NEW YORK – Access to government-run facilities housing young immigrants on the border with Mexico has caused one of the first tussles between news organizations and the two-month-old administration of Joe Biden. Before the doors opened slightly this week, the media was limited in depicting how people in U.S. custody were being treated, and how that compared to what was done in the Trump years.
What's behind that? Here's a look.
WHY HAS MEDIA ACCESS BEEN BLOCKED?
The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is a cliche for a reason. And governments know it well.
“This is sort of the default that government agencies go to when things are unflattering,” says Freddy Martinez, policy analyst for Open the Government, an organization that argues for government transparency.
News organizations say they have repeatedly sought access and been blocked. The Associated Press, for example, has asked Homeland Security officials for access to Border Patrol facilities at least seven times, without a response. The Biden administration has pointed to the need to establish safeguards for COVID-19 transmission and protecting the privacy of children as they work to set up their system for processing migrants.
“I will commit to transparency, as soon as I am in the position to implement what we are doing,” the president said at a news conference this week. When pressed on how long it would take for that to happen, Biden said he didn't know.
But some journalists called that hypocrisy given his pledges during the campaign. After the news conference, CNN's Jake Tapper said that Biden's stance was “not really in keeping with the transparency that he promised the American people.”
BUT I'VE SEEN SOME PICTURES OF CHILDREN IN RECENT DAYS. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?
Some of them aren't coming from the professional media but from people with special access.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, on Monday released some still pictures he had been given that were taken at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas. Those photos, taken through plastic sheeting, showed children, several of them covered with blankets, lying on mats lined side by side on the floor.
The Department of Health and Human Services issued some government-shot video clips and, on Wednesday, allowed an NBC News camera crew and reporter Gabe Gutierrez to visit an HHS facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas.
In the NBC video, some children were shown lining up as oranges were distributed, and others played soccer at an outdoor field. Their faces were obscured. An empty dorm room, with four beds, was shown, as was clothing handed out to youngsters.
While that access was an important step, Gutierrez and others noted that the HHS-run centers are where children are sent after processing at a customs facility like the one visited by Cuellar. The customs locations are considered much more crowded, and journalists have still not been allowed access to them.
DID FORMER PRESIDENT TRUMP ALLOW JOURNALISTS?
The three presidents who preceded Biden all allowed at least some access, Martinez and other groups that are seeking more access said in a letter this week to Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of Homeland Security.
Such access wasn't always aimed at pleasing the press, though. Stephen Miller, Trump's top immigration advisor, told Politico's Playbook this week that he wanted the press to have access, reasoning that images of immigrants held at the border were something Trump's supporters wanted to see.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
Because bad information often replaces no information. A lack of good information creates a vacuum that activists on both sides of the contentious issue of immigration are only too eager to fill, says Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association. He says: “It is more important than ever that journalists be allowed the necessary access to report accurately and independently on the border patrol's response.”
David Bauder is the media writer for The Associated Press, based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/dbauder