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How the media dealt a major blow to Donald Trump’s family separations policy

Hashtags at the ready. EPA/David Maung

After weeks of dramatically negative coverage, Donald Trump recently moved to end a policy which, starting in mid-April, separated more than 2,300 children from their undocumented parents as they tried to cross the US-Mexico border. This he did in the face of intense pressure to change course: two-thirds of Americans disapproved of the policy – including prominent conservatives – suggesting that maintaining the policy might have been deemed too costly in electoral terms.

That in turn indicates that while Trump has long made political capital out of his disdain for the mainstream media, he may be more vulnerable to its pressure than he likes to admit.

An extensive body of research has documented the unique power of photojournalism and television to make the suffering of victims visible, particularly when it comes to mothers and children. To quote the important work of the University of Maryland’s Susan D. Moeller, as far as the media are concerned, these people “make ideal victims”. “Seldom heard, though often photographed”, mothers and their children who are subject to unjustified suffering are essential to a “morality play story line [which] rests on the fact that it is easy to understand and appreciate”.

The news media’s pictures and footage of the family separation policy in action, quickly disseminated via Facebook and Twitter, became ubiquitous around the world. Images of young children in cages covered with foil sheets for blankets shaped a narrative that the Trump administration is cruel and indifferent to the suffering of innocent victims. That narrative was publicly restated by prominent leaders at home and abroad, including individuals who might otherwise be seen as typical Trump supporters.

Brutality on camera

Western publics have long been used to heartbreaking images of distant suffering, even to the point of what Moeller calls “compassion fatigue”, but this ongoing episode has made clear that horror of this kind can happen in America too.

A good measure of the impact this episode has made was the July 2 edition of Time magazine, whose iconic covers have captured the country’s history since 1923. Headed “Welcome to America”, it featured Trump gazing indifferently down at a terrified two-year-old cropped from a Getty Images picture – an image which, as the Washington Post put it, “has become a symbol of the Trump administration’s new ‘zero tolerance’ border policies”. Even after it was established that the child in the original photo hadn’t been separated from its family, the image’s power remained more or less intact.

The narrative that the US government is actively inflicting suffering upon innocent children kept gaining traction. Soon, parallels between the country’s migrant detention facilities and concentration camps started to appear on popular sites such as Wikipedia.

In this case, the repetition of camera shots and sound that combine innocent children in distress being handled by men sporting handcuffs, boots and guns strapped to their belts, is still framing a political debate on family separation that, as FT columnist Janan Ganesh, would be “unlosable for liberals”. The state, Ganesh writes, “cannot distress children and expect a hearing. ‘As a parent…’ has displaced ‘As a Christian…’ as the most pious overture to a modern American sentence.”

Communication problems

But the sheer potency of negative media coverage isn’t the whole story here. The Trump administration itself also failed dramatically to mount a strategic political communications operation. Most inept of all was its decision to give journalists access to detention facilities, a move intended to show Trump’s supporters just how tough it is on illegal immigration. But as Daniell Hallin cogently outlined in his 1986 book The Uncensored War, if the US government learned anything about public communications from the Vietnam War, it was that the news media is more likely than not to contradict the terms in which public officers frame a conflict.

While the family separation policy is far from a fully fledged war, the unequivocal innocence of its child victims – as well as various communication gaffes including the selective use of religious rhetoric – meant the administration’s move couldn’t help but backfire in the court of national and global public opinion.

More than that, the media public opinion can stem not just from a government’s actions, but also from its failure to act. Trump’s heavy-handed approach to undocumented immigrants has been compared to the slow and incompetent response of George W. Bush’s administration to hurricane Katrina in August 2005, when the 43rd president infamously continued to holiday on his 1,600-acre Texas ranch even as thousands of residents in New Orleans were left stranded on rooftops and in official shelters. A picture of him peering at the damage from the window of Air Force One only damaged his reputation further. As political columnist Jill Abramson put it, Trump is repeating Bush’s “fatal mistake” by “showing heartlessness in a time of crisis”.

Trump has now issued an executive order to end the separation of families. That far from ends the ordeal for the children and parents involved, and the president is still trafficking in caustic anti-immigrant rhetoric, painting undocumented immigrants as an infestation. Nonetheless if this dismal incident proves anything, it’s that he and his administration are indeed susceptible to the mainstream news media they rail against – even to the point of quickly changing actual policy.

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