Fox's "Border War" coverage draws fire from immigrant advocates

A few days after Fox News CEO Rupert Murdoch admitted that his network tried to shape the agenda around the Iraq war and "basically supported the Bush policy in the Middle East", Minneapolis affiliate KMSP began running teasers for a Feb. 5 "Fox 9 Investigators" report on Minnesota National Guard troops stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border. The promos — a blur of camouflage and night-vision goggle views — suggested the piece might again be promoting the Bush administration's agenda: in covering Bush's border-control project Operation: Jump Start, Fox 9 sent reporter Jeff Baillon to be "embedded" with Minnesota troops on the "front line" of the "border war."

War has not been declared against Mexico or illegal immigrants, so naturally the two-segment piece took on a different tenor than promised: It linked illegal border crossings with drug crimes here in Minnesota — to the dismay of area immigrants' rights advocates.

The first segment, "Catch 'Em if They Can" [video], which aired during the 9 p.m. newscast Feb. 5, began with an ominous voice-over: "In the secret underworld of Twin Cities drug trafficking, most roads lead south — to Mexico." Then a man in a suit — he's never identified, but viewers might infer he's with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the only organization named in the intro — tells of an illegal immigrant who was arrested locally in a recent sting for trying to sell "Mexican-made meth." While he was arrested, a voice-over tells us, "It's only a matter of time before someone else sneaks over the border to pick up where he left off."

Cut to: the Mexican border, where, as Baillon said in overdub, "in some places the only thing separating the two countries is an old cattle fence." Eighty National Guard troops from Minnesota work daily surveilling the border with high-tech equipment. But their days are fairly humdrum: In off hours, they play pool and hang out in barracks where, says one soldier, "contracted cleaners come in and clean everything up for us." They commute two to three hours from their base to their surveillance stations. And should they see an attempted border crossing, they're instructed to call the border control as they have no authority. (One soldier gets in a jab at the Bush administration: "The National Guard is finally doing a national mission. We're not overseas, we're over here taking care of the people we're supposed to be taking care of.")

The second piece, "Cat and Mouse Game" [video], aired during Monday's 10 p.m. newscast, had nothing to do with the Minnesota National Guard, but instead attempted to establish a link between illegal immigrants from Mexico and Minnesota's drug crimes. The unnamed man in the suit appears again in this segment, stating that "75 to 80 percent of the drugs consumed in the state of Minnesota come from across the Mexican or Southwest border. Unlike the first report, in which Baillon referred to illegal immigrants as "illegals" four times, he only did so once in the second, which focused on the tricks both smugglers and border agents use in their "game of chess" to outsmart each other. Minnesota content merely bookended the main story, which outlined the creative ways drug smugglers get their product from Juarez to El Paso and, ultimately, to "our twin towns."

So what's the problem?

For one, that use of "illegals," said Alondra Espejel, communications organizer at the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network. "For our community, it's a very derogatory term — like using the N-word is for the African-American community. We are indigenous people from this continent. It wasn't until white settlers came in and made laws that anyone could be considered illegal. But we don't believe human beings can ever be called illegal."

On Tuesday, Espejel issued a "media action alert" on the broadcast to the Freedom Network's list-serv outlining the organization's other concerns, including a lack of balance ("all of the people interviewed represented the voice of the authorities") and a connection between immigrants and drugs backed up only by "unproven and sensationalistic statements." She wrote:

It is stories like this [...] that create more problems in our society by fueling xenophobia and negative stereotypes of our communities. If the story contained any real information for folks to be more informed about, it was unfortunately overshadowed by the combat-style images, the negative stereotyping of immigrants as tied to crime, and the lack of a balanced representation of the subject. Indeed, the very "subject" of this report is still unclear to us as many complex themes were whimsically tied together in a journalistically unresponsible manner.
Indeed, Fox's "Fair and Balanced" motto didn't seem to be in evidence anywhere: No immigrants or immigrants-rights activists were interviewed.

Espejel acknowledged Fox 9 approached her organization, but they declined to be interviewed, because, in part, "television has not been good to our community." She recalled how another local TV station, KSTP, treated immigration attorney Susana de Leon in a June 2006 story. Espejel said de Leon was approached courteously by a KSTP reporter and told what the news segment was to include, but when the camera turned on, the story changed. "The questions were very problematic. They put her on the spot in ways no professional journalist would. They got it all on film and used it to craft a very anti-immigration, sensationalized piece that twisted her words." (KSTP no longer hosts the story on its website, but a version of the piece and the station's response to criticisms are cached here and here.)

Why, she asks, didn't Fox ask for comment from one of the scores of "white ally" organizations that work on immigration issues, groups from Affirm and the Office for Social Justice to the Catholic Church's Hispanic Ministries and the American Immigration Lawyers Association?

While the sensational — and militarized — nature of the story and its promo might have more to do with February sweeps, Espejel says there may be something to the notion that the news program is tied to Bush administration goals. Stories like these, she said, like the recent immigration raids at the Swift Co. plant in Worthington, are "very much tied to this idea that certain parties want to make it seem like something's being done. It's as if the Bush administration is saying, 'The immigration system didn't break under us, but we're doing something for it.'"

But the biggest complaint Espejel has is the most direct — and commonplace. The report used a "sensationalised series of images" to embrace an equation that groups like hers have long fought: "people of color" equals "crime."

"We've been hit over the head with it again and again," she said. "You'd think people in the mainstream media would figure it out."

Fox 9 would not reveal how many complaints the station has received and would not respond to key questions I posed: Who is the unnamed man who serves to vouch for the link between illegal immigrants and Twin Cities drug crime? How do they explain the "border war" promotions or the use of terms like "illegals"? Why didn't the report offer "fair and balanced" coverage by including the perspective of immigrants? Who says 75 to 80 percent of Minnesota's illegal drugs come from south of the border?

Reporter Jeff Baillon didn't reply to Minnesota Monitor's interview request, and KMSP's manager of investigations, Kim Kruger, forwarded a query to Bill Dallman, the station's vice president of news.

His reply, which was relayed through a representative at Fox's New York office, in its entirety:

"Fox 9 stands by its reporting."

[Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor.]


justinph said...

What a bunch of 2-bit hacks.

Anonymous said...

"We are indigenous people from this continent."


That's not a defense for drug smuggling. Or a winning argument for allowing rampant illegal immigration.

Fact is: Many drugs are manufactured in Mexico and smuggled into the United States by illegal immigrants.

Turn a blind eye to it with idiot defenses like this one, and this country will end up like Mexico.