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Fake News Claiming Border Checkpoints During Hurricane Harvey Is Why Americans Hate The Media


In southeast Texas, a humanitarian and economic catastrophe is underway. The National Weather Service has called Hurricane Harvey and the ensuing tropical storm “unprecedented” and “beyond anything experienced.” Flooding in some parts of Houston have reached 500-year floodplain levels, leaving thousands displaced or still stranded in their homes. But that hasn’t stopped the mainstream media from turning the disaster into a political talking point attacking the Trump administration.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union released a grossly inaccurate and inflammatory statement in response to the unremarkable news that the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol would not close any internal checkpoints in Texas during the hurricane.

“As people seek refuge from hurricane Harvey, they are likely to have to go north or west of Texas and would have to go through a checkpoint. By keeping checkpoints open, the Border Patrol is putting undocumented people and mixed-status families at risk out of fear of deportations,” said Lorella Praeli, the ACLU’s director of immigration policy and campaigns. “This is a disgusting move from the Border Patrol that breaks with past practices. The Border Patrol should never keep checkpoints open during any natural disasters in the United States. Everyone, no matter the color of their skin or background, is worth saving.”

The problem is, there are no checkpoints in the areas affected by the storm, and no one fleeing Hurricane Harvey will encounter a Border Patrol checkpoint. The closest checkpoints are about 80 and 50 miles southwest of Corpus Christi and cover northbound routes from the Rio Grande Valley. No one fleeing the hurricane or the flooding along the coast would be headed north on these routes because they don’t lead inland to higher ground.

Quartz Ran the ACLU’s Statement Like It Was a News Story

But none of that information, which anyone could discern from taking five minutes to study a map of Texas and looking up a bit of information about where the Border Patrol checkpoints in question are located, stopped Quartz from regurgitating the ACLU’s false and hysterical claim under the factually incorrect headline, “The Trump administration will check people’s papers as they evacuate from Hurricane Harvey.”

Set aside the tendentious claim that “the Trump administration” is responsible for the specific policy decisions of every federal agency, the article produces zero examples of anyone’s papers being checked by Border Patrol during the evacuation.

What’s more, the reporter, Heather Timmons, doesn’t seem to understand what happens at Border Patrol checkpoints. She writes that agents “check individuals’ documents to make sure they are legal residents of the US.” As anyone who has been through a Border Patrol checkpoint knows, actual document checks are uncommon. Typically, the agent asks a brief couple of questions before sending one on one’s way. Even the phrase “legal residents” is inaccurate. The Border Patrol is concerned about legal presence, not legal residence. After all, there are plenty of Mexicans legally driving on Texas roads, here for short-term or day visits, going about their perfectly legitimate business.

Timmons again runs into trouble in her description of the evacuation routes in question, writing that “Several of these evacuation routes go right through Border Patrol checkpoints, including one on Route 44 in Corpus Christi and another on Route 35 heading up to San Antonio.” What she calls “Route 44” is actually Texas State Highway 44, better known to residents of Corpus Christi as Agnes Street. “Route 35” is in fact Interstate 35, one of the major north-south transit corridors in America.

She then relies upon what appears to be a crowdsourced Google Map of Border Patrol facilities in south Texas, but does not grasp that not all the listed sites are “Border Patrol checkpoints.” The one on Texas 44 just outside Corpus Christi is not a checkpoint at all but a combination office facility and vehicle/equipment depot. A brief look at local geography suggests that no one would ever place a checkpoint along this section of Texas 44, as the major corridor for entry and exit to the Corpus Christi area is Interstate 37, a short distance to the north.

Likewise, her reference to the Interstate 35 Border Patrol presence seems to refer to the Border Patrol station at Cotulla, which is, like its counterpart in Corpus Christi, an operations and depot facility, not a checkpoint. There is a Border Patrol checkpoint much further south, at Encinal, but it is only for northbound traffic, so anyone from the San Antonio region fleeing the storm and flooding would not be affected by it.

All of this is subsidiary to the larger point that the I-35 corridor between San Antonio and Laredo is not a hurricane evacuation route at all. Timmons suggests, amazingly, that this stretch of I-35 would be used to bring evacuees into San Antonio, which in turn suggests that she and her editors don’t seem to know where Hurricane Harvey is or where it is expected to go.

Finally, she writes this preposterous passage: “Civil rights activists said the new policy was cruel. It also could result in avoidable fatalities, if some families with illegal immigrant members choose not to evacuate the storm zone.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for followup coverage about whether anything like this actually happened, or whether actual evidence will influence future reporting along these lines. If editors at Quartz respond to any of the criticism outlined above, they will likely dodge by claiming that the reporting was on the ACLU’s statement, not the substantive claims within. But of course they don’t believe it, and neither do you.

This Is Why Americans Hate the Media

It’s no surprise that partisan left-wing outlets like Daily Kos would run hysterical and false coverage under the headline, “Border Patrol is trying to arrest undocumented immigrants fleeing Hurricane Harvey,” but Quartz is supposed to be rather more mainstream. Timmons is Quartz’s White House correspondent and an alumnus of The New York Times and BusinessWeek. She appears to be a professional journalist and should by all accounts be credible. Yet she has written a story—in fact, re-written an ACLU press release as a legitimate news story—that has almost no credibility. How did this happen?

The blame of course does not rest just with her, but with an editorial team that abdicated its responsibilities to her and their readers to score cheap points against Trump. The problems are glaringly obvious, and would have been easy to fix. But reporting on real events underway in Texas was not the purpose of the article.

So we have here an article that does the opposite of what its editors intended. They intended to show how callous and inhumane President Trump is toward immigrants, even in the face of a natural disaster, when lives are on the line. What they communicated instead is that mainstream journalists are willing to disseminate hyperbolic talking points from left-wing activists without even the pretense of reporting, fact-checking, or objectivity.

This in turn reinforces to ordinary Americans the sense that the media has so badly lost perspective about Trump that they are willing to lie and fabricate stories in order to attack a president who is otherwise vulnerable to a plain reporting of the truth. In short, this is why Americans don’t trust the media.