By John Newcomb
In the months surrounding the 2018 Midterm Elections, Fox News featured fearmongering coverage of the caravan of people fleeing Central America towards the United States southern border. Night after night, Fox News coverage portrayed the caravan as “an invasion,” included claims that many of the Central American migrants were gang members and terrorists infected with diseases, while repeating the false claim that liberal billionaire George Soros was funding them.
From the start, the caravan of migrants has been political fodder for President Trump for the same reason it has been a compulsion for Fox News: images of invasion by purported lawless foreigners appeals to President Trump’s base and drives up Fox News’ ratings. A study in the American Economic Review estimated that watching Fox News undeviatingly generates a substantial rightward shift in viewers’ opinions, which transposes into significantly greater enthusiasm to vote for Republican candidates (Martin & Yurukoglu, 2014). As a result, Fox News’ fictitious, fearmongering coverage throughout the 2018 Midterm Elections led to greater polarization between the political parties while strengthening white nationalist sentiments and spreading xenophobia.
Fox News and Fox & Friends
Fox News, formally known as the Fox News Channel, is the United States “pay television news channel” held by the Fox Entertainment Group, a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox, and is broadcast in 86 countries and territories worldwide. Fox News was built by Australian-American media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who chose former Republican Party media expert and CNBC executive Roger Ailes as the network’s original CEO. Fox News launched on October 7, 1996, to 17 million cable subscribers.
One of the most popular Fox News shows, Fox & Friends, gave exhaustive coverage of the Central American caravan in the days before the midterm elections. According to transcripts of the show, the caravan was discussed 19 times on Friday (11/2), ten times on Monday (11/5), and nine times on Election Day (11/6). The following day, the caravan was mentioned just once (Rupar, 2018), and President Trump ceased discussing the caravan entirely. The White House did not even try to suppress its political motives. A senior Trump administration official recounted to the Daily Beast that “it does not matter” if the fearmongering concerning the caravan was “100 percent accurate” because “this is the play” (Markay, Sommer, Stein, & Suebsaeng, 2018). What was clear was that Fox News coverage helped the White House with their political theater or “play.” Fear and dehumanization were the defining discourse of Fox’s caravan coverage, and it had the effect of herding conservatives to the polls.
Fox News’ Relationship with President Trump
Rupert Murdoch and President Trump both advanced from New York’s gossip lifestyle: Murdoch as the owner of The New York Post, the Trump as its ideal cover story. Both traveled in related cliques since the 1970s, but both men did not grow close until recently when their interests started to align (Chozick, 2017). President Trump’s and Fox News’ messages about migrants are interchangeable and resoundingly clear: fear foreigners, especially those to the south of the United States. The similarity in both of their messages is likely one reason why President Trump is such a big fan of Fox News, especially Fox & Friends, which he once called “the most influential show in news” (Trump & Brown). President Trump’s tweets even tend to have a spike in frequency between the hours that Fox & Friends airs.
Fox News has noticed that the President is watching as well, and has evolved from a show about President Trump to a show for President Trump that is trying to influence his behavior. A study by Vox took 17 months of Fox & Friends transcripts and found that after the 2016 Election, sentences aimed at instructing or advising President Trump spiked by more than 50 percent. That same study found that the show began using more language aimed at changing the President’s behavior (Chang, 2018). In this way, Fox News is an identity-reinforcer.
Fox News’ incredible political and economic power extends to taking over the news cycle to cover stories that usually would receive little to no coverage. A pattern unfolds in which Fox News runs a story, President Trump tweets about it, and other media react. For a network that is known for getting information incorrect, pedaling wild conspiracy theories, and welcoming neurotic fearmongering, Fox News yields a mighty sword. It has essentially become a state media. The most extreme parts of the conservative base—the traditional media, and conservative government parties—have merged to reinforce each other’s attitudes by inhabiting the same epistemic world, and pursuing the same attack upon the same distinguished threats.
