As Donald Trump holds the government—and the salaries of some 800,000 federal workers—hostage for one of the longest shutdowns in history, three separate national news outlets each ran pieces about how unpaid prison guards were disgruntled that incarcerated people were eating nice meals on New Year’s Day.
Though each had different bylines, stories from USA Today, The Washington Post, and NBC News (the story was also picked up by the New York Daily News and a number of local news outlets) had the same implied framework: namely, that it was despicable for people in prison to have a decent meal during the holidays when prison guards were working without pay because of the shutdown.
Here’s what a version of that story looked like in USA Today:
Perhaps most symbolic of the recent challenges confronting officers arrived on the prisoners’ meal trays on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
“You are seeing prisoners getting steak, roast beef and Cornish hens, and you can’t put that kind of food on the table for your own family,” Young said. “That isn’t right.”
During the holidays, the prison bureau said, it is common practice for the institutions to “prepare a special meal or offer special items to promote morale for the inmate population because they are separated from their families.”
The agency acknowledged that inmates were served the special holiday meals, though the spokesperson said the New Year’s Day menu included roast beef – not steak.
A copy of the Coleman menu listed “grilled steak” as the main course, a meal that garnered rave reviews by some inmates.
“Hard to Digest” NBC News’s headline read, while USA Today’s headline announced that, “federal inmates feast on Cornish hens, steak as prison guards labor without pay.” To underscore their point, The Washington Post used a photo of a piece of steak from a fancy steakhouse in Washington, DC.
As The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk II pointed out on Twitter, all three of these stories were heavily sourced from the same person, Joe Rojas, who is a union leader and prison guard at Florida’s Coleman Federal Correctional Complex:
Rojas told the Washington Post that people incarcerated at the prison where he worked at were “eating like kings and then laughing at us.” He told USA Today, “The inmates know what’s going on; they know about the shutdown, and they are laughing at us.” He told NBC News, “they are getting a lavish meal and we are working the holidays away from our families wondering if we can pay the rent or make it home.”
Rojas’s framing pitted unpaid corrections workers against incarcerated people. This isn’t an intuitive or objective frame in a story about a billionaire president shutting down the government in order to further militarize the border, but it is nevertheless the story that each of these news outlets went with, uncritically.
It’s not the first (and won’t be the last) time that media outlets have churned out lazy narratives, playing into racist tropes fed to them from powerful sources. As Gaby Del Valle reported at The Outline last year, media outlets were effectively re-writing press releases by Immigration and Customs Enforcement almost word-for-word. After ICE arrested 95 people in Texas, Del Valle wrote that “Local media, including Click2Houston, Houston Public Media, and Fox26 Houston repeated the same information provided in the press release without, it seems, bothering to do any actual reporting to place the arrests in context, especially when it comes to the arrested’s past convictions.”
Here’s an example that Del Valle pulled from a Click2Houston story, compared to the actual press release from ICE:
Here’s ICE’s summary of one of the arrests:
“A 32-year-old citizen of Mexico was arrested without incident in Houston. A Barrio North Side gang member with convictions for marijuana possession, unlawfully carrying a firearm and evading arrest. He was previously removed from the United States in September 2006.”
Click2Houston’s reporting was nearly identical to the language in the release:
“A 32-year-old citizen of Mexico was arrested without incident in Houston on April 19. He is a Barrio North Side gang member with convictions for marijuana possession, unlawfully carrying a firearm and evading arrest, according to authorities. He was previously removed from the United States in September 2006.”
Beyond law enforcement sources, there are the slew of officials who have gotten to air grievances and shape media narratives about the Trump administration in service of powerful people while being offered anonymity from the media.
All of these people—from prison guards and immigration agencies to Trump aides—have a motive for saying what they do to the press. The media’s job is to unpack that motive, not just repeat whatever they have to say.
But congratulations to Joe Rojas for his new job at USA Today.