The press has its own border problem

The press has its own border problem
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If the news media want to regain the public trust and genuinely improve the national conversation, they need to improve their analysis game. Case in point: the most recent flap involving Vice President Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - CDC equates Delta to chickenpox in contagiousness Harris's bad polls trigger Democratic worries Why in the world are White House reporters being told to mask up again? MORE’s trip to Central America and her answers to reporters’ questions regarding her role as the Biden administration’s point person on immigration policy. 

The majority of the coverage involved an insiders-style critique of her performance: How did she sound? Was she a good messenger or testy? What questions did she answer? A few news outlets even questioned the cookies that she handed out on Air Force Two, which had her image replicated in icing. In other words, it was almost all about style and very little about substance. 

Even the criticism of her decision not to visit the U.S.-Mexico border broke down along partisan style lines, with the majority of questions and discussions centered around how it looked. How much better would the coverage have been if the press had asked what were the pros and cons of a border visit, what would the visit have entailed, and what do political leaders learn on such visits? 

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For Harris’s critics, who contend that flying over the border at 35,000 or 40,000 feet “doesn't count as a visit,” the other side is that no president or vice president can ever make a simple visit. There are major security considerations, roadways have to be cleared, people contained, and it is a burden to local residents. Any time a president or vice president travels, the motorcade frequently ties up traffic not for minutes, but for hours. Secret Service planning can turn any location upside down. 

Thus, when critics decry trips as “photo ops,” “political stunts” or “political theater,” the problem is that a secure, unvarnished alternative does not exist. That’s true whether the place being visited is a factory, a convenience store, or the U.S.-Mexican border. Being realistic about explaining why leaders’ visits are staged would be a good start. 

Now, what about the media analysis of the legitimate question: Should she have gone? Here, I think the media can do a better and more useful job by explaining the value of something we have experience with: on-the-scene coverage. Seeing the situation for yourself, having even a few minutes to speak to people on the ground, understanding the topography and even the weather conditions are all invaluable and cannot be replaced by staff reports, briefing books, or even video reports. It is the same reason that a good criminal lawyer — prosecutor or defense attorney — goes to the scene of a crime before a trial. There is no substitute for seeing something with your own eyes. 

When I have traveled to the border as part of my own reporting, I have come away with a much better understanding of the issues, whether it be what people trying to enter the U.S. are willing to endure or what the challenges are for the Americans living along the border as outsiders make unauthorized crossings. On my trip earlier this year, I was surprised to see how dangerous the very narrow Rio Grande River is to navigate. 

The “good news” for the media is that the border crisis is not going away. Journalists and commentators will get a do-over. Good reporters learn to focus on the six key questions: who, what, when, where, how and why. But when it comes to complex, longstanding issues, perhaps it is time to focus a little less airtime and ink on only the who, what, when and where, and start asking more about the how and the why. 

And if you want my analysis: yes, Harris should have visited the border. More information and understanding of a problem from visiting the scene firsthand is always better. Just ask any good reporter. 

Greta Van Susteren is a lawyer and chief national political analyst for Gray Television. She previously hosted legal affairs and news programs on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN. Follow her on Twitter @greta.