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'Fox & Friends' hypes new 'caravan' ahead of State of the Union

Posted February 5, 2019 6:49 p.m. EST

— Poll after poll shows that most Americans don't believe illegal border crossings are the country's most pressing problem. Far from it.

But "the wall" is the subject of constant coverage and advocacy by right-wing media outlets. That's what President Trump is hearing and seeing all the time. And that's what's informing his focus on this issue.

It works both ways: The fear-stoking stories and segments give Trump support for his hardline position while giving viewers confidence that Trump is right.

Witness "Fox & Friends," one of his favorite shows. The prospect of thousands of immigrants pouring into the U.S. from Mexico from so-called "caravans" is a daily theme on the morning show.

The result is a population with two very different impressions about what's actually going on at the border. Real challenges are obscured by cheap rhetoric. Trump's frightening talk about immigration rings true to the viewers of Fox's talk shows, while it strikes many other Americans as extreme -- or even a joke.

On Monday's "Late Show," Stephen Colbert invoked a "caravan" while imitating Trump giving the State of the Union: "Unity is so important. I want to unify everyone from the heroes who want to keep our border safe to Nancy Pelosi who wants to see the caravan murder you with a knife made of drugs."

Colbert's studio audience cracked up, but on Fox the "caravan" is deadly serious.

Every single day for the past week, the hosts on "Fox & Friends" have been talking about caravans -- sometimes referring to one specific group of migrants that began traveling from Central America in mid-January, other times speaking in broader terms.

The coverage has harkened back to last October, when a group of Honduran migrants moved north toward the U.S., leading Trump to make the "caravan" a major talking point in the midterms.

This time around, Fox's "caravan" coverage has coincided with Trump's annual State of the Union address and his ongoing fight for border wall funding.

Trump has confirmed that he's been watching. Last Wedneday he tweeted a quote, attributed to "Fox & Friends," that "three separate caravans" are "marching to our Border." Co-host Ainsley Earhardt had said the same thing, almost word for word, earlier in the morning. Earhardt's information came from a Pentagon official who said, of caravans, "there's three that we are tracking."

American and Mexican government officials have lots of experience managing these situations. Despite that fact, Fox's pro-Trump talk shows have played up the drama, especially in the run-up to the State of the Union.

Sean Hannity, for instance, promised his viewers "absolutely shocking reports about the immigration crisis" on Monday night.

Then he tossed to a live report from correspondent Griff Jenkins, who works for Fox's news division, and who has been reporting in the border region for several days. On Monday and Tuesday Jenkins was with a group of 2,000 migrants who had just arrived in Piedras Negras, Mexico, right across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas.

For the time being the migrants are being housed at a shelter. Local officials told journalists that the situation is under control -- but Piedras Negras was still the lead story on "Fox & Friends" at 6 and 8 a.m. Tuesday.

Amid speculation about whether Trump will declare a "national emergency" to pursue construction of new barriers, Fox's coverage depicted the border as exactly that. The co-hosts portrayed it as an urgent crisis. Something must be done, Earhardt said, because "we've got thousands of people in these caravans coming through."

It sure looked dramatic. Live pictures of chain-link fences and Mexican police units and ambulances filled the "Fox & Friends" screen. Jenkins reported that it was a "show of force" by the Mexican authorities.

Besides that, there wasn't much to show. But the banners on screen read "THOUSANDS OF MIGRANTS ARRIVE AT U.S. BORDER," "MIGRANTS CONSIDER ILLEGALLY CROSSING INTO TX" and "POLICE IN RIOT GEAR ON THE BORDER."

And, of course, there were banners like "TRUMP REMAINS FIRM IN DEMAND FOR BORDER WALL."

The pro-Trump bent of the coverage showed Fox's political interest in the caravan. Meanwhile, other major networks and newsrooms determined that the migrants in Piedras Negras weren't all that newsworthy. The "caravan" didn't come up on CNN or MSNBC or any of the broadcast network morning shows.

But in the right-wing ecosystem, it was a big deal. Breitbart and several other websites that target Trump's base ran headlines about the migrants while Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators posted about it on social media.

And President Trump tweeted, minutes after "Fox & Friends" ended, that "tremendous numbers of people are coming up through Mexico in the hopes of flooding our Southern Border."

There "seems to always be another caravan," co-host Brian Kilmeade said on the morning show.

On Fox, that seems true. And the caravan is just one aspect of this. Right-wing websites routinely highlight anecdotal stories about crimes by undocumented immigrants; warnings about human trafficking; and studies that say "walls work." Trump, in turn, often shares this content and works it into speeches.

On Tuesday morning, while Jenkins and his camera crew provided the live pictures, a caravan of Fox commentators reinforced the view that illegal border crossings are a crisis.

"Walls work," one of the president's sons, Eric Trump, said in a chat with the co-hosts. Referring to his father, Eric said, "He's going to win this one. You watch. He's going to win this one." Even when the hosts brought up other subjects, like trade, the live pictures from Mexico stayed up on screen.

Jenkins' reports continued during the hours Fox identifies as hard news coverage. Over on MSNBC, there was a very different scene: Traffic flowing smoothly at a port of entry in El Paso, Texas. That was the backdrop for a report about Trump's frequently false statements about immigration.

Over on Fox, there was another segment about the caravan.