How The Press Dumped Policy For Politics In Covering Immigration Reform

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

News late last week from Speaker of the House John Boehner that comprehensive immigration reform is likely already doomed this year produced a torrent of discussion on the Sunday morning talk shows. All the programs addressed the issue and detailed how internal Republican wrangling within the House continues to make passage impossible. This, despite the fact that last June the Senate easily passed a bipartisan reform bill -- featuring 14 Republicans "yes" votes - that addressed border security, allocated huge sums for enforcement measures for the U.S.-Mexico border, and offered a long path to citizenship for those living here illegally.

The Sunday shows stressed in great detail about how, following Mitt Romney's dreadful showing with Latino voters in 2012, some party leaders vowed to act on reform, only to be met by Tea Party rebels who threatened primary challenges to members of Congress who did. The talking heads addressed Boehner's tortured attempts to steer the legislation to a vote, how far-right insurgents launched an aggressive campaign to undermine the speaker this month, whether 2015 would provide any push for action, and how Boehner last week back peddled yet again and decided to blame Obama for the Republican inability to move forward on the pressing issue. (The GOP pretends Obama won't enforce laws.)

But you know what was never really discussed on the Sunday talk shows this week? The details of immigration reform as a pressing public policy issue. And you know who wasn't among the nearly 30 invited guests who appeared on the talk shows Sunday morning? A single immigration reform expert; none were included in the Sunday morning discussions. And that's the problem. Increasingly, the politics of immigration reform are covered and done so in extraordinary detail -- at the expense of the issue of immigration itself.

Instead of delving deeply into the issue and explaining what reform would mean to the more than 10 million unauthorized workers in America who would be directly affected by being given a chance at citizenship, and how the new immigration laws would help attract new workers from all over the world, the press regularly skims over the specifics and jumps right into the horse race play-by-play. 

This appears to be part of a larger, troubling Beltway media trend. As reporters refuse to segue out of campaign coverage, more often we're seeing a permanent political prism used to cover issues of public importance; issues that have very little to do with electoral or partisan politics.

That may be one reason some reporters initially bungled the Congressional Budget Office's report last week and erroneously claimed the CBO predicted that the Affordable Care Act would cause millions to lose their jobs. That was the Republican spin on the CBO report. But too many reporters, immediately stressing the politics of the CBO report instead of the substance, helped echoe the phony spin and botched the story. 

Watching and reading the immigration reform coverage over the last five days, you'd know about all sort of back room, GOP vote-counting intricacies but you'd know very little about what immigration reform calls for or what it means for America's future. You'd likely also have little idea about the vast coalition of politically diverse groups supporting reform, including college and university presidents, evangelical leaders and big business cheerleaders, such as the Chamber of Commerce. Or that polling indicates a strong majority of Americans support reform, including Republican voters.

Also brushed aside is the fact that thanks to support from dozens of Republican members, immigration reform could pass in the House today if Boehner would allow members to vote. But he won't.

Most of that crucial information now gets downplayed, if not completely ignored, so that reporters can detail the intramural bickering and positioning that's raging within the Republican Party. That kind of inside-baseball coverage is perfectly suitable for a Beltway newsletter or a Capital Hill trade publication like Roll Call or The Hill. But for the largest news organization to treat the monumental issue of immigration reform as little more than a Republican chess match?  

Worse, the obsessively political immigration coverage often lacks crucial context and fails to give news consumers key facts. Information like how House Republicans now stalling on reform are the same House Republicans who for five years have practiced the most aggressive brand of obstructionism ("procedural sabotage") in modern American history.  

Meaning, the immigration debate is hardly unique in terms of the permanent roadblocks Republican have constructed for Obama. And the notion that House Republicans still stand as good-faith partners for Obama to work with seems beyond naïve, yet that's still the premise of much of the coverage. (i.e. Boehner really, really wants reform to pass.)

One of the few times the voices of those at the center of the immigration debate were widely heard came last November when two young activists armed with a video camera confronted Boehner while he was eating breakfast at Pete's Diner, his favorite D.C. breakfast spot. "How would you feel if you had to tell your kids at the age of 10 that you were never coming home?" one of them asked Boehner, who assured them "it time to get" reform done.

And to its credit, the Associated Press recently published a long piece about immigration reform that was actually about....immigration reform. The piece told the story of a Miami high school student named Jose Antonio Machado who has campaigned tireless on the state and national level for immigration reform, in part so he can be reunited with his mother who was deported to Nicaragua when Jose was 15 years old.

Overall though, these seem to be the exceptions. It's time for the press to expand its myopic view of immigration reform and acknowledge it's far more than a story about internal GOP wrangling.

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