According to statistics compiled by the FBI, there were 71 instances of “murder or nonnegligent manslaughter” in the state of Iowa in 2016. That represented a very slight drop from 73 in 2015, and while those numbers were a bit higher than average, they were within the range of normal for the state. Simple math tells us that this translates to almost exactly one murder every five days. For obvious logistical reasons, a national media outlet like The New York Times or The Washington Post could not be expected to cover each of these murders, or, in fact, any of them, unless said murder involved a national figure or was notable in some other way (ie, the work of a serial killer). There is tragedy in every killing, but the sad reality is that “ordinary” murder is common enough not to resonate on a national level.
So why is the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa college student whose body was found Tuesday morning approximately one month after she went missing, being covered by the New York Times, Washington Post, and any number of mainstream national media outlets?
The context-free answer is that Tibbetts was likely abducted and murdered by an undocumented immigrant—Mexican-born Cristhian Bahena Rivera.
The actual answer is that Tibbetts was murdered by an undocumented immigrant, and her story has been pushed with breathless fervor by the right wing in America—up to and including President Trump himself—with the aim of promoting an anti-immigrant agenda and, in this special case, detracting attention from the very bad news surrounding the administration.
For a small taste of the zealous push to make Tibbetts national news, here’s a snapshot from the Donald Trump Reddit on Tuesday night, at a moment when most political discussion was dominated by stories of Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort:
That same night, at a rally in West Virginia, Trump was quick to invoke Tibbetts' name:
“You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly from Mexico, and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman,” Trump said. “It should've never happened. Illegally in our country. We've had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad, the immigration laws are such a disgrace.”
The sane response to these tactics, and the swiftest rebuttal, is to invoke simple statistics: In the state of Texas, which is the only place where crime statistics are kept for undocumented immigrants, the rate of all crime—and for murder specifically—is far lower than that of the general population. Across America, statistics reflecting incarceration rates by immigration status suggest that Texas is no anomaly—undocumented immigrants are about half as likely to go to jail as “legal” citizens.
In other words, Republicans and conservatives attempting to promote harsher immigration laws and fomenting anti-immigrant sentiment should not be relying on crime—the fact is, we'd get more bang for our buck deporting homegrown Americans.
But of course, human beings aren't statistical creatures, and the anti-immigration crowd have determined that the best way to stir animus against immigrants is to highlight anomalous cases where white people—especially young women—have been killed by undocumented Hispanic men. It does not indicate any kind of broader pattern, and in fact we have seen that the opposite is true, but it does resonate with a certain kind of person, and it's far more likely to provoke the reactionary, tribalist anger they covet.
This tactic is not abnormal, of course. Demonizing a specific racial group has a long and storied history on planet Earth, and has been a key tactic for fascist movements the world over. What's disheartening is how easily the American right has commandeered the narrative and essentially forced national media outlets like the Times and Post to cover these stories in a straight news fashion—without highlighting or sometimes even mentioning the reason they're covering the story—and thereby amplifying the right's racial agenda.
On Twitter, Tom Scocca cut to the heart of the issue while analyzing the Times piece:
That says it all—the right sets the agenda, the mainstream outlets do their bidding, and because they don't want to admit to themselves that they're being strung along, they bury the “why” of the story.
In fact, the “why” should lead—in bold font. If you subscribe to the argument that the Tibbetts murder became national news when Trump mentioned it, then the reason it's national news needs to be highlighted in the headline. It's not difficult, as one Twitter user demonstrated:
Without context, it becomes difficult for readers to discern the influence behind the story, and easy for them to surmise (incorrectly) that there is a trend of undocumented immigrants murdering American citizens. This is exacerbated by the guise of “objectivity,” which is meant to prevent journalists from taking sides, but which leads here to an uncritical, just-slightly-subdued parroting of the anti-immigrant agenda. Nowhere does the Times mention the actual statistics, but they do quote Trump complaining about immigration laws. In this way, the right has turned the paper, along with many others, into an effective signal booster—the mainstream media serves as advocate and hype man, delivering an extremist message with almost total credulity to a far larger audience than the extremists could ever muster on their own.