The DOJ sued California, added drama, then the media added more
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The DOJ sued California, added drama, then the media added more

March 9, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Justice Department sues California over state laws affecting immigration enforcement

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued California, its governor and attorney general over three state laws that the department says affect enforcement of federal immigration laws. The lawsuit alleges that the state laws, passed last year, are unconstitutional and have “the purpose and effect of making it more difficult for federal immigration officers to carry out their responsibilities.” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the laws were “fully constitutional.”

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions and California Governor Jerry Brown made statements that were spun in the style of fighting words
  • The media further dramatized the these statements with spin of its own
  • Take a look at what we found and why it’s problematic

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • War

    Trump’s immigration war with California has reached a fever pitch (Los Angeles Times)

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions took his war against sanctuary cities to California on Wednesday, announcing a federal lawsuit against the state and attacking its elected officials as “radical extremists” in the state’s capital city. (CNN)

    “This is basically going to war against the state of California,” said Gov. Jerry Brown. (Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post)

  • Unloads on

    Sessions unloads on California Dems for ‘radical, open borders agenda’ (Fox News)

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday unloaded on California Democrats who push a “radical, open borders agenda,” as his Justice Department sued the state over its immigration policies —  warning that there “will be no secession.” (Fox News)

  • Sharpen a burgeoning feud

    Sessions’s comments also sharpen a burgeoning feud between the U.S. government and its most populous state. (The Washington Post)

  • Battle

    But in the last month, this battle has reached a fever pitch. (Los Angeles Times)

    California state leaders, meanwhile, girded for battle — noting that when Sessions’s Justice Department has come to court before to defend policies such as a travel ban or the wind-down of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, it has often lost. (The Washington Post)

    Sessions’s decision to sue the state not only sparks an immediate legal and political battle between the administration and arguably the most anti-Trump state in the nation, but could have political repercussions in several statewide California races. (The Washington Post)

    The move is an aggressive escalation of a battle the administration has been waging since President Donald Trump’s inauguration to pressure local jurisdictions to help the feds catch undocumented immigrants. (CNN)

  • Fight

    Oakland, like many California cities, has declared itself a “sanctuary” for those here illegally, and officials there have vowed to fight President Trump’s immigration crackdown. (Los Angeles Times)

    But in his remarks, Sessions appeared to be happy to fight, promising that the administration will win the fight and protect law enforcement in doing their jobs. (Fox)

    Jeff Sessions takes immigration fight to California, announces lawsuit (CNN)

  • Tough/warlike rhetoric

    In a speech laden with tough rhetoric for his critics and immigration advocates, Sessions decried officials who support so-called sanctuary city policies as “extremists promoting open borders.” (CNN)

    California Democratic leaders and the state’s top law enforcement officer responded with warlike rhetoric of their own. (Los Angeles Times)

  • Tore into

    He then tore into Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who tipped off the public to an immigration raid in the San Francisco Bay Area last week — a move he said led to as many 800 illegal immigrants evading capture and put both residents and law enforcement at risk. (Fox News)

  • Blasts

    ‘There is no secession’: Sessions blasts California for ‘sanctuary’ policies, says he will use his power to stop them (The Washington Post)

    Last week Trump blasted Sessions over his decision to ask the inspector general to review alleged surveillance abuse by intelligence agencies. (Fox News)

  • A remarkable escalation

    The suit, which seeks to block the laws, is a remarkable escalation of the attorney general’s crackdown on sanctuary jurisdictions, and it drew swift criticism from state leaders, who insisted that their laws would pass legal muster. (The Washington Post)

  • Reign of Terror

    “He’s been caught up in the whirlwind of Trumpism … [and is] initiating a reign of terror.” (The Los Angeles Times)

    “It really demeans the high office to which he has been appointed,” Brown said, adding later that Sessions was “initiating a reign of terror.” (The Washington Post)

In its purest form, the justice system is one of humanity’s greatest, most noble attributes. In principle, when a suit is filed, a concerted effort ensues to resolve a dispute between two or more parties, with the goal of affording not just the parties involved, but all of society, precedents and just consequences. Except that isn’t usually the media’s angle on lawsuits — at least not the Justice Department’s suit against the State of California, which the media dramatized with fighting words.

Spin is one of the areas of distortion we analyze — the term stands for dramatic, sensational, imprecise or subjective language that conflates fact with fiction. What’s noteworthy about the coverage of this story is that the statements from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and California officials were already spun. They used terms such as “war,” “radical extremists,” “eviscerating” and even a supposed “reign of terror.”

The outlets we analyzed added their own spin. In all, the most spun coverage we looked at was CNN’s and the least was the Los Angeles Times’, and they were 81 and 59 percent spun, respectively. Our ratings take into account each outlet’s own dramatic language, as well as the spin used by the people they cited.  

When you consider that most spin is opinion-based, it’s sobering to think that, on average, more than 60 percent of each story was spun. Isn’t the news supposed to report the facts?

The spin also had a running theme — the language was nuanced with meanings of conflict or aggression. Here’s a quick sample from each outlet we analyzed, but do check our Top Spin Words for more.

  • Los Angeles Times:  warlike rhetoric, long been at odds, battle, controversial, outraged, vowed to fight, charged, flash point, preposterous, sharply, clash, took shots.
  • Fox News: unloads on, tore into, pushed back, crackdown, happy to fight, lashed out, blasted.
  • The Washington Post: excoriated, took particular aim, remarkable escalation, sharpen a burgeoning feud, girded for battle, fiery, frequently sparred, skirmishes, ire, showdown.
  • CNN: war, attacking, tough rhetoric, harsh words, an aggressive escalation, strongly pushed back.

The media may not be able to change the fact that politicians use dramatic, sometimes disparaging language. Yet journalists don’t have to respond in kind or, as happened with this coverage, outdo politicians at spinning the information. News reporting can serve the public by holding politicians accountable, but it’s harder to do that if the media is playing the same game. Outlets can get out of that conundrum by dropping the spin and other distortions, and sticking to the facts.


Los Angeles Times

“But in the last month, this battle has reached a fever pitch.”

In the last month, Trump criticized the California police handling of street gangs and the state’s taxation, and said, “I mean, frankly, if I wanted to pull our people from California, you would have a crime mess [there] like you’ve never seen.” The White House said the DOJ was reviewing a decision by Oakland’s mayor to notify constituents of an ICE raid. The DOJ sued California over three state laws the department says affect enforcement of federal immigration laws. State officials criticized the lawsuit.

The Washington Post

Sessions’ “comments also sharpen a burgeoning feud between the U.S. government and its most populous state.”

In his Sacramento speech, Sessions mentioned the DOJ’s lawsuit against California and criticized some state officials. California is the most populous state.


“Attorney General Jeff Sessions took his war against sanctuary cities to California on Wednesday, announcing a federal lawsuit against the state …”

The DOJ announced its lawsuit against California on Tuesday. Sessions mentioned the suit in his Sacramento speech Wednesday.

The Numbers

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

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