No doubt the religion story of the month involved a feisty aftermath of Friday’s March for Life in Washington, D.C. where a group of Catholic high school kids from Kentucky, a handful of Black Hebrew Israelite protestors and Native American activists met on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Black, Native, white: A perfect storm. What all three groups did or were alleged to have done during a two-hour period provoked a shrill media response on Saturday, resulting in a social media hatefest as local officials, their school and even their diocese immediately spoke out against the boys.
The digital attacks were so bad, the kids' Catholic school had to take down its website and Facebook page on Saturday afternoon.
Then more videos surfaced on Sunday; videos that showed some appalling insults from the Black Israelite group, aimed at the young Catholics; some tone deafness on the part of some of the Natives present and a group of clueless, often confused, teen-agers who got blamed for it all.
The end result: Sloppy reporting 1, MSM: 0. The perfect end to a horrid week for journalists.
Let’s start at the beginning. Here’s what the New York Times had on Saturday:
They were Catholic high school students who came to Washington on a field trip to rally at the March for Life.
He was a Native American veteran of the Vietnam War who was there to raise awareness at the Indigenous Peoples March.
They intersected on Friday in an unsettling encounter outside the Lincoln Memorial — a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.
One does wonder what kids in town for a pro-life protest are doing with MAGA caps on. However, all kinds of things are sold near the National Mall.
The episode was being investigated and the students could face punishment, up to and including expulsion, their school said in a statement on Saturday afternoon.
In video footage that was shared widely on social media, one boy, wearing the red hat that has become a signature of President Trump, stood directly in front of the elder, who stared impassively ahead while playing a ceremonial drum.
What was not apparent in the first video footage was that the elder had marched into this group of kids and walked right up to the boy, who was backed up against the steps of the Memorial.
From my point of view, this young man was in an impossible situation. If he reacted in any way, he’d be faulted. If he stepped back — and up the first stair — he’d be towering over the elder and criticized for that. Or maybe he didn’t trust himself to be able to step backward and balance himself on the step without falling forward onto the drummer.
Look at the longer videos, not the one infamous “smirk” shot. This boy looks confused. He’s trying to remain calm.
Some boys in the group wore clothing associated with Covington Catholic High School, an all-male college preparatory school in Park Hills, Ky., near Cincinnati.
The school had advertised that students would attend this year’s March for Life Rally, which took place in Washington on Friday. In a letter to parents, the trip was described as an opportunity for students to live out their faith and demonstrate in support of all life “born and unborn.”
In a statement, the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School condemned the behavior by the students and extended their “deepest apologies” to the elder, as well as to Native Americans in general.
Sounds like a PR nightmare, no?
The Washington Post also jumped in with this lead paragraph:
A viral video of a group of Kentucky teens in “Make America Great Again” hats taunting a Native American veteran on Friday has heaped fuel on a long-running, intense argument among abortion opponents as to whether the close affiliation of many antiabortion leaders with President Trump since he took office has led to moral decay that harms the movement.
I understand the search for a new angle, but why does a bunch of MAGA hats worn by a few of these kids from a Kentucky Catholic school symbolize some kind of bargain the pro-life movement has made with the devil?
USA Today added to the pile-on by reporting that the school and the Diocese of Covington were apologizing all over the place for the incident.
Those of us who’ve seen the March for Life know that it attracts all sorts of groups –- that have nothing to do with abortion for or against –- wanting to get some press coverage from the various reporters present who are looking for unique angles to the event. That could have been a warning to journalists that there might be more to this picture than first thought.
Sure enough, by Sunday, alternative narratives were starting to surface, including numerous videos of the event. We learn that the Kentucky students weren’t the nasty white supremacist bullies they’d been painted and that they might have showed restraint while being taunted by the other two groups.
Watching this video posted by the Cincinnati Enquirer, we see the Hebrew Israelites getting into an argument with Native Americans. One of the Israelite preachers is laying into the Natives, telling them to “come back to the Lord God.”
“You still worshipping totem poles,” one preacher was yelling. One Native guy who was dialoguing with the Israelites then walked away (around 29:20) and then the Israelites began laying into the Catholic kids (around 32:00).
As you listen this second video (“Does anyone know what’s going on around here?” someone yells), it’s a confusing scene. Some of the kids appear scared; others are chanting along WITH the Native Americans. You can hear a speaker (on the left of the kid in the grey coat) yelling at the students to “go back to Europe where you came from. This is not your land. We’ve been here a million f-ing years, so get the f- out of my face…” and so on.
Suddenly we saw media rewriting their stories.
The New York Times ran an update under the headline “Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video Between Native American Man and Catholic Students.” After the lead paragraph, we read:
Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs — against a national backdrop of political tension — set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.
#Duh. And which media outlets helped make that happen?
The Times went on to give a more nuanced rendering of the event (do read through it all) and identified the grey-coated student as Nick Sandmann, a junior. By Sunday afternoon, Sandmann had released a detailed two-page statement (reproduced here by CNN’s Jake Tapper) saying that the students started shouting school chants to drown out the racist statements from the Israelites.
