News in an age of rage tweets: Who needs to repent, after the Covington Catholic acid storm?

As this past weekend’s March for Life controversy began to escalate, I did what legions of other journalists and pundits did — I aimed a tweet at the young men of Covington Catholic High School and their leaders.

It was a rather mild tweet, as these things go. I said: “We can hope the young men repent and change. #MarchForLife holds out hope for repentance and healing.”

Later on, I also said that I thought it was time for politicians to take a lower profile at this annual pro-life event. I’m OK, with political leaders marching, but I’m worried about the high-profile speeches.

During the past day or two, lots of journalists have been taking down lots of tweets after this particular journalism train wreck.

However, I haven’t deleted mine — even after watching lots of alternative videos of this incident — for a simple reason. Based on my own life and sins, I have concluded that there is never a bad time for repentance. There may be Covington students who will want to go to Confession.

However, I’m still looking for video evidence of crucial facts — like the charge that students chanted “Build the wall!” and behaved in a way that threatened Native American activist Nathan Phillips or anyone else. I did see lots of young males acting like young males, which often means being rather rowdy (I never heard the Atlanta tomahawk-chop chant, but a few boys made gestures — while dancing around — that might be interpreted that way). Then again, there were Black Hebrew Israelites aiming bitter, obscene, homophobic chants and accusations at these students, who had gathered at a previously assigned location to meet their bus to ride home.

So what happened here? Many journalists have walked back some of their earlier accusations about these Catholic boys.

Let’s look at one fine example at The Atlantic, written by Julie Irwin Zimmerman. The double-decker headline on her short essay proclaimed: “I Failed the Covington Catholic Test: Next time there’s a viral story, I’ll wait for more facts to emerge.” Her blunt overture:

Like many people who spend too much time on Twitter, I watched with indignation Saturday morning as stories began appearing about a confrontation near the Lincoln Memorial between students from Covington Catholic High School and American Indians from the Indigenous Peoples March. The story felt personal to me; I live a few miles from the high school, and my son attends a nearby all-boys Catholic high school. I texted him right away, ready with a lesson on what the students had done wrong.

“They were menacing a man much older than them,” I told him, “and chanting ‘Build the wall!’ And this smirking kid blocked his path and wouldn’t let him leave.” The short video, the subject of at least two-thirds of my Twitter feed on Saturday, made me cringe, and the smirking kid in particular got to me: His smugness, radiating from under that red maga hat, was everything I wanted my teenagers not to be.

“Where were they chanting about building the wall?” my son asked. His friends had begun weighing in, and their take was decidedly more sympathetic than mine. He wasn’t sure what to think, as he was hearing starkly different accounts from people he trusted. I doubled down, quoting from the profile of Nathan Phillips that The Washington Post had quickly published online, in which he said he’d been trying to defuse a tense situation. I was all-in on the outrage. How could the students parade around in those hats, harassing a man old enough to be their grandfather — a Vietnam veteran, no less?

Eventually she watched the longer videos of what happened. She saw some questionable student behavior, but nothing that matched the horrible accusations that were accepted as verified facts in the opening wave of elite-media news coverage. She still had big problems with a MAGA hat, of course, but there was more to this story than that.

Would high-school students know what Phillips was doing? Did they have any idea who the Black Hebrew Israelites were and if this group was connected to the Indigenous Peoples March?

Here’s more from Zimmerman:

… I also saw someone with Phillips yelling at a few of the kids that his people had been here first, that Europeans had stolen their land. While I wouldn’t disagree, the scene was at odds with the reports that Phillips and those with him were attempting to calm a tense situation.

As I watched the longer videos, I began to see the smirking kid in a different light. It seemed to me that a wave of emotions rolled over his face as Phillips approached him: confusion, fear, resolve. He finally, I thought, settled on an expression designed to mimic respect while signaling to his friends that he had this under control. Observing it, I wondered what different reaction I could have reasonably hoped a high-school junior to have in such an unfamiliar and bewildering situation. I came up empty.

Then came the doxing. Then death threats. Then new attacks on Catholic and Christian education.

More clicks and more clicks and more clicks. Zimmerman concluded that this whole mess as a parable about America in an age of click-driven journalism:

The story is a Rorschach test — tell me how you first reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016, and your general take on a list of other issues — but it shouldn’t be. …

If the Covington Catholic incident was a test, it’s one I failed — along with most others. Will we learn from it, or will we continue to roam social media, looking for the next outrage fix? Next time a story like this surfaces, I’ll try to sit it out until more facts have emerged. 

OK, let me add this: I bought the first video, too. It made me feel sad, more than enraged. Then again, I am a #NeverTrump #NeverHillary Orthodox Christian grandfather with several decades of experience teaching in evangelical Protestant schools. Until the 2016 election, I was a life-long Democrat — of the pro-life stripe (I’m now part of a small third party that is economically progressive and culturally conservative).

I rushed out my “repent” tweet — aiming it at the students. Now, lots of journalists have concluded that we have some repenting to do, as well.

However, there is something else going on here at non-journalists must understand. Part of this disaster is linked to the role that Twitter and Facebook play in the economic realities of modern journalism. Hot clicks and loyal subscribers are everything, in an age in which 99 percent of digital advertising is — let’s face it — annoying, at best. The bottom line: Social media is all about “preaching to the choir,” generating heat that leads to clicks and new subscribers (making your choir bigger).

Please, please read this New York Times column by David Brooks: “How We Destroy Lives Today — Will the Covington Catholic High School fiasco change social media?”

Before you judge the reporters too harshly, it’s important to remember that these days the social media tail wags the mainstream media dog. If you want your story to be well placed and if you want to be professionally rewarded, you have to generate page views — you have to incite social media. The way to do that is to reinforce the prejudices of your readers.

In this one episode, you had a gentle, 64-year-old Native American man being swarmed by white (boo!), male (boo!), preppy (double boo!) Trump supporters (infinite boo!). If you are trying to rub the pleasure centers of a liberal audience, this is truly a story too good to check.

Saturday was a day of liberal vindication. See! This is what those people do! This is who they really are. Reza Aslan, the religious scholar, tweeted a photo of the main Covington boy and asked, “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”

Then the longer videos emerged. So what happened next?

So Sunday was a day of conservative vindication. See? This is what those liberals do! They rush to judgment, dehumanize and seek to expunge us from national life. The main boy wrote a public letter that was consistent with the visual evidence and that was actually quite humane.

In this case the facts happened to support the right-wing tribe. But that’s not the point. The crucial thing is that the nation’s culture is now enmeshed in a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control.

In this technology, stereotype is more salient than persons.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Let us attend.

These are the economic, digital and journalistic realities that shape American public discourse, right now. Many of the hottest topics in these acidic media storms are, of course, linked to religious issues and beliefs.

Does anyone retweet repentance?

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