Critic’s Notebook: Fox News and Trump Reboot a Fearmongering TV Drama From 2014

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This has been the year of the TV remake: reboots of “Charmed” and “Magnum P.I.,” revivals of “Murphy Brown” and “Roseanne.” So maybe it should not be surprising to find Fox News remaking a hit from 2014: “Terror at the Border,” with a significant role for one Donald J. Trump.

For viewers who forgot the original, here’s a brief recap. In the fall of 2014, with the midterms approaching, Fox and other conservative media went in overdrive on the “border crisis” and ISIS — two issues that Republicans were using to suggest that the Obama administration was failing to protect America from teeming hordes.

As the election approached, the two stories merged into a single Frankenfear. According to the right-wing outlet Judicial Watch, terrorist organizations were poised on the Mexican border to sneak into the United States. Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, claimed to Fox’s Greta Van Susteren that 10 ISIS operatives had been apprehended crossing the border.

Scott Brown, running for Senate from New Hampshire, even folded in the African Ebola breakout for a fear trifecta: Terrorists infected with Ebola might slip across the border to start an epidemic.

One story after the other was debunked. But they spread anyway within the base, among them the host of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” Donald Trump. “ ‘At least’ 10 ISIS have been caught crossing the Mexico border,” he tweeted on Oct. 8, amplifying Mr. Hunter’s bogus claim.

In November, the Republicans took control of the Senate and gained 13 seats in the House. And then, for some strange reason, the sirens about Mexican ISIS Ebola quieted.

The experience seemed to leave an impression on Mr. Trump, the future presidential candidate. In Joshua Green’s book “Devil’s Bargain,” the political adviser Sam Nunberg said that Mr. Trump used Twitter in 2013 and 2014 as a “focus group.” He’d tweet about controversies that excited the Fox audience — since 2011, he had moonlighted as a weekly commentator on “Fox & Friends” — and found he got the most retweets when he railed about immigration. And his October tweet ended with what would become a refrain of his campaign: “Build a wall!”

Flash forward to 2018. A midterm election is approaching. And surprise: Immigration and fear are back in heavy rotation.

In August, after an undocumented immigrant was charged with the murder of a young woman in Iowa, Newt Gingrich said, “If Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble.”

Fox seized on the Tibbetts case; so did President Trump, citing her in a video from the Rose Garden that called for a wall and blasted Democrats. But the story dimmed after Ms. Tibbetts’s father excoriated politicians for taking advantage of her death to advance “views she believed were profoundly racist.”

[Read about the migrant caravan and why President Trump cares about it.]

By October, Mr. Gingrich was singing a new song: The election, he told Fox’s Sean Hannity, would be about “Kavanaugh” — the recent, bitter Supreme Court confirmation — “and the caravan,” a group of thousands of Honduran refugees, traveling through Mexico, who have duly become Fox’s biggest stars.

On Monday morning, “Fox & Friends” — the president’s closest morning companion — gave the caravan a fear upgrade. Pete Hegseth, a co-host of “Fox & Friends Weekend,” said that “they caught over 100 ISIS fighters in Guatemala trying to use this caravan.” The show ran him in split screen with video of the migrants flooding a highway, as if marching straight toward the Fox viewers’ living rooms.

(Mr. Hegseth appeared to be mischaracterizing a different comment by the president of Guatemala about past terrorist apprehensions — a comment also hyped, again, by Judicial Watch and other conservative outlets.)

President Trump, already agitatedly tweeting about the caravan and mentioning it in his rallies, appeared to pick up on that in his morning-TV live-tweet. “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” are in the caravan, he charged, adding in a follow-up tweet: “Blame the Democrats.”

It was practically a shot-for-shot remake. Has anything changed between 2014 and 2018? You could make the case that in 2014 Fox News was at least willing to push back more; Ms. Van Susteren pressed Mr. Hunter for “any information or any evidence” that ISIS was crossing the border. (He said, “I’ve asked the border patrol”; the Department of Homeland Security quickly knocked down the claim.)

This time — though Mr. Hegseth did add that the ISIS story he’d just spread “hasn’t been verified” — it was one “Fox & Friends” co-host speaking on another “Fox & Friends” edition, whose broadcasts already amount to a three-hour Republican midterm ad. (A caption on the Florida debate for the campaign for governor that same morning identified the Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum as a “Sunshine State Socialist.”)

The other difference: In 2018, Donald Trump is the president. And it means that when he hops on Twitter and makes ominous hints about malign threats creeping toward the border, mainstream news organizations that are not “Fox & Friends,” including CNN and The New York Times, feel obligated to report it.

They may responsibly note that his allegations are “without evidence.” And that may make a difference to an attentive audience. But there are also casual news consumers who simply hear “caravan” and “border” and “terrorism” and take away a vague sense of encroaching danger. And if politicians are interested in pushing the story, and audiences like Fox’s are eager to hear it, there’s nothing to stop the caravan of fear from marching on and on.

There’s a reason, after all, TV is full of remakes. You rarely go broke falling back on a formula that’s worked before.

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