Looking Askew at the News

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 14, 2021

We all recognize that journalism has taken a hit in the culture wars.

Too much of our understanding is reflecting “news” reports that often are “opinion,” and too much selected information that tends to support the outlook of viewers or readers of a particular political persuasion. In other words, we’re increasingly only accepting of news that comports with our own political instincts.

As we know, that image about media accelerated under Donald Trump’s time in office, and we hear tons about how “right-wing media” or “the socialist New York Times” skewed the news to reflect the expectations of predictable audiences. Trump made no bones about calling news media who actually fact-checked even his most outlandish statements “the enemy of the people.” His people.

Still, we still ought to be able to trust all news outlets to report the same baseball scores or whether, say, the same construction project is moving ahead — with the opinions about whether those are good or bad to come later.

Here comes a case in which all the work of sorting out the more-or-less truth is left to curious readers.

The Texas Border Wall

Enter news reports about Texas moving ahead to build hundreds of miles of the Border Wall that Trump started, and Joe Biden abandoned.

“Texas could award a contract to begin barrier construction along a 700-mile stretch of the southern border as early as this week, a state commission said,” reported Newsmax, the avowedly right-leaning news outlet. “The Texas Facilities Commission said in a statement that it planned to award the contract for the border wall project by mid-September. Texas has more than $1 billion in available funding for construction of a barrier along its border with Mexico,” the Washington Examiner reported Monday.

OK, that’s pretty interesting. A state, even the Lone Star State that considers itself rising above all others in so many ways, is doing the work of the federal government, or a federal administration that the state’s Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, finds inadequate.

But then here is USA Today: “Texas’ lawmakers approval of $788 million this month to build a barrier along the Texas-Mexico border along with $54 million raised in private donations toward that goal would seem like major wins for Gov. Greg Abbott, who had pushed for tighter border security. But federalism, landowner rights and environmental concerns could stall Abbott’s vision before the first spade hits the dirt, analysts and legal scholars said.

That article was headlined, “Analysis: Proposed Texas-Mexico border wall draped in legal, ethical concerns and politics.”

The New York Times reported from one small community, population under 300, in the path of the would-be state wall extension, where generations have resisted construction of walls and fences that run right through their properties on the banks of the Rio Grande. “Surveys have shown little appetite for a border wall in the Rio Grande Valley, or El Valle, as the Spanish-speaking majority calls the region. In a 2018 poll conducted by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, two thirds of respondents said they did not favor one.

That tracks with national polls, which show a majority of Americans oppose the expansion of a wall,” reported The Times, with wall with about eight in 10 Republicans supporting a border-wide barrier.

The Times noted that “Build the wall” was a regular refrain at Trump rallies, and during his presidency, Trump built about 450 miles of new fencing, though mostly in Arizona and not in South Texas. Only 150 miles of the 1,250 miles of land Texas shares with Mexico have a substantive barrier, an Examiner analysis discovered. That means Texas is responsible for roughly 1,100 miles of fencing.

Figuring Out the “News”

Let’s decipher the “news” here. In June, Governor Abbott convened a border security conference that confirmed his own political view that migrants are running amok across the border and that it’s all Biden’s fault. After all, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials encountered 212,672 people trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in July, up from 188,9934 in June, much of it in Texas. That’s the largest number they’ve seen in nearly two decades, according to border patrol statistics.

In August, during a special session, state lawmakers approved nearly $2 billion for border security. While it was unclear how exactly the money would be spent, Abbott has said he would need more than $1 billion to build barriers along the border. To date, Abbott has raised $54 million from a website that solicits donations.

Texas has identified 733 miles of border-front land where it can build, and the Texas National Guard will carry out the project, the Examiner and Newsmax said, adding that talks with contractors are under way. But none of the reporting mentions any complications either with the little communities in the way or with, say, the law.

The Constitution identifies border security as a federal responsibility, something that could be used to derail Abbott’s efforts, say activists readying a lawsuit. In addition, federal rules allow the federal government but not state governments to bypass relevant environmental laws. Still, there have been no big new lawsuits filed, just threats.

In recent weeks, Abbott has been showing himself to be a big proponent of the Wall, abortion bans and voting rights restrictions — likely to help his reelection next year and as a potential presidential candidate in 2024.

Still, is this any excuse not to know if the state has the full right to do what the governor wants, the money and environmental rulings, the acceptance of private property owners on the route, and a plan for what do about the corners where the state border Wall will run out, allowing more migrants to pass in the next state? Does partisanship mean ignoring the obvious legal challenges, currently at more than 100 cases clocked by the U.S. Justice Department?

It’s bad enough that we can’t figure out whether what Texas wants to do is legal. Can’t we expect better from the journalism?

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