Gayle King's Time at the Border: "I Don’t Want People to Become Desensitized"

Gayle King_immigrants - Screengrab - H 2018
Screengrab/CBS This Morning

"People can make up their own minds," King tells THR of the "zero tolerence" detention centers, "but I don’t know anybody with any kind of empathy or a pulse who wouldn’t be affected by seeing the aguish these families feel."

In the week since the thousands of children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border and separated from their parents became the focus of the American media, CBS News' Gayle King was one of the most prominent journalists on the ground.

The CBS This Morning co-anchor headed down to McAllen, Texas, over the weekend and spent Sunday, Monday and Tuesday interviewing many of the families affected by the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on migrant families (most from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) crossing the border — speaking with experts about the traumas taking place inside the big box detention facilities and offering a candid glimpse into her unplanned location shoot.

“You can’t help but feel for these women, children and fathers,” King told The Hollywood Reporter over the phone Tuesday evening. “Even when you don’t speak the language, you can feel these parents’ love for their children. It’s heartbreaking to see it up close. How is this happening in this country?”

King, now back in New York at the CBS This Morning desk, also spoke about the justification she got for being denied entry to one of the facilities, concerns over viewers becoming desensitized to the story and her deep frustration with the term “fake news” being at all associated with the atrocities happening down in Texas.

How did your experience in Texas compare to what you thought you'd find?
It was eye-opening in terms of seeing the pain that people are feeling. I heard hair-raising stories about what these people went though to get to this country. Imagine being on 20 different buses, crossing the Rio Grande, literally running from police, walking five or six hours — and, despite that, they all still want to be here. How bad would it have to be for any of us to say, “I’m going to go to a country where I don’t speak the language and they probably won’t welcome, but it’s better than what’s happening here?” People are being murdered and raped and assaulted and abused. You don’t hear a lot in this country about what’s going on in El Salvador.

Was it your idea to go down there?
In my life, I’ve never called [CBS This Morning executive producer] Ryan Kadro at home on a Saturday morning. But I was concerned and I wanted to know what we were doing on this story and if it was enough. He asked if I wanted to go down myself. I wasn’t calling to offer that. I had interviews set with Dan Pfeiffer and Elin Hilderbrand, had meetings and blah, blah, blah.... There’s never a convenient time! But you can’t raise the subject and then say you’re too busy to do it yourself. I had called the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics [Dr. Colleen Kraft] to see if she’d come to the table on CBS This Morning. Then I realized it would be far more effective to go down and talk to her in the field. I don’t think people realize these children are being traumatized and it could have a lifelong effect. She told me about a two-year old that was crying. The people in the shelter couldn’t even touch the child, so they handed them a toy. When you’re two, you just want to be picked up! I needed to tell this story. People can make up their own minds, but I don’t know anybody with any kind of empathy or a pulse who wouldn’t be affected by seeing the aguish these families feel.

Is it an obstacle for you that so much of what's happening is unseen?
This has been going on, but people saw that picture of the little girl that this story started to bubble up. Often, it’s a picture that breaks a story wide open. All of the video that you’ve seen so far is video that they’ve handed to us. No camera has been allowed in there. It’s being heavily censored what we see.

Did you try to get in?
Yes, of course, but they told me “no.” They had already let [CBS News correspondent] David Begnaud in. In their minds, we were already in. Permission was denied. You just have to tell what you see. It really is right there. I didn’t feel like I had to be careful. I wanted to be as descriptive as possible. I want people to understand what is happening. You have a president saying, “This is fake news. These are drug smugglers and dealers, and they’re bringing in gang members.” Listen, there may have been a case like that. But this is not the majority of what we’re seeing down there. I didn’t see it. [Trump] paints the media as “fake news” and a big group of people as “drug smugglers” and that’s just not true. You’re frustrated because you do hope that people open their hearts, their ears and their eyes and pay attention to what’s happening here.

What do you want to see emphasized in coverage across the media?
Where are the girls? Everybody has been asking that question. I heard [U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security] Kirstjen Nielsen say that it’s like a summer camp. Has she been inside there? When people in this country are arrested, they’re separated from their children. Their children are not put in jail. It’s easy to say, “They’re breaking the law by crossing the border.” Yes, that is true, but why are they crossing the border? They’re afraid for their lives. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that ripping these children away from their parents isn’t it. You’re forever damaging them.

How does the coverage continue for you now that you're back in New York?
I don’t want people to become desensitized by this. I want people to understand what is happening here. I just landed, so I’ve got to get on a call and find out. But I know this story isn’t over. Everyone says they want to do something, but we’re trying to figure out what that is. The doctor told me this is government-sanctioned child abuse. Just think about what that means. And then you have Kirstjen Nielsen say that it’s like [summer] camp. Not one I want to go to.