Did CNN Air a Staged Immigration Video? Useful Idiots Interviews Marcia Brown of the American Prospect

Did CNN step in it again? Useful Idiots interviews the reporter on the trail of a fake news fiasco

On March 12th, CNN aired a piece by reporter Ed Lavandera purporting to show dramatic scenes of migrants so desperate to come to America, they were crossing the Rio Grande in broad daylight, over and over. Lavandera claimed one raft made at least six trips, in what he called a “highly organized system.”

The crux of the story was that these visuals provided evidence of a “surge” of migrations. Lavandera interviewed Chris Cabrera of the National Border Control Council, the union that represents border control agents. “These are really, really high numbers,” Cabrera said. “I’ve never seen it this busy in nineteen years.” Cabrera then argued (as CNN rolled tape of an aerial shot of a sprawling immigration complex said to be “pushed to the limit”) that the system was being “bogged down” by the unprecedented influx.

It looked like great TV: news agency captures dramatic images as they unfold organically, then connects them to an important social question, as explained by a spate of knowledgeable on-camera sources.

But was it that? Marcia Brown of the American Prospect, who’s done a series of border pieces, wasn’t so sure. As she explained in a story called, “Did CNN Air a Staged Migrant Crossing of the Rio Grande?”, immigration activists and a former border patrol agent told her about concerns they had about the tape, like:

— “The smuggler leading the boat wears fatigues and a black ski mask. Smugglers typically attempt to blend in with the migrants, to avoid more severe punishment should they be caught.”

— The alleged migrants were wearing “face masks and life vests,” which activists say is not a normal sight;

— The migrants were “lined up single file along the shore to cross,” which is also unusual;

— “The area of the river where the footage was taken can only be accessed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection”;

— Coyotes don’t “ferry six boatloads of people across in broad daylight.” As one volunteer put it, “No one is stupid enough to go back and forth… I can’t imagine any coyote willing to risk their freedom like that.”

At least one of Brown’s sources — Marianna Treviño Wright, executive director of a conservation group called the National Butterfly Center — said she alerted CNN to potential issues with the video. Such videos purporting to show wild scenes of migrant hordes pouring across the border are not uncommon, but the choice of news outlet was. As Brown wrote:

Wright added that a video like this is normally only distributed in right-wing media, not mainstream outlets like CNN. “They got smarter this time,” she said. “They either duped Ed Lavandera into doing this or he’s so desperate for ratings he went along with it.”

The Prospect reached out to CNN before publication with questions about the video, and was ignored. However, when Brown wrote her story, CNN did respond, sort of, by having their media reporter Oliver Darcy write a dismissive and obnoxious note. Darcy misquoted the editor of the “progressive website,” friend-of-show David Dayen, saying he stood “1000%” behind Brown’s story (Dayen said 100%), and also mischaracterized the issue, saying “CNN did not stage the crossing.”

No one suggested they had staged it. The question was whether the crossing had been staged for them. Worse, Darcy implied that the Prospect piece was itself “misinfo”:

Darcy accused the Prospect of being part of a larger fake news problem, concluding piously, “I have said it before, and I’ll say it again. Our country has an info crisis on its hands.”

Dayen, a rare genial investigative reporter who is not easily annoyed, was so miffed by CNN’s response that he decided to publish the list of questions the Prospect sent to the network before publication that had gone unanswered:

Katie and I walked through the absurd pettiness of CNN’s response with Brown in the above discussion, which first aired live on Monday, the 29th. Brown was a lot of fun to have on — we’ll definitely want to visit with her again sometime. A quick note: part of what we’re trying to do with our newfound flexibility at Substack is address issues as they happen, during the news cycle, which will include occasional live interviews and commentary on breaking events.

A last, fourth-wall-type note: etiquette-wise, CNN handled this like jerks. They could easily have defused the situation by responding to the Prospect. Even if they didn’t have answers to the questions, a promise to look into the matter would have allowed Brown to say that the network was at least making an effort to look into the situation.

They did not do that, blowing off the query and making a few public tweets, before handing the matter off to, of all things, a media reporter, who implied that the ethical issue was with the Prospect.

This would be merely silly were it not for the fact that the bigger media organizations are lately less and less likely to run retractions or corrections, often figuring audiences will either forgive them or not notice errors. Perhaps this particular video wasn’t staged, but if that’s the case, the network should probably explain itself a bit better. Two golden leg hairs way down for CNN on this one!