President Trump does not see himself as leader of the whole country. Instead, he sees himself as President of his White Nationalist party, their protector from the Central American migrant caravan “invasion.” President Trump draws from his power as Head of State to do what he wants, while Fox News pumps out propaganda to make him stronger. As a result, extreme political views that used to seem abnormal have become more mainstream. The ideas of right-wing extremist groups and white nationalists used to exist in the shadows, but now they are crawling out from the darkness and being shared on Fox News. The current conservative movement has almost wholly parted from mainstream traditions, standards, and practices, and Fox News has helped spread its false “facts” and conspiracy theories. Conservatives have sunk nearly undivided into “tribal epistemology” (Roberts, 2017), where the separation between what is good for the society and what is right gives in completely.
People of the Caravan
Roughly 160 Hondurans left the town of San Pedro Sula, often referred to as the “murder capital of the world,” on October 12, 2018, with dreams of reaching Mexico or the United States to present themselves for asylum. The migrants left their home countries, choosing the uncertainty of the journey ahead over the risk of gang death threats or supporting a family on $5 per day. Moreover, the migrants decided to unite, following the caravan as it advanced rather than being isolated like tens of thousands of other Guatemalans and Hondurans do every year (Lind, 2018). On October 14, the caravan was more than 1,000 active, based on the judgments of Associated Press reporters. By October 15, the AP figured about 1,600 Hondurans had accumulated at the border with Guatemala. The caravan proceeded to develop as it traversed Guatemala and landed about 3,000 strong at the Mexican-Guatemalan border on October 19 (Perez, 2018).
The caravan was just one piece of a bigger picture. Throughout the decade, there has been a growth in the number of children and families crossing the United States-Mexico border. A study through the Pew Research Study found that these migrants are frequently people escaping destruction and disorder, coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and surrounding countries. In September 2018, children and families equaled over half of all people seized crossing the border illegally, up from 17 percent in September 2013. Meanwhile, illegal border crossings of single adults, Mexicans, and people looking for seasonal work have significantly decreased (Bialik, 2018).
In many cases, people are motivated by a generalized sense of desperation and a pervasive sense of hope for a better life rather than for criminal activity. The effect is a shift in the character of who is seeking to cross into the United States. Although these are the facts, Fox News has chosen to pedal lies and conspiracy theories that portray the migrant caravan in a negative light.
False Report: Caravan Members Are Gang Members or Terrorists
Again and again, Fox News has seized on false xenophobic, right-wing conspiracy theories that the caravan transports gang members and “unknown Middle Easterners,” which is meant to represent terrorists, a method which in itself is racist. Fox News provides zero evidence to back up these claims. Pete Hegseth, a co-host of Fox & Friends Weekend, said that 100 ISIS members were caught in Guatemala trying to use the caravan as a Trojan Horse to get into the United States. The host ended his claim with “We don’t know, it hasn’t been verified” (Poniewozik, 2018). Fox News could not verify the story because it was not true. The Guatemalan President did mention ISIS in a speech but never said they were hiding in the caravan. That is a fact because the President gave the speech on October 11, before the caravan even existed (Maza, 2018).
The reason the caravan formed was not to sneak criminals into the United States. It was to protect themselves from traffickers and gangs like MS-13, a United States product. One migrant told reporter Sonia Perez that she was fleeing after a neighborhood gang threatened to kill her because the gang had confused a tattoo of her parents’ names for a symbol of an opposing gang (Perez, 2018). Another migrant told the Los Angeles Times’s Kate Linthicum that her 16-year-old son objected to selling drugs for a gang, so “they were going to kill him or kill us” (Linthicum, 2018). MS-13 was founded in Los Angeles among Salvadoran immigrants, and worsened as the result of mass incarceration and discipline when they got deported back to El Salvador, which had been devastated by a civil war (PBS, 2018).
False Report: Caravan Carries Disease
Fox News has also repeatedly claimed that the migrant caravan would bring disease outbreaks, thereby creating a panic of xenophobic madness. Smallpox is a terrible disease that killed more than 300 million people in the 20th century alone, but it was completely eradicated in 1980. Nevertheless, Fox News featured an interview with ex-ICE agent David Ward, who stated that the migrant caravan is going to bring smallpox to the United States. According to Ward, “They are coming in with diseases such as smallpox, leprosy, and TB that are going to infect our people in the United States” (Turesky, 2018).
