented" 17 times. But in the next two months, it
shifted toward the typical pattern found in the study period, with 75 uses of
"illegal" and 10 of "undocumented." CBSís ratio of 95 to 27 was the closest to
equal. NBCís ratio was 137 to 23. ABCís was 149 to 23.
Most of the time, the networks did not follow the NAHJ demands. But some
reporters struggled to please: on Today, NBCís Kevin Tibbles actually
referred to protests by "those who critics call illegals." The word "alien,"
especially disliked by advocacy groups like the NAHJ, was rare. It was only used
on seven occasions (three on ABC, three on NBC, one on CBS).
Other Immigration Terms. Analysts studied a few other terms to
investigate the pattern and frequency of their use. "Immigration reform" was
fairly common, used on 115 occasions in the study period. NBC employed it on 46
occasions, ABC had 35 uses of the word, and CBS had 34. While in most stories,
"reform" was used to describe the more liberal Senate bill, there were a few
mentions of "reform" as describing the House bill.
The notion of illegal-immigrant "rights" was popular in protester lingo, and
surfaced on 31 occasions, usually to describe "immigrant rights groups" or to
explain the cause of protesters. CBS used it most frequently, on 14 occasions.
NBC had 11, and ABC had 6. CBS reporter Sandra Hughes explained on the March 24
Evening News that while the Senate worked up its "immigration reform"
bill, "others are calling for more restrictive reform. Immigrant rights groups
say they wonít back down."
Only one news
report attempted to ponder briefly the concept of illegal-alien rights. On May
1, NBCís Lester Holt noted: "But the question over whether illegal immigrants
should have rights is one many American workers remain unsure of." A man on the
street insisted the concept upset him, "because thereís a lot of people who want
to be American citizens, but theyíve got to go through the right channels."
The word "amnesty" is seen as a word conservatives favor, and was only used
on 30 occasions, usually to describe what conservatives believe guest-worker
programs represent. NBC used the word on 13 occasions, ABC 10, and CBS 7.
Newspaper accounts of protests could be absolutely allergic to the word
"amnesty" ó in all of the Washington Postís April 11 coverage of
protests, it never used the word.
As passage of the more liberal Senate bill drew near in late May, all three
networks used the complimentary adjective "landmark" to describe it, with NBC
using the word four times, CBS twice and ABC twice. Once again, it was described
prematurely as a "landmark" before the vote. How are the networks so sure what
will be seen as "history" or a "landmark" by future generations? To viewers, it
often sounds like spin for a bill journalists seem to favor.
While reporters on a few occasions divided the fight over illegal immigration
with the simplistic and inaccurate terms "pro-immigration" and
"anti-immigration," the concept that border-control advocates were obvious or
closeted racists was rare. In a profile of conservative Rep. Tom Tancredo on the
April 5 Nightline, Terry Moran noted Katrina Vanden Heuvel of The
Nation magazine thought he was a racist. She claimed "some of the white
supremacist thinking that used to be represented by David Duke has been absorbed
by people like Tancredo...the draconian legislation in the House is
In May it erupted ó from a soundbite in a story ó when Sen. Harry Reid
proclaimed on several networks that an amendment was "racist" because it
insisted no person has the right to claim the United States had to provide
services or materials in any other language than English.
ABC may have used the strangest hyperbole in the debate by using the theme
"Immigration Wars" to frame their immigration stories on 29 occasions.
In reviewing all of these stories, it seems quite apparent that the broadcast
news makers see illegal immigrants through a very sympathetic lens, as
downtrodden racial minorities who almost uniformly work hard, even if they
obviously donít play by the rules. They are family men and women. They even
presented them as more American than Americans.
is often seen as the refuge of political scoundrels, but not with illegal
aliens. The networks seemed to offer honorary citizenship to anyone crossing the
border. Network anchors hailed them as "emerging from the shadows" to speak out.
Their protests "looked like a Fourth of July parade." CBSís Harry Smith found
protesters "draping themselves in the American Dream." ABCís Terry Moran
blatantly editorialized at the end of the May 1 Nightline that when you
walk among the protesters, they are so "decent, polite and, well, neighborly,"
and their gathering in "great numbers" to send a nonviolent message to
government "all seems very American, for what itís worth." (Only ABC, never CBS
or NBC, found the wide use of the flags of other countries in the protests as a
controversy worth mentioning.)
