Over the course of just a few days, media took one photo from the U.S.-Mexico border and turned it into a narrative that had even President Joe Biden pushing a lie.
The photo, which showed American Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents on horseback attempting to drive back Haitian migrants who were on foot, captured the news cycle for days as multiple outlets actively suggested the agents were whipping migrants. (RELATED: NYT Corrects Claim That Border Patrol Used Reins To ‘Whip’ Haitian Migrants)
While many of the tweets promoting this narrative have since been deleted, a number still remain.
Border Patrol agents are whipping Haitian migrants at the US-Mexico border in Texas.https://t.co/9sFNCds7Ur
— VICE News (@VICENews) September 20, 2021
Who else thinks we should start greeting migrants with asylum specialists, social workers, lawyers, and doctors — not border patrol agents whipping their reins on horseback?
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) September 21, 2021
The CBP pushed back, saying that agents did not carry whips and occasionally twirled the reins in an effort to guide the horses in the right direction.
Under pressure from the White House Press Corps, press secretary Jen Psaki weighed in on the situation. She called video of the scene “horrible to watch” and made no effort to give context to the images.
Images of a U.S. border agent on horseback appearing to whip a Haitian migrant were “horrible to watch” and unacceptable, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday. https://t.co/9HAnBwVCtM
— The Seattle Times (@seattletimes) September 20, 2021
Prominent Democrats also fed the narrative — California Rep. Maxine Waters suggested that what was happening at the border was “worse than slavery.”
Congressman Maxine Waters just said that border patrol agents trying to restrict illegal immigrants from illegally entering our country was worse than slavery. pic.twitter.com/OQ9CZUMRhp
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) September 22, 2021
Vice President Kamala Harris also claimed on ABC’s “The View” that the CBP agents had invoked the imagery of slavery.
President Joe Biden jumped into the fray as well, saying that CBP agents had “strapped migrants” and promising that those involved would “pay.”
Biden on the lie that border patrol were using whips on illegal immigrants at the border:
“To see people treated like they did? Horses running them over? People being strapped? It’s outrageous. I promise you, those people will pay.” pic.twitter.com/Jx79KoYTy9
— Townhall.com (@townhallcom) September 24, 2021
There were some media personalities who pushed back on the narrative — chief among them was Fox News host Dana Perino, who grew up on a Wyoming ranch.
Perino responded on “The Five” to Waters’ claim that CBP was creating a situation that was “worse than slavery,” saying, “They have two modes: You can talk about slavery or the Holocaust. Nothing in between. Can’t talk about policies, can’t talk about anything like that.”
“So they couldn’t figure out anything to say until they got to their comfortable ground of attacking law enforcement,” Perino continued. “I do think that these border patrol agents should file a hostile workplace claim. Because they work for the president and the vice president. Even the spokesperson at the White House denigrating these people that are doing their jobs.”
Videos showing even more context came out in the days that followed.
Sorting through my footage from the border. I was in the river during the viral incident between a Haitian migrant and mounted CBP agent. It’s shaky – but here’s what I captured. pic.twitter.com/fnvxSU83tO
— Sarah Blake Morgan (@StorytellerSBM) September 24, 2021
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas promised an investigation and resigned the agents involved to desk duty. Psaki took it a step further, promising that agents would no longer be able to patrol on horseback. (RELATED: Democrat Defends Border Patrol: ‘What Are They Supposed To Do, Just Stand There And Let Everybody Come In?’)
But with so many in media — and so many powerful elected officials — still promulgating a narrative that is demonstrably inaccurate at best, how could any investigation offer fair treatment to the CBP?
CNN anchor Jake Tapper asked Mayorkas that very question during an appearance on “State of the Union.”
“How can DHS claim to have an independent investigation into these Border Patrol agents when the president says ‘those people will pay’ and you say the images ‘horrified us?'” Tapper asked.
“What those images suggest, what they appeared to portray was horrifying, and that I think deserves attention,” Mayorkas replied, but he argued that public perception would not impact the outcome of the investigation.
“But that’s the thing. Some of the initial descriptions of those images were just patently false. There’s now video out there that provides more context. Having seen the video, are you certain that there was actually wrongdoing?” Tapper asked. “Can the Border Patrol count on you and President Biden, who has said the people ‘will pay,’ to come to a determination based on the facts and not based on Twitter outrage?”
Mayorkas insisted that CBP could count on an independent investigation, but Tapper did not appear to be convinced. “The nice words you said about them, you should probably share with President Biden, not just with me today,” he told Mayorkas.