America’s democracy remains under siege from behind Kremlin walls. And America’s journalists, whose jobs are about shining that spotlight that democracy needs to survive and hopefully thrive, are increasingly under siege from behind that big iron fence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Yet, we need to acknowledge that sometimes America’s democracy, while under siege, is also under-served by those of us who are so proud of our roles in keeping Washington government a well-lighted (if not always clean) place. Sometimes even the most famous names in our biz don’t make the extra efforts to serve our customers — the American public.
And that was the case this week, as we watched America’s 24/7 TV cable news networks during the run-up to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. My former colleagues in cable news missed a great chance help Americans instinctively become their own first and best fact-checkers (see also: Braunschweiger detectors) during his speech.
In the hours before Trump’s Tuesday night speech, what we saw was a string of those look-alike, sound-alike cable news panel shows that were all about punditry, not news. We saw panels of Talking Heads talking about what they guessed the president might talk about. Also what they definitely thought was right or wrong with what only they guessed Trump might (or might not) say. Even when his speech was just minutes away. Yikes.
But what if the cable news deciders had boldly chosen to deep-six all that and shine their big news spotlight on the real news? Especially: the crucial controversy that just shut down government once and is still hovering, unresolved, above the heads of the president, Congress, government and all Americans.
What if TV’s cable news networks had preceded Trump’s State of the Union address with a news special? Call it:
“The State of the Union’s Border: A Special Report on What Is Really Happening — and Not Happening — All Along the U.S.-Mexico Border.”
TV could have shown us a reality that helped Washington get past its absurd extremes (The crisis claims are overblown. Walls aren’t immoral). Republicans and Democrats can quickly find a compelling way to safeguard us all. TV could have shown us what local experts say are the real problems they face — and what they really need to solve it: a mix of barriers, high tech, and lots more manpower to enforce miles, inspect vehicles, run courts, process immigration claims.
TV execs want you to know they did it all before. What Americans need is for reporters to update, verify and clarify reality — now.
Eventually, that bold cable news effort would have virtually taken us all to El Paso, Texas, just across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico. And TV’s producers would have created vivid graphics that were based on the El Paso Times’ excellent enterprise reporting, which used FBI statistics to tell this unforgettable tale of improvement:
Way back in 1993, El Paso’s violent crime peaked with 6,500 violent crimes recorded; by 2006, that had plummeted 34 percent to under 2,700 violent crimes. President George W. Bush approved a border fence; construction began in 2008, ended in 2009 — but that didn’t lower El Paso’s violent crime at all. El Paso’s crime actually rose 17 percent between 2006 and 2011. Still, El Paso’s crime rate was and is among the lowest for U.S. cities of its size.
Then we would have watched Trump’s address — and known instantly each El Paso claim was false:
“The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities. Now, immediately upon its building, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities. Simply put, walls work and walls save lives.”
We don’t know whether Trump knew he was lying to us, or whether his advisers knew it but never told him. But we know Trump is about to hear those tough truths he needs to know. On Monday, he’s going to El Paso to rally support for his Wall. Meanwhile, El Paso’s Sheriff Richard Wiles shoveled out some pre-visit reality in a statement Trump won’t like:
“It is sad to hear President Trump state falsehoods about El Paso, Texas in an attempt to justify the building of a 2,000 mile wall,” the sheriff said in a statement. “The facts are clear…. El Paso is one of the safest cities in the nation, it has never been ’ … considered one of our Nation’s most dangerous cities,’ and, El Paso was a safe city long before any Wall was built.”
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.