The confrontation between Nick Sandmann and Nathan Phillips at the March for Life became a viral firestorm overnight. (Jim McNellis/Wikimedia Commons)
Thanks to our country’s strong tradition of a protected free press, Americans are exposed to news sources with a wide variety of interpretations.
Ordinarily, this is innocuous, as sources with different sympathies tend to counter balance each other. As long as readers are cognizant of a publication’s ideological tendencies and think critically as to the information they’re given, there’s no harm done.
But the recent back-and-forth brouhaha over the incident on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial reminds us that spin — portraying and reporting facts through an agenda-fogged lens — can become detrimental, and even life threatening.
Three weeks ago, video surfaced of a student from Covington Catholic High School smirking in the face of and seeming to taunt an older Native American member of the Indigenous Peoples’ March in Washington D.C.
Retribution was swift. Media outlets pounced, seizing on what had now been whittled down to a single image: a MAGA hat adorned throng of cruel caucasian high school boys jeering at an elderly member of an oppressed minority group. Reports of the boys’ racial epithets and “build the wall” chants plastered the headlines. Nick Sandmann, the young man whose hat remained inches from Nathan Phillip’s traditional drum–characterized as a deliberate attempt to impede Phillips and thereby disrespect him — became an overnight national anathema.
None of this was true; the initial barrage of coverage grossly mischaracterized the encounter.
Prior to the Sandmann-Phillips stare-down, The Covington Catholic group had been verbally harassed while waiting for their bus to arrive. No racial or wall chants had ever been uttered. Without provocation, members of the “Black Israelites” — an extremist group with a vendetta against just about every demographic imaginable — loudly harangued the boys, calling them “incest babies” and “dirty crackers.” Earlier that day, members of the same group told members of the indigenous march that “Indian” is synonymous with “savage,” and asked a female marcher to “get (her) husband so we can speak with him.”
Frightened by the tense situation, Phillips positioned himself between the two crowds with his ceremonial drum in attempt to diffuse the confrontation. Thus, it was Phillips – not Sandmann – who initiated the stare down, though that was never his intention.
Now despite the misrepresentation, the boys aren’t and their school aren’t totally blameless. Staging a raucous counter-chant on the steps of the Lincoln memorial was neither effective nor tasteful, and footage of the incident shows more than a few exhibiting a clear lack of maturity. Performing the “tomahawk “chop” a few yards away from a group of native Americans is as racially insensitive as it is just plain stupid.
The most glaring culpability on Covington Catholic’s part is with the chaperones-or lack thereof. There’s no telling whether adult presences among the boys would have diffused the situation, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt. How was it that a crowd of 50-some boys was left to fend for itself against an encroaching extremist group for half-an-hour anyway?
And though the Covington group was a contingent in the March for Life, the boys’ MAGA hats aren’t pro-life: the Trump policy they represent definitely isn’t Catholic.
Even so, it’s hard to shake the notion of overt prejudice here. As white, Catholic, private all boy’s school, Trump-supporting males, there couldn’t be a more apropos personification of what and who we love to demonize. And so, media outlets immediately traduced them on limited information- without any corroboration, context, or understanding of what really happened.
In doing so, usually reputable and impeccably professional publications put the Covington boys – some of whom had their addresses published online and received death threats – in danger.
Eager to capture the latest in an ongoing series of Trump-constituency shaming and clouded by biased agendas, the initial coverage of the incident was nothing short of irresponsible journalism- a case-study in how not to respond to viral videos and reports without context.
In fact, the incident occurred during what is, year after year, the biggest march in American history: the March for Life. But if you read the Washington Post or the Atlantic among other publications, you’d never know that march even happened.
But the Covington Catholic boys aren’t the only victims. Nathan Phillips did what he felt was best to disperse an ugly confrontation, but was scrutinized for his role in the incident and thrust into the national spotlight due to premature reporting. All the while, the Black Israelites–who actually initiated the confrontation by hurling despicable insults at all involved–got off scot-free.
Again, every newspaper has the right to print what it sees fit. All papers are affected by one bias or another, and every publication wants to be first to break tense, controversial stories in hopes of making a buck.
I’m usually the first one to roll my eyes and scoff at the conspiracy-fueled suggestion of an entrenched “liberal media” out to deliberately purport information and sway public opinion leftward, or a greedy press printing “clickbait,” eye-catching but dubious stories only for increasing readership. But the botched coverage of this viral confrontation demonstrates the all too real repercussion of such collectively irresponsible journalism.