Freedom of the press (release)
I'm typically skeptical when a law enforcement agency puts out a press release expecting immediate dissemination through the media when it says anything other than (a) we're looking for a person of interest in a particular crime or (b) we found a person of interest in a particular crime so the public can now rest comfortably. Anything else doesn’t warrant a print-first, ask-questions later urgency; other words for this other type of press release are public relations messaging or propaganda.
Certainly, government agencies should take pride in accomplishing great tasks – and the public should want to know when they do. Things like large scale arrests of sitting public officials for corruption and the like are the most obvious grand splashes that readily invite all sorts of reporting. And really, that should be the measure. A lesser press release usually should just get the media juices flowing (maybe). If truly important, reporters should take up the task of fleshing out the facts and allowing the narratives to take their own natural shape.
A press release should be self-limiting; a mere prompt, not a product. It sparks a cringe in me to see news stories (with increasing frequency) in the mainstream media which so clearly rely heavily (or entirely) on the words of a press release. There often appears to be no independent research, investigation or, most importantly, follow-up. Research and questions, of course, are necessary to get to significant truths and context.
I too often see almost identical stories about the “accomplishments” of a government agency in different media outlets with different reporters attaching their names. And when they’re on important public policy topics including “illegal immigration,” my cringe response goes from intellectual reflux to full body gagging.
At a time when the office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is under scrutiny for its methods and mayhem — and where there’s growing resistance building to the building of an immigrant-resistant “big, beautiful wall” to keep out the so-called “murderers and rapists” (and everyone else) — it’s natural that there would be efforts by various sources to influence the narrative and present certain rhetoric to the public eye.
Recently there was an amalgamation of supposed ICE stats with questionable human trafficking stories bought off on by, well, everyone, as just one example. It is just naïve to accept everything from an ICE press release as authentic and reliable, or as the whole story, given the desire of ICE to bolster the narrative of both their own agency and validate the mandates from President D.J. Trump.
In a 24-hour news cycle not long ago we got stories like:
“Federal immigration authorities arrest 67 in Clark County” — Las Vegas Review-Journal by Katelyn Newberg (Sept. 28, 2018)
“ICE operation nets 67 arrests in Las Vegas area" — Las Vegas SUN by Ricardo Torres-Cortez (Sept. 28, 2018)
ICE officials make 102 arrests throughout Nevada during six day operation — FOX-5 News by Gabriella Benavidez (Sept. 29, 2018)
Deportation officers arrest 102 in Nevada for criminal, immigration violations — News 3 by News 3 Staff (Sept. 28, 2018)
ICE arrests 102 people throughout Nevada for various violations — 13 Action News by KTNV Staff (Sept. 28, 2018)
Nevada ICE operation arrests 102 people over 6-day period — 8 LasVegas NOW by Nikki Bowers (Sept 28, 2018)
Each of these accounts presents some gradation of the same words suggesting that the “majority” of the people arrested were really bad people. Criminals. “Violent” or “serious” criminals, at that.
Here’s what I mean (emphasis mine):
The LVRJ: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 67 undocumented people in Clark County over the past week, the agency said Friday. The agency arrested 102 people in Nevada, with 67 from Clark County, during a six-day operation that ended Thursday, according to an ICE news release. The majority of people arrested had prior criminal convictions, including “assault, battery, domestic violence, DUI, weapons charges and drug violations,” the release said.”
The LVSun: “An operation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Nevada this month netted 67 arrests in Clark County, mostly people previously convicted on serious and violent offenses, the federal agency announced today…. The majority of immigrants targeted had previous convictions on charges such as assault, battery, domestic battery, domestic violence, DUI, and weapons and drug charges, officials said.”
The local FOX affiliate: “The operation targeted "criminal aliens and other immigration violators." Those who were targeted by ERO [Enforcement and Removal Operations] had previous criminal convictions for serious or violent offenses. The offenses included assault, battery, domestic violence, driving under the influence, weapons charges and drug violations, ICE officials said.”
The Sinclair Broadcasting-owned NBC affiliate: “The majority of the aliens targeted by ERO deportation officers during this operation, which included the entire state of Nevada, had prior criminal convictions for serious or violent offenses, such as assault, battery, domestic violence, DUI, weapons charges and drug violations, among others.”
The local ABC affiliate: “The majority of the people targeted by Enforcement and Removal Operations officers during this operation had prior criminal convictions for serious or violent offenses, such as assault, battery, domestic violence, DUI, weapons charges and drug violations, among others.”
The local CBS affiliate: “The majority of the aliens targeted by ERO deportation officers during this operation, which included the entire state of Nevada, had prior criminal convictions for serious or violent offenses, such as assault, battery, domestic violence, DUI, weapons charges and drug violations, among others.”
