This has been a good week for journalism, and very bad one for President Donald J. Trump. Powerful coverage of children being separated from their parents at the Texas border exposed the cruelty and dishonesty of this administration to the point where public outrage forced a reversal by Trump, a man who never admits mistakes.
As a media critic, I have wondered too often the last 18 months whether bedrock values that I have believed in for most of my career still had the power in this revolutionary media moment to deal with a leader as dishonest and disconnected from any notion of public service as Trump.
Though myriad questions have yet to be answered about the separations, like where the children who were taken from their parents are and how families will be reunited, I am feeling confident today that those journalistic values will stand the test against this president. I say that in large part as a result of the work done by correspondents like MSNBC’s Jacob Soboroff during the last two weeks.
There have been many reporters, analysts, anchors and photographers who have done fine work to help give voice to the immigrant children taken from their parents and locked in detention centers. Earlier this week, I wrote about “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King and the compassionate coverage she brought to this story starting before dawn Monday on national TV.
CNN, MSNBC and the networks were all flooding the zone in Texas by Monday morning, refusing to let Team Trump move the national spotlight away from the tremendous confusion and pain its policies and lies were causing. Monday afternoon, the blistering questions of the Washington press corps exposed the dissembling double talk and lack of any coherent game plan on the part of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
But it is Soboroff who has me feeling so good about the media and hopeful about its ability to prevail in the war Trump has been waging against media platforms that do not slavishly promote his agenda.
Soboroff caught my eye when he reported on June 13 what was happening in a converted Walmart building in Brownsville that housed about 1,400 boys ages 10 to 17. Soboroff showed what observation, experience, synthesis, clarity and a willingness to make a clean moral call sounded like when he was asked by MSNBC show host Chris Hayes what he saw as one of the first reporters in that detention center.
“I have been inside a federal prison before,” Soboroff said. “I have been inside several county jails. This place is called a shelter, but effectively these kids are incarcerated. There’s 1,400 of them — over 1,400 of them — that are spending not weeks, but months in this place. They’re not literally in cages or in cells, but, I kid you not, one of the first things an employee of this shelter said to me when we walked inside was, ‘Can you try to smile at these kids, because it’s weird to see people from the outside. They feel like animals locked up in cages being looked at.’ It was an extraordinary thing to see.”
For all the times I criticize cable news for its sins, it is an absolute pleasure to watch MSNBC report, critique and challenge the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy of separating parents and children from families that had come seeking asylum at the Texas border.
Soboroff took me inside that moment of reporting in a phone interview from Texas this week, and I realized it wasn’t just the moral call he made in that report that so impressed me. It was the excellent, traditional reporting skills shown by this next-generation, digitally oriented, 35-year-old correspondent who had learned his TV craft at such cable channels at MTV and AMC.
“I knew we couldn’t bring a camera in there,” he said, referring to one of the conditions under which he was granted access to the abandoned Walmart. “So I stopped and bought a notepad. You know, most of the stuff I do are like feature packages. I don’t do a lot of coverage-style reporting. But I knew I had to be ready to collect all the facts.”
His focus on collecting all the facts might sound like the result of a good, traditional J-school education, but it isn’t. Soboroff studied politics at New York University, earning a B.A. and M.A. His media stops included hosting jobs at YouTube Nation and HuffPost Live.
“I think the thing that best prepared me for that type of scenario is that I was an advance guy for Mike Bloomberg when I was in college,” he said of the former New York mayor. “And being an advance guy, that was like the whole job: Take down the facts and be ready for the boss to show up and then tell him everything you know. So, that’s the way I approached this job. The boss is the people who would be watching or, in that instance, Chris, who I was sure was going to have questions about this facility that nobody was allowed inside. So, I just wanted to make sure I had all the information that I possibly could.”
I was sort of stripped of all my tools I’m used to as a TV journalist. I didn’t have Snapchat or Twitter. I didn’t have my phone ...
Jacob Soboroff on reporting inside a child detention center in Texas
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As to challenging the administration’s characterization of the facility as a shelter, Soboroff said it was automatic.
“When it came to the way I was feeling about it, which obviously came through, I just believe everybody in this job is a human being, and we all just have our emotions, and I’ve never believed it’s my job to hide how I feel about something,” he said. “It was an overwhelming feeling. … I just didn’t expect to go into a place where kids were stuck inside for 22 hours a day. That was the thing that really hit me when I was in there. I thought, ‘How can it be that these kids are stuck in here 22 hours a day, inside a Walmart?’ The whole experience was so bizarre I had to come out and just collect my thoughts. … And it was so obvious they were incarcerated. That’s the first thing that came out of my mouth.”
Soboroff and MSNBC did have an edge going into the separation story: They had been working the last four months on a story about immigration and the border. They had built connections and developed sources of information on the larger stories and issues that came into such sharp and heated focus the last two weeks in Texas. Viewers can see the result of that work at 7 p.m. Sunday in a one-hour “Dateline” special titled “The Dividing Line” on NBC.
“There have been a lot of projects about the border, but I don’t think it has ever really captured the nation’s attention with such a specific issue in such a visceral way,” Soboroff said. “Everything that’s in this hour … all ties into what’s played out in the course of last five or six days.”
And the story continues, he added.
“This isn’t even close to the end. Are these kids going to be indefinitely detained with their families? Where are they going to be detained? How long are they going to be detained? The story isn’t over just because he signed that order,” Soboroff said of the executive order Trump signed Wednesday reversing the family separation policy.
Soboroff’s takeaway from the experience: “It’s a lesson to me on the power of the facts on the ground. Documenting the facts on the ground, we were able to be part of a larger national conversation that obviously penetrated the White House,” Soboroff said.
Facts on the ground exposing lies from the presidential podium. Children locked in an abandoned Walmart 22 hours a day given voice. A digitally trained, next-generation journalist finding empowerment in the old-school tools of his capacity for keen observation and a notebook.