Newspapers Inflated Minuteman Numbers, Report Finds

Anti-Immigration Movement

A new study of media coverage shows that a large number of daily newspapers wildly exaggerated the number of volunteers who actually took part in the Minuteman Project, a vigilante "citizens border patrol" operation that took place in southeastern Arizona over the month of April 2005.

The report, "Creating the Minutemen," is based on an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) analysis of 581 articles and editorials printed in major U.S. newspapers between January 2005 and February 2006. The ACLU has been highly critical of the Minutemen, and ACLU volunteers closely monitored the group.

The first of those articles, "Volunteers Set to Monitor Border Crossings," by Jerry Seper of the hard-right Washington Times, reported that 240 volunteers had signed up. By early March, Seper was reporting that the number of volunteers had "more than tripled," came from every state, and included 16 pilots with aircraft.

During the last two weeks of March 2005, the media hype shifted into overdrive. Fifteen journalists reported the Minuteman Project had signed up "at least 1,000 volunteers." The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin ran a March 23, 2005, article headlined "2,000 volunteers expected for Minuteman Project."

Vastly fewer actually showed up. During the first week of the project, The New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times all reported "between 100 and 200" volunteers (an Intelligence Report story estimated fewer than 150). Even Jerry Seper of The Washington Times, the Minuteman Project's most prolific cheerleader, reported just 100 volunteers in his April 3 article, "Border-vigil Volunteers Big in Spirit, Not Number."

The majority of those volunteers went home after the first weekend, and while others trickled in over the course of the month-long operation, the Minuteman Project never came close to matching its opening strength. "Yet, mysteriously, by the end of the month the Minutemen were claiming they had 857 volunteers," the ACLU study reports. Journalists reporting from their desks in faraway cities failed to challenge the increasingly outrageous claims of the project's organizers, often publicizing their numbers as simple fact, without attribution.

On April 16, Seper reported in The Washington Times that over 600 volunteers were on the border. "According to Seper's earlier report, this would have required more than 500 volunteers showing up within thirteen days from when he reported fewer than 100 had showed up the first weekend … a 500% increase," the ACLU report notes. "It did not take long for the rest of the media to follow Seper's unexplainable leap."

Three days later, on April 19, The Arizona Republic reported 760 volunteers and quoted Minuteman Project co-founder Chris Simcox claiming he'd signed up 10,000 more for future operations. Another Seper article that same day reported 800 volunteers. During the final week of April, Seper reported 820 volunteers and quoted Simcox claiming 15,000 new sign-ups. The San Francisco Chronicle on April 30 reported 857 volunteers. That number is now cable news gospel.

By February 2006, Seper had written 52 articles on the Minuteman Project, far more than any other journalist. When Simcox announced a second Minuteman border operation in California in October 2005, Seper wrote in an Oct. 1 article that more than 4,000 volunteers were expected, and later reported that 2,000 had actually participated. In fact, the turnout was dismal. An Intelligence Report staff writer counted just 26 Minuteman volunteers over a three-day period.

Since April 2005, the Minuteman Project has morphed into a national movement, with multiple splinter groups and spin-offs increasingly targeting immigrants far from the border. The ACLU report shows how newspaper reporting that was either lazy or deliberately misleading helped transform a relatively small band of extremists into the armed vanguard of the anti-immigration movement.