If you’ve ever worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., you know that things often go crazy right about 5 p.m. on Fridays.
It’s the end of the work week. Most of the power brokers have headed for home, their home back in their home district (or state) or that special weekend home where they relax in private. They have turned off their “official” cellphones or left them at the office. Many of their gatekeepers — the folks who negotiate media contacts — have flown the coop, as well.
In newsrooms, the ranks are pretty thin, as well.
Professionals inside the Beltway knows that this dead zone is when savvy press officers put out the news that they hope doesn’t end up in the news. This tactic worked better before Twitter and the Internet.
Thus, the Washington Post posted an interesting editor’s note or correction at the end of the business day this past Friday linked to one of the biggest religion stories of the year — the March for Life drama featuring that group of boys from Covington Catholic High School, Native American drummer-activists and amped-up protesters from the Black Hebrew Israelites (click here for various GetReligion posts on this topic).
It appears that Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway was either the first pundit or among the very first to spot this interesting Friday dead-zone PR move by the Post.
If you travel back in time, here is the lede on one of the key “Acts of Faith” pieces about this controversy:
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.
The online version of that Post story now features this specific note, at the very top:
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described the statement of Catholic officials from Covington, Ky. Their statement condemned the teens’ actions toward “Native Americans in general” but did not apologize for those actions. The article has been updated. This version of the story also has been revised to add that students chanting “build that wall” is not audible on video, and to eliminate Nathan Phillips’s claim that one student blocked him from moving, which is contradicted by available video. (March 1)
What’s the takeaway? I guess the word “taunting” is still in play. I would also question whether the whole “group” of Catholic boys was wearing MAGA hats, but that’s just me.
During my second “Crossroads” podcast about this incident — “What did press learn from Covington Catholic drama? Hint. This story wasn't about Donald Trump“ — I wondered aloud if some of the people and organizations hit with lawsuits were going to start releasing carefully worded apologies, in an attempt to show concern about the accuracy of their Covington coverage and statements.
Well, as Hemingway noted, this certainly looks like an apology. Here is the full text of the editor’s note from the Post. You may even what to click a few of the URLs and look at the dates of the relevant pieces, dates that seem to have moved around just a bit:
A Washington Post article first posted online on Jan. 19 reported on a Jan. 18 incident at the Lincoln Memorial. Subsequent reporting, a student’s statement and additional video allow for a more complete assessment of what occurred, either contradicting or failing to confirm accounts provided in that story — including that Native American activist Nathan Phillips was prevented by one student from moving on, that his group had been taunted by the students in the lead-up to the encounter, and that the students were trying to instigate a conflict. The high school student facing Phillips issued a statement contradicting his account; the bishop in Covington, Ky., apologized for the statement condemning the students; and an investigation conducted for the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School found the students’ accounts consistent with videos. Subsequent Post coverage, including video, reported these developments: “Viral standoff between a tribal elder and a high schooler is more complicated than it first seemed”; “Kentucky bishop apologizes to Covington Catholic students, says he expects their exoneration”; “Investigation finds no evidence of ‘racist or offensive statements’ in Mall incident.”
A Jan. 22 correction to the original story reads: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Native American activist Nathan Phillips fought in the Vietnam War. Phillips said he served in the U.S. Marines but was never deployed to Vietnam.
Over at Reason.com — a key player in coverage of the Covington Catholic High School press coverage — there was a predictable reaction from a logical source:
Attorneys for Nicholas Sandmann — the Covington student accused of smirking at Phillips—were not satisfied with the editor's note.
"What The Washington Post put out is barely worth comment," Todd McMurtry, an attorney for Sandmann, told Reason. "WaPo committed gross journalistic malpractice and cannot undo its deeds with an editor's note that purports to correct the record over a month after it led a frenzied mob in trashing a minor's reputation. The Sandmanns would never accept half of a half-measure from an organization that still refuses to own up to its error."
So what happens now?
From a legal point of view, it will be crucial whether courts and/or juries decide that this young man and his schoolmates were, or were not, “public figures” simply because they chose to come to the National Mall to take part of March for Life, a major media event. That question is standard operation procedure, in terms of arguing about the bright red line between normal journalism mistakes and “journalistic malpractice.”
That said, I see nothing that I would want to change in the following comments (especially the part about the basilica Mass) that I wrote in a 13 February post on this journalism train wreck:
I’d still like to know why the Lincoln Memorial drama was an earth-shaking event, but attempts by Native American protest drummers to invade a Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was a “conservative” non-story. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Of course, there’s an outside shot that legal scholars may be involved in future accounts of all this, depending on how judges and, maybe, some juries feel about journalists basing wall-to-wall coverage on short, edited videos provided by activists on one side of a complex news event. In the smartphone age, do journalists have a legal obligation — in terms of making a professional attempt to check basic facts — to compare an advocacy group’s punchy, edited YouTube offering with full-length videos from others?
Stay tuned. This isn’t going to go away anytime soon.