Maybe they were the majority. Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe there was much more to some or all of the stories than ICE chose to share. The point is, in six separate news accounts, we have virtually identical information which all seems to flow from a single press release. A press release that sure seems to have given only cherry-picked details. A press release that mentions the worst crime of the bunch — two people were said to have sold an unnamed drug — with no other disclosed facts to verify or contextualize it.
Whatever else, nothing feloniously violent can be implied from any of the listed crimes.
What’s clear from reading this mass dump of the same press release info into the public consciousness is that this is an example of absolute success (by ICE) in crafting and pushing a narrative that only “bad people” are being deported. This is the narrative that ICE wants (to fend off criticism), and the President seems to need (to fire up his base). It’s a success because a reader might presume the information was vetted by the press. More specifically, by the journalists with names attached to the stories.
What about all the obvious general questions that should have been asked, considering all the misinformation floating around on immigration issues? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Surely, an ICE press release touting how effective their original press release was is forthcoming.
And then there’s this: every local media account about the September 2018 ICE arrests more or less attributed the source of the information to one Robert Culley, who is the field office director for Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Salt Lake City. Some stories made it seem as if the reporter had talked to Mr. Culley — but that is unlikely given the speed of publishing following the release and the uniformity of content. Indeed, at least at the Review-Journal, they now admit they didn’t actually speak with Mr. Culley (“he declined”) but ran the story anyway.
Is it that hard to call or email a public official to seek a response? Also: What’s his background? Is he even a reliable source? Is there someone else we could talk to, in order to verify information? Hey, how’s the weather in Salt Lake City?
The media in Nevada has had more than two months to do a follow-up. To, you know, test the truth of the press release they willingly put out verbatim, at least to see what happened to these allegedly bad people and yet… nothing. Crickets.
How hard would it have been for reporters to ask ICE or Mr. Culley:
- What constitutes the “majority” of those arrested committed serious or violent crimes? What’s the exact number? If the total in Las Vegas was indeed 67, the word “majority” implies that there had to be at least 34 individuals who fit that description, but as that is not all of those arrested – how many arrested and now slated for deportation proceedings had no criminal history at all?
- How many only had traffic offenses in their history?
- What constitutes “serious and violent crimes,” or even, the alternative take, serious or violent crimes? The news stories that listed the four examples given in the press release suggest the most serious crime was selling an unnamed drug. Isn’t it true that in Nevada, selling a larger quantity of a serious drug (four grams or more) is actually charged as a much more serious “trafficking” offense? So can we assume that the “worst” person arrested was selling less than four grams of a narcotic (or was it marijuana, which is now legal to possess)?
- The press release mentions “violent” crimes, but lists only misdemeanor offenses like battery, assault and domestic violence. While domestic violence can be very bad, or even felonious, it can also be relatively innocuous (like a single push). What were the details of all these misdemeanors? And in any event, those convicted of domestic violence in Nevada are required to undergo 26 weeks of counseling. Were the domestic violence perpetrators sent to counseling?
- Where and how did you find these offenders? In light of the swirling debate over so-called sanctuary cities and the 287(g) cooperation agreements, who helped identify and detain them? Did you pick up all these folks up in the local jails? How cooperative were city, county and police officials?
These questions could still be asked, although the stories generated by the ICE press release have already vanished from the public eye into the ether of collective subconscious — and I would guess the majority of citizens who read the reports will only remember that bad people were targeted for deportation. (Mission accomplished.)
Immigration is one of the major issues of our day. As ICE and the policies of the Department of Justice and White House become increasingly polemic and polarizing, it is the duty of journalists to provide the voting public with the most precise and unbiased information possible. Here in the age of near-daily “fake news” accusations – the press-release-as-journalism days should rightly be numbered, but sadly show no signs of fading.
Press releases are useful tools for alerting reporters to an activity or event of interest or intrigue worthy of dissemination. It must be remembered by serious media outlets that it is merely a story lead sent by an interested party. And that it usually comes from a party who wants to control the story for a reason. Journalists are under no obligation to accept what is spoon fed and must resist the temptation of merely reprinting a well-crafted bit of marketing.
Las Vegas journalists, in particular, should know better. Marketing is our life blood; hyperbole is our adrenalin. Directing just a couple of questions to a live human being seems like a minimal requirement when writing a story. And if the rest of us can’t spot the sucker for press release rhetoric in the room, that sucker is us.
Dayvid Figler is a private criminal defense attorney based in Las Vegas. He previously served as an associate attorney representing indigent defendants charged with murder for the Clark County Special Public Defender’s office. During his legal tenure, he served a brief appointment as a Las Vegas Municipal Court judge. Figler has been cited as a noted legal expert in many places including the New York Times, National Public Radio, Newsweek, USA Today, Court TV and the Los Angeles Times. His award-winning radio essays have appeared on KNPR as well as on NPR’s All Things Considered program.