President Donald Trump’s scheduled visit to Long Island on Wednesday, where he will appear at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage with Rep. Peter King to talk about the importance of deporting MS-13 gang members, will likely add more fuel to the controversy over his remarks at another public event last week describing such deportees as “animals.” It is a controversy that highlights the pitfalls faced by the news media in covering Trump.
“You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals,” Trump said Wednesday at a meeting on California’s sanctuary law, referring to people whom “we’re taking . . . out of the country.” The comments were widely reported — not just by random social media users but by major media outlets — as referring to immigrants here illegally in general. These reports sparked massive outrage.
On Twitter, some shared photos of ordinary-looking workers and parents deported by the Trump administration, saying these were people whom Trump had just called less than human. Many denounced his bigotry.
Then, others countered that Trump’s words were taken out of context and that he was talking about violent criminals. His comments were made in response to Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who complained that the sanctuary law in California hampers the ability of immigration authorities to investigate people in jail, some of them possibly MS-13 members. That was when Trump launched into his rant about “animals.” After that exchange, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also talked about gang members and specifically MS-13.
To Trump supporters, the initial reporting, which some outlets corrected, was a prime example of media bias and dishonesty: a comment referring to a violent group notorious for gruesome murders had been reported as an attack on hardworking people who had committed no offense except for breaking immigration laws.
Yet many Trump critics doubled down, denouncing attempts to read nuance into Trump’s remarks. Trump, they said, has a long history of focusing on violent criminals to vilify immigrants here illegally, or even immigrants in general. After all, this is a man who began his campaign three years ago with a speech claiming that Mexico was “sending” us drug dealers and rapists. (Just recently, he defended that statement and made it clear that it referred not only to immigrants here illegally but to those coming here legally under the visa lottery system.)
Given that record, Trump detractors have said, Trump doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. The day after the initial controversy, Vox, the news and analysis site, used the headline, “Trump on deported immigrants: ‘They’re not people. They’re animals,’” and asserted that it was “unclear” whether he had been referring to MS-13 members or all deportees. However, the article noted that Trump has used such language to refer to MS-13 — including last year in a speech to law enforcement officers on Long Island.
It is quite true that Trump has a history of using criminal immigrants to stoke a more general hysteria about illegal immigration and against a legal immigration system that he believes lets in the “wrong” kind of people. (In fact, evidence shows that immigrants, legal or not, are less likely to commit crimes that native-born Americans.) Such dehumanizing rhetoric deserves condemnation. But it needs to be reported accurately.
The larger context of Trump’s immigrant-bashing needs to be acknowledged, but so does the specific context of these particular remarks. That’s not excessive nuance; it’s factual reporting. Anything else will feed the Trump camp’s attempt to discredit the media as “fake news.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.