Immigration detention policy becomes major issue in media

June 18, 2018 - 8:41 pm
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NEW YORK (AP) — In a phone conversation with her executive producer over the weekend, "CBS This Morning" anchor Gayle King wondered if there wasn't more the network could do on the story of children being separated from parents through the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy. Almost before she knew it, she was on a plane to south Texas.

The policy blew up into a major issue on Monday after simmering for the past few weeks, and King's travel was but one indication. As CNN covered a contentious late-afternoon briefing by Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in the White House, a headline said it was being held "amid outrage." Newly-released audio of wailing children reportedly recorded at a border detention facility added sound to images of children being held by federal officials.

"You look at these little faces and see the innocence and you say, 'how is this OK? How is this all right?'" King said in an interview on Monday. "This is not a partisan issue. This is a human issue. And that's the story I'm trying to tell."

Personnel deployment is the most visible indicator of the importance television networks give to a story. Like King, NBC's Lester Holt made a similar trip to anchor "Nightly News" from McAllen, Texas, on Monday. MSNBC was sending Chris Hayes, Lawrence O'Donnell and Stephanie Ruhle to do their own shows from Texas starting Tuesday.

During "CBS This Morning" on Monday, King interviewed Manuel Padilla, border patrol chief for the Rio Grande Valley, who accused her of spreading misinformation about what was happening at the border. King said that her reporting backed up what she was saying.

The issue landed squarely on the nation's partisan fault line, as illustrated by a debate over a single word used in a description of a repurposed warehouse where children are being held in McAllen. Some 20 reporters were led on a brief tour there on Sunday to show the conditions. They were allowed to take written notes, but no pictures or video. The government released its own video images of what was going on.

After The Associated Press wrote that "hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing," Breitbart News wrote an article objecting to use of the word "cages." Fox News Channel's Steve Doocy said the government had "built walls out of chain-link fences."

Sally Buzbee, the AP's executive editor, said Monday that the AP is comfortable with the description.

"We always strive to be precise and factual in the language that we use," she said. "In this case, we think the word accurately describes the facilities."

On "CBS This Morning," King's colleague David Begnaud, who was also on the tour, said the children were being held in cages that "looked like kennels."

King defended one statement she made on Monday that seemed a potential target for criticism by Trump allies. She said on the air: "Based on the stories I've heard and the people I've talked to and the things I've seen with my own eyes, the Statue of Liberty is really weeping today."

In an interview, she pointed out what the Statue of Liberty stood for. "If showing bias is showing humanity, call me guilty of that," she said.

The administration's policy received criticism from some sectors where Trump was not used to hearing it, including former First Lady Laura Bush. The New York Post said in an editorial that trying to continue the policy is "guaranteed disaster." Commentator Bill O'Reilly tweeted that "the Trump administration will not win on this and should reverse course today."

The news site ProPublica released a nearly eight-minute audio clip of crying children calling out for their parents that it said was recorded inside a U.S. detention facility and provided to a civil rights attorney by a person who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. The attorney, Jennifer Harbury, provided the clip to ProPublica.

In the audio , sobbing children are heard saying "Mami' and "Papi" after they had been separated from their parents one day last week. A border patrol agent says, in Spanish: "We have an orchestra here. What's missing is a conductor."

In her briefing, Nielsen said she had not heard the audio. She defended the policy, saying the administration was choosing to enforce laws that were already on the books.

"Those who criticize the enforcement of our laws have offered only one alternative — open borders," Nielsen said.

Voices were raised frequently on television throughout the day. On Fox News Channel's "Outnumbered," commentator Kennedy, a former MTV VJ, used sarcasm to condemn the policy.

"I'm sure these mini-rapists all have bombs strapped to their chests," she said on Fox's "Outnumbered" show. "You're demonizing the wrong people. It has become so illogical."

She was shouted at by former congressman Jason Chaffetz.

"You are so naive," he said. "I can't believe it."

On ABC's "The View," panelist Meghan McCain became annoyed when her colleagues passed around a bell, meant to be rung when someone felt another host was becoming overheated in an argument.

"I'm not a cat," McCain said. "I hate that bell."

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Associated Press correspondent Jocelyn Noveck contributed to this report.

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