Dr. Jose Carlos Bautista, working directly with the first wave of migrants who arrived at a stadium turned shelter in Mexico City, told Vice News that the main infections he had treated were “upper respiratory tract, mainly the flu” (VICE News, 2018). There is a long history of accusing foreigners of harboring and spreading disease. It is an example of how humans’ instinctual distrust of “other” people manifests itself.
False Report: George Soros Funded the Caravan
Fox News coverage of the caravan also showed anti-Semitism by repeatedly claiming that the man behind it was George Soros, a billionaire investor and Jewish Holocaust survivor who created a charitable foundation called Open Society. Again and again, Fox commentators claimed that Soros planned and funded the caravan, and President Trump repeatedly tweeted the same message. As many people have noted, this claim reinforced an old anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jewish people are wealthy, scheming, world dominators.
The idea of Soros as “puppet master” was first introduced back in 2010 by Fox News (Beck, 2010), but it took on a new life thanks to Fox coverage and Donald Trump’s tweets about the caravan. Before long, their fearmongering had an effect. On October 23, Soros became the first person targeted in a mail bomb attack by right-wing extremist and Fox News fan Cesar Sayoc. Four days later, white nationalist Robert Gregory Bowers walked into a Pittsburgh Synagogue and killed 11 people. The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter was provoked explicitly by the “Soros funded the caravan” theory. As Adam Serwer writes, “The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election” (Serwer, 2018).
Anti-Semitism is not new to the right, but it has now become shockingly mainstream. Scapegoating Jewish people is a horrible ancient tradition, and it is now happening more and more in the United States. A study by CNN found that anti-Semitic incidents have skyrocketed nearly 60 percent since the 2016 Election (Kaur, 2018). Fox News did not ask their supporters to massacre praying Jews. However, Republicans did speak a language that the shooter clearly understood.
False Media Alters Our Minds
Studies show that people are programmed to be suspicious of those whom they regard as being different or “other” (Amodio, Jost, Nam, & Van Bavel, 2014). Xenophobia is stoked by hegemonic propaganda by those in power who use the fear of others as a means of altering the way one perceives them. A study found when most white people learn that minorities will ultimately be the majority, they start to exhibit less empathy towards members of other races. If minorities are on the climb, the reasoning maintains the majority must be succumbing (Craig & Richeson, 2011).
People who sympathize more with their dominant status and related power groups tend to be more hostile and dehumanizing toward those projected as members of out-groups. In ancient times, this is what kept people safe. In the modern age, it is what pushes people toward bigotry and racism. As Northwestern University psychologists Emile Bruneau and Nour Kteily explained in a 2016 paper, “Individuals who dehumanized Mexican immigrants to a greater extent were more likely to cast them in threatening terms, withhold sympathy from them, and support measures designed to send and keep them out” (Bruneau & Kteily, 2016).
Stereotypes that instill fear of outsiders are much more powerful than facts and figures. That is why Fox News’ stories about immigrants committing crimes, stories about people losing jobs to immigrants, and assertions that immigrants are not loyal to the United States, are all extremely powerful and dangerous, regardless of whether the stories are true.
The xenophobic response to migrants is more emotional than rational. In order to alter people’s perceptions, the negative emotional feeling that “migrants are threatening” needs to be replaced with the more positive feeling that “migrants need compassion.” This requires fighting negative perceptions with positive perceptions, but conservative news networks like Fox News are not helping. Fox News portrays the Central American migrant caravan as a threat to American dominance and safety by focusing on inflated fears about the caravan’s impact rather than what the caravan means to the migrants in dire need of asylum. Fox News continues to provide a makeshift reality devoid of fact. In its quest for profits, high ratings, and a conservative ideological bent, Fox News has covered the Central American migrant caravan as an urgent threat to American safety, with headlines that lend themselves to clickable memes and video clips to keep their ratings high among conservatives.
Student Author: John Newcomb, Worcester State University
Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University
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