Is California at ‘war’ with the president?
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Is California at ‘war’ with the president?

September 21, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

California sues federal government to prevent construction of border wall

On Wednesday, California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit in San Diego against the federal government, alleging President Trump’s proposed border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border violates federal environmental protection laws and the U.S. Constitution. The suit, which includes the California Coastal Commission as a plaintiff, alleges construction would involve an improver waiver of 37 different federal statutes, including the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act.

The lawsuit argues that the federal government is violating the Constitution’s separation-of-powers doctrine by giving the “Executive Branch the power to waive state and local laws.” According to Politico, Becerra said the suit contends the federal government has broken the law by declaring the wall an emergency, and thus allowing for these waivers from environmental impact studies and “usual” contracting procedures. The suit also states the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “has given no facts to suggest that rebuilding an existing fence will further secure the border, especially as compared to areas without any fencing.”

The Associated Press reports that the government recently waived environmental impact reviews for two stretches of border near San Diego and Calexico, 15 and three miles long, respectively. The waivers were granted under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), a 1996 law that allowed expediting construction of border barriers. Becerra said the authority to waive the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act under this law expired in 2008.

Last month, the DHS announced it had awarded eight contracts to develop prototypes for possible barriers, four of them concrete designs and the rest using other types of materials.

The border between the U.S. and Mexico is just under 2,000 miles long. As of 2009, 580 of those miles were lined with fencing or walls separating the two countries.

Distortion Highlights

  • California filed another lawsuit against President Trump. According to Fox News, it’s not just litigation — it’s “war.”
  • Spinning the news in this way can make for a more interesting read, but it misrepresents the concepts of law and justice, and possibly the parties involved.
  • Read how spin can direct our attention away from the issues at hand.

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The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • War

    Becerra’s lawsuit, which targets planned projects in San Diego and Imperial counties, marks the latest shot in California’s legal and legislative war against Trump.

  • Battle

    He also has battled with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over regulations. (AP)

    California suing Trump over border wall, escalating battle with White House (Fox News)

  • Heart of the Trump “resistance”

    The state essentially has emerged as the heart of the Trump “resistance,” pumping out lawsuits against his immigration policies and even passing a resolution Friday in the Assembly censuring Trump for his comments on the violence stemming from white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Va.

  • Crack down

    The Trump administration has faced significant roadblocks in efforts to crack down on jurisdictions that do not cooperate with federal immigration agents. (Fox News)

  • Staunchly

    With most Democrats in Congress staunchly opposed to the idea, it’s unclear how Trump will get money for construction. (Politico)

  • Chilling

    It adds that the wall would have a chilling effect on tourism to the United States from Mexico. (Los Angeles Times)

  • Paramount

    California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced Wednesday that the state will sue the Trump administration over one of President Trump’s paramount campaign promises—the border wall. (Fox News)

  • Running afoul

    Becerra said the suit contends that federal officials are running afoul of the law by declaring the expansion of the border wall to be an emergency that justifies waiving environmental studies and usual contracting procedures. (Politico)

  • Flatly

    Mexican officials have flatly rejected contributing any funds to such a project. (Fox News)

  • Barrier

    State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) stood with Becerra at the event, saying the wall is unnecessary and will put a barrier between relations involving the two countries. (Los Angeles Times)

In media, spin or dramatic language often does more than sensationalize the news — it promotes bias. In the coverage of California’s lawsuit against President Trump over the proposed border wall, we found Fox News used martial or war-like language in its report. This can deliver the news in a more emotionally charged way, and it can also suggest California’s lawsuits are part of a greater vendetta against Trump and the White House. Consider the following examples.

California suing Trump over border wall, escalating battle with White House

Becerra’s lawsuit, which targets planned projects in San Diego and Imperial counties, marks the latest shot in California’s legal and legislative war against Trump.

The state essentially has emerged as the heart of the Trump “resistance,” pumping out lawsuits against his immigration policies and even passing a resolution Friday in the Assembly censuring Trump for his comments on the violence stemming from white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Va.

The spin and the potential World War II reference (“La Résistance”) dramatize the concepts of law and justice, which could make for more entertaining news. But the mechanisms also support the notion that the suits stem from a fight or tit-for-tat between the state and the presidency. Compare Fox News’ coverage to similar information from the two least distorted articles we analyzed.

