Media Buzz

Covering Syrian refugee debate: Lots of emotion, bursts of bias

'Media Buzz' host reacts to media bias in reporting on US refugee policy


There is something about this debate on Syrian refugees that is tapping a deep emotional chord—and bursts of bias—among journalists.

And some presidential candidates are exploiting the issue as well.

The question about America’s responsibility for those fleeing Syria—President Obama wants to admit 10,000 of them—involves clashing national values.

On one hand, we have always been a country that welcomed and assimilated immigrants, especially for humanitarian reasons.

On the other hand, there is a responsibility to protect our borders at a time when Middle East terrorists are trying to infiltrate western nations.

Yet some in the media are so openly sympathetic to what I’ll call the Obama/Hillary position—that turning away refugees is “not who we are”—that it’s clouding their judgment.

Chief among them is Elise Labott, CNN’s global affairs correspondent, who just got suspended for two weeks for editorializing on Twitter.

Labott was so outraged by the House passing—with nearly 50 Democratic votes—a measure to tighten security checks on Syrians headed for the U.S. that she tweeted:

“House passes bill that could limit Syrian refugees. Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish.”

To its credit, CNN acted swiftly. And to her credit, Labott apologized for her “inappropriate and disrespectful” message.

But the reaction by some journalists and media experts on Twitter—Labott was right! CNN’s move was shameful!—shows how deeply embedded these feelings are.

Reporters, as opposed to commentators, have plenty of leeway to analyze these days, but this was an out-and-out declaration that the bill was an ethical outrage, as Labott now recognizes.

And it's funny how some of those who say reporters should just deliver the facts are just fine with those opinions they happen to agree with.

Some outlets see this as a right-or-wrong moral issue, period. A banner headline in the liberal Huffington Post called the House vote a “DISGRACE.” Salon ripped “America’s Latest Round of Anti-Immigrant Racism.”

Isn’t it possible to be worried about a couple of terrorists slipping through the refugee application process without being branded a racist?

In a Fox News poll out yesterday, 67 percent of those surveyed oppose Obama's plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees. And 49 percent said it was very likely that at least one such refugee would carry out an attack in America. Right or wrong, this is not some far-out position.

Some Republican candidates, meanwhile, have ratcheted up their rhetoric in uncomfortable ways. Donald Trump is talking about whether some mosques should be closed or placed under surveillance, having said the press misunderstood and he was not proposing a national database for all Muslims.

Ben Carson described this situation this way: “If there is a rabid dog running around your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog, and you’re probably gonna put your children out of the way. Doesn’t mean that you hate all dogs by any stretch of the imagination.”

After this was widely reported, Carson blamed the press: "What did the news media do? 'Carson said 'the Syrians are like rabid dogs!' This is the type of thing that they do. Fortunately, it only works on gullible people. But the problem is there are a lot of gullible people."

Ted Cruz says Islamism is an ideology “that says they are compelled to use violence and force to murder anyone that doesn’t share their radical faith or to forcibly convert them,” and that “the president insists we have to endanger the safety and security of our nation.”

Obama, too, has taken partisan swipes, saying the Republican candidates are apparently “scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America. At first, they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they are scared of 3-year-old orphans. That doesn't seem so tough to me.”

Jeb Bush, on the other hand, risks the ire of his party’s base in saying: “You talk about internment, you talk about closing mosques, you talk about registering people—that’s just wrong.”

But too many press accounts portray opponents of throwing open the doors to Syrians as heartless, if not racist.

The Washington Post’s “Fix” column calls out the “liberal media” for their overheated reactions, saying “these characterizations can leave the impression that opposition to Syrian refugee resettlement is a fringe position — right-wing nuttiness from the folks who brought you FEMA concentration camps and birtherism…

“Politicians who don’t want Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war to come to the United States are well within the mainstream. It is actually those who support refugee resettlement who are disconnected from what most of the country wants. So you can call opponents of welcoming Syrian refugees whatever you want, but you're extending that label to perhaps a majority of Americans as well (including plenty of Democrats).”

I understand the strong emotions on all sides. But perhaps journalists, as well as the politicians, should take a deep breath and not get carried away.


Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.