In this civics lesson on what it means to be a citizen or a patriot, there
was no debate on whether it was proper for the illegal-alien protests, treated
like a slam-dunk election in the streets, to cancel out the opinions of tens of
millions of voters. The networks never once considered that some people would
find it bizarre for illegal aliens to participate in the making or unmaking of
legislation when they have entered the country in violation of the law. In his
book The Image, Daniel Boorstin inspired many media critics to scorn the
"pseudo-event," an event solely designed to attract publicity. With these
protests, conservatives could argue they were pseudo-events populated by
The networks also found no cause for questioning protest organizers when a
major rallying cry in the protests was "Today we march, tomorrow we vote." Does
that mean that protest groups are encouraging voting by illegal aliens? The
networks never wondered. Critics of illegal immigration note that in 1996,
conservative California Congressman Bob Dornan lost his seat to Loretta Sanchez
by fewer than 1,000 votes. State elections officials found that at least 300
votes in that election were cast illegally by non-citizens.
If the broadcast networks are interested in presenting a truly balanced
picture of Americaís immigration debate in their news coverage, they need to
consider a few recommendations:
1. Newscasters need to acknowledge that protests, even large ones, are
often an incomplete measure of public opinion. Itís strange for the
networks to tout polls when they bolster liberal causes, and then bury them
when they donít. Itís also strange for the networks to tout large protests
when they bolster the left, and ignore large protests (like pro-life marches)
when they donít. In either case, protests offer a good visual display of
political passion, but they ought to be incorporated into a broader, more
realistic evaluation of where the overall American public stands, even if
public opinion is complex.
2. Both sides of the debate deserve a chance to speak in news stories, not
just voices "emerging from the shadows" that reporters sympathetically
promote. Both sides deserve tough, skeptical coverage, too. Major
protests can fairly be covered with more emphasis on the protesters on that
day, since that is what is "new." But network producers need to work harder to
insure that over the weeks or months of coverage of an issue like immigration,
that critics of the immigration protests are heard as well. That includes more
emphasis on critiques of the protests and protest groups in particular, which
often seemed to attract the praise of "objective" network observers.
3. On this issue, as well as many others, network newscasts ought to
reflect the reality that the political debate is between conservatives and
liberals, not conservatives and supposed nonpartisans. This recommendation
cuts across all political stories, in nearly every debate between
conservatives and liberals. Itís not a persuasive argument that stories donít
include the L-word because liberals donít like the word "liberal," or donít
feel the word "liberal" describes their views. Any journalist attempting to
balance a story should either use both labels when they apply, or avoid both
labels. Itís unfair to paint one side as the "far right" and then pain the
left in gauzy terms like "immigrant rights groups" ó even as they harshly
decried "fascist" opponents.
4. The network news ought to borrow from the arguments of both sides to
tell the immigration story, and not avoid stories that seem to underline a
conservative argument. In this study period, the networks seemed allergic
to sentences (let alone entire stories) that discussed the problem of
illegal-alien cost burdens to taxpayers and illegal-alien crime and
imprisonment issues. There were stories on the Minutemen, and other
illegal-immigration opponent efforts like WeHireAliens.com. There were stories
on life with the Border Patrol, even if those mostly came in May, after the
White House put the idea of bolstering border control in the headlines. But
stories often seemed designed to persuade people to welcome illegal aliens and
support liberal policies. Introducing one story on the March 31 20/20,
host John Stossel explicitly pleaded that "before you choose sides" on illegal
immigrants, you needed to watch a heart-warming story on two illegal
immigrants who put their kids through college by dumpster diving seven days a
week for aluminum cans.
5. It would be wise to wait for time to elapse before defining "history"
and "landmark" legislation, and to wait for protests to occur before
describing them as attracting
"millions." Perhaps nothing
betrays a rooting interest by reporters more obviously than people in a
24-hour news cycle identifying an event as historic before it happens, or six
hours after it occurs.
Anchors like Katie Couric are now promising to go beyond the headlines on the
evening news: "The biggest job isnít telling people what happened. Itís getting
them to understand why they should care." The overcoverage and gushing tone of
illegal-alien protests sounded just like that. It was not so much "news" as
salesmanship: a collection of positive, panoramic visuals for helping reporters
"tell people why they should care" ó care about what liberals care about.
The Media Research Center325 South Patrick Street ē
Alexandria, Virginia, 22314
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L. Brent Bozell III, President
Brent H. Baker, Vice President for Research and Publications
Richard Noyes, Research Director ē Tim Graham, Director of Media
Michael Chapman, Director of Communications
Geoff Dickens, Brad Wilmouth, Megan McCormack,
Michael Rule and Scott Whitlock, News Division Analysts
Michelle Humphrey, Research Associate
Karen Hanna, Media Archivist ē Kristine Looney, Assistant Media
Michael Gibbons, MRC Webmaster