California sues to block Trump’s border wall (Politico)

The cases are focused on halting the construction of wall prototypes in San Diego and the replacement of barriers there and in Calexico, California. (AP)

Becerra’s legal action is the latest in a series of lawsuits against the administration. He recently sued over Trump’s decision to halt a program that protects young immigrants from deportation. He also has battled with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over regulations. (AP)

Notice how there’s no spin in the above, even though the outlets are covering roughly the same information. By looking strictly at the data, it’s easy to see what Fox News added to it.

Fox News also writes that California has been “firmly against most Trump administration immigration policies.” While we can’t corroborate the “firmness” of the opposition, we can say the state has filed or joined suits against the travel ban, new grant conditions for “Sanctuary Jurisdictions,” and revoking DACA legislation, among others.

Considering the number of lawsuits and the statements some California officials have made publicly about the Trump administration, like Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest interview with CNN, it may be that there are other reasons for the suits (personal, political or otherwise) than the legal arguments the state has provided thus far. If that’s not true, and Fox News’ implication is false, it would misrepresent California’s governor, attorney general and lawmakers to the public. If Fox’s implication is true, and California lawmakers are “attacking” the White House rather than upholding due process, it still may not have any bearing as far as the law is concerned.

In other words, even if it we could definitively prove an ulterior motive behind the suits, it’s irrelevant because the justice system deals with rights, principles and precedents, not with personal vendettas or tit-for-tats (unless these infringe on rights). So by elevating this or other lawsuits to a “war,” instead of representing it as a matter of justice and examining the merits of the case, Fox News may misrepresent the parties involved, and the concepts of justice and law in and of themselves. At best, the spin is a distraction from the issues at hand.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 27% Spun

  • 31% Spun

  • 68% Spun

  • 68% Spun

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

The administration also waived environmental reviews involving a 3-mile stretch of border in Calexico. It granted the waivers under a 2005 law aimed at speeding construction of barriers along the border. The law allows the government to waive laws including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. (AP)


This may misrepresent the law that allowed for such waivers, and may oversimplify the various amendments to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) that have gradually expanded DHS authority for border construction.

The IIRIRA, not the 2005 law, allowed the attorney general to waive the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The Real ID Act of 2005 then amended the IIRIRA to allow the government to waive all laws determined necessary to “ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads.” That law also included an amendment prohibiting judicial review of the waived laws: “no court, administrative agency, or other entity shall have jurisdiction to hear any cause or claim arising from any action undertaken, or any decision made, by the Secretary of Homeland Security.”

The IIRIRA originally targeted “construction of fencing and road improvements in the border area near San Diego, California,” until the Secure Fence Act of 2006 amended that portion of the law by striking out “near San Diego,” thus expanding the original law’s territory.

“Last month, the administration awarded contracts to four companies to begin construction.” (Fox News)


This may inaccurately suggest that construction on the wall has begun. On Aug. 31, the administration awarded contracts to four companies to build concrete prototypes of the wall, not the wall itself. Then, on Sept. 7, the administration commissioned four companies to build four more prototypes using “other materials.” The administration has commissioned the prototypes from six different companies.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Suggests Trump is ignoring the law.

By citing Becerra’s comment in the headline, the L.A. Times could support the idea that Trump and his administration have abused their authority, but until a court of law concludes this, the notion is premature.

Factual.

This headline gives the news without importing opinion or prematurely suggesting guilt.

Doesn’t say what the news is.

Implies California has ulterior motives, likely political, for the lawsuit.

This headline is uninformative and suggests the state is more focused on working against Trump and his policies.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • California is in the right: the suit has legitimate concerns and is attempting to protect the state from a federal plan that could damage the environment, tourism and relations with Mexico.
  • Fox News says California is the leader of the Trump “resistance” by “battling” Trump on immigration issues. Trump is trying to make things better, so California’s opposition is hurting the nation.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • California may not necessarily be in the right, and there are likely positive and negative aspects to both arguments. The federal government may have valid reasons for its actions that the outlets we analyzed don’t mention, and it may be acting legitimately within its power, which a court of law will decide.
  • California’s opposition may not be just for the sake of opposing — the state may be leveling legitimate complaints. According to a Pew Research Center report, the estimated undocumented population was lower in 2015 than in 2009, even without the wall. Trump’s wall could potentially create more problems than it’s set out to solve.