Not knowing what else to do, Sandmann wrote, he simply froze in place while the Native drummer came “within inches of my face.” (If you look at the above video, Sandmann is having to lean back to keep the drum from hitting him.) The statement adds that he’s now the target of death threats. Again, this is a high school junior. Would your 16- or 17-year-old know what to do in that situation?
On Sunday afternoon, Robby Soave of Reason.com ran a piece saying the media “wildly mischaracterized” the incident at the Memorial and roasted reporters who “uncritically accepted (drummer) Nathan Phillips’ story.”
This is a must-read. It’s the best piece I’ve seen covering the media mess-up on this.
“ …the rest of the video—nearly two hours of additional footage showing what happened before and after the encounter—adds important context that strongly contradicts the media's narrative.
Far from engaging in racially motivated harassment, the group of mostly white, MAGA-hat-wearing male teenagers remained relatively calm and restrained despite being subjected to incessant racist, homophobic, and bigoted verbal abuse by members of the bizarre religious sect Black Hebrew Israelites, who were lurking nearby. The BHI has existed since the late 19th century, and is best describes as a black nationalist cult movement; its members believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites, and often express condemnation of white people, Christians, and gays. DC-area Black Hebrews are known to spout particularly vile bigotry.
Phillips put himself between the teens and the black nationalists, chanting and drumming as he marched straight into the middle of the group of young people. What followed was several minutes of confusion: The teens couldn't quite decide whether Phillips was on their side or not, but tentatively joined in his chanting. It's not at all clear this was intended as an act of mockery rather than solidarity.
The teen in all the photos, he added, seemed unsure of what to do. For merely standing there, “The teen has been called the product of a ‘hate factory’ and likened to a school shooter, segregation-era racist, and member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Soave goes on to say that Phillips mischaracterized the situation to media, saying the white kids and the black nationalists were at each others’ throats and that he played the part of the peacemaker in separating the two.
Phillips' account, meanwhile, is at best flawed, and arguably deliberately misleading…The boys are undoubtedly owed an apology from the numerous people who joined this social media pile-on. This is shaping up to be one of the biggest major media misfires in quite some time.
By Sunday evening, the Washington Post had released this new version of the events. The below paragraph is a confusing mess:
The Israelites and students exchanged taunts, videos show. The Native Americans and Hebrew Israelites say some students shouted, “Build the wall!” although the chant is not heard on the widely circulated videos, and the Cincinnati Enquirer quoted a student at the center of the confrontation who said he did not hear anyone say it.
Make up your mind, folks. The first sentence say videos show taunts; the second sentence says they might not have.
In trying to reconstruct the scenario, the Post talked with Phillips.
Asked why he felt the need to walk into the group of students, Phillips said he was trying to reach the top of the memorial, where friends were standing. But Phillips also said he saw more than a teenage boy in front of him. He saw a long history of white oppression of Native Americans.
“Why should I go around him?” he asked. “I’m just thinking of 500 years of genocide in this country, what your people have done. You don’t even see me as a human being.”
What if Phillips had been a white man walking into a group of black or Native students? Would either group have moved aside?
Some media tried to walk back the damage.
CNN’s Jake Tapper points out here that CNN did a good recap of what really happened. I read some of the 574 comments for some furious rejoinders by folks who felt that the media should have got it right the first time. Better late than never, I guess.
They say journalists write the first draft of history but first drafts can be wrong. They’re not fleshed-out accounts.
Journalists covering the story on Saturday seemed content with a white racist narrative without announcing the story was incomplete without a response from the student. And Phillips seemed pretty available for the TV cameras only for us to learn a day later — via longer videos, often unedited — that he misconstrued things. I’ve seen no videos that show the white students and the black activists anywhere close to attacking each other or even within 10 feet of each other. And does anyone have video of the students chanting, “Build the wall”?
By mid-Sunday afternoon, it was clear that most media had gotten things horribly wrong and that the real story was something different. David Brooks from the New York Times admitted that the emergence of longer videos changed the story
His tweet got this response from the Post’s Michelle Boorstein, who saw it as a dig against her.
The media — some of our nation’s top newsrooms — really got played on this one, early on. You had some bizarre black activists who were the worst players in this whole episode, but who walked away without anyone criticizing them. Then there were the white Catholic kids who got vilified by everyone until inconvenient truths emerged. And then you had a Native elder who got to spin the narrative in front of the TV cameras until video showed that his version wasn’t quite the whole story.
A few questions still remain:
Where were the chaperones for this crowd?
What isn’t anyone attacking the Black Hebrew Israelite crowd for their vile, often stunningly homophobic, remarks? I don’t see them getting death threats on social media. In the longer videos, note the abuse aimed at the young African American student from this Catholic high school.
If Phillips wanted to stop a confrontation, why didn’t he march over and bang his drum in the direction of the Israelite guys?
This story isn’t going to end soon. Read the Twitter feed from Rep. Thomas Massie, the member of Congress representing that part of Kentucky, for his read on it all (after watching multiple videos). Some people are thinking lawsuits.
Oh, and what a great way to kick off Catholic Schools Week.
There’s a saying among media folks that if a story sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. Journalists should have taken that advice this past weekend.
FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from YouTube video.