Saturday morning. The detonation on social media came from a brief video of an elderly Native American protestor, Nathan Phillips, and a Catholic high school student, Nick Sandmann, faced off near the Lincoln Memorial inside what appeared to be a horde of Sandmann’s fellow students. All of the students in frame where white and male. Phillips was chanting and beating his drum; Sandmann – his jaw seemingly inches from Phillips swinging hand – stood motionless, but with a smirk across his face. Along with the imagery, we were handed a narrative by Phillips that he had been surrounded by the students.
I had this information dumped into my morning while sitting parked in my car with my son in the passenger seat as we finished some hurried morning errands. We were rushing before heading across town to a memorial for my departed and beloved uncle. These are not the proper conditions under which to assess and then comment on a complex situation on the basis of scant video evidence and a flurry of tweets from the blatherati and mass media outlets. Yet that’s exactly what I did, and I wasn’t alone. Unlike other celebs and members of the shamed media, I won’t expunge the record of my lapse in standards. I’m leaving my very basic, gut-level reaction up online. Below is the totality of my initial reaction on Twitter.
Reality can’t be deleted. There’s no way to redact or retract the damage a plague of online locusts can do. And if I suffer a little by leaving it there. Perhaps that’s how karma works. I know it’s how Catholic penance works.
To be fair, my own reaction was not actually a response to the false narrative that Phillips went to the media with, the pack of lies (the full, unedited video does prove that Phillips was lying, even as it leaves questions about moments of bad behavior by the high school students – read on for more about that) that were so easily swallowed and promulgated by the broader mass media. But when I tweeted at 8:46 AM Pacific Time, I hadn’t read a single word of what Nathan Phillips had claimed. No, my reaction was purely based on a snapshot and what appeared to be a smug smirk on a young man’s face standing defiantly in front of an older person who had also been identified
(correctly) as a veteran, a detail that is now in question. I only saw a punk being disrespectful to an old man, plain and simple. My conservative values roared. That impulse has weighed on my mind ever since, and I will continue to think about it for some time.
Because I was occupied with the affairs of IRL, I also was unaware that a vicious social media mob was descending on the kids, their families; pitchforks and torches hysteria was being whipped up by a cheering section of celebrities and left-wing political elites. I was also ignorant that a group of extreme religious zealots – Black Hebrew Israelites – had played a much larger role leading up to what transpired than was seen in the viral moment. Yet, in a tidal wave of outrage like what crashed into those boys, every negative comment gets counted as standing with the most extreme of the bunch. Those like me who may have been only revulsed by the optics, but would never in a million years call for the kids to be “punched in the face,” have their lives ruined, or far worse, nonetheless added to the mass of the wave. I don’t think of myself as the type who gets swept up in mobs. Many others who became indistinguishable from the response wave probably didn’t either.
What gave the wave its devastating power was the mainstream media’s atomic-grade hot take in the guise of legitimate journalism. A reckless, bias-driven media explosion sprang from a clearly edited snippet of context-free video and the word of Phillips. The media were totally willing to let Phillips’ account stand as a kind of unquestioned context. But as the full uncut video shows, Phillips was not just giving a biased account, he was creating a version of events that simply did not happen. The students did not approach and surround him, giving him no avenue for escape – the reality is precisely the opposite. Nor is there any evidence in the video of Phillips claim that the students yelled slurs and insults at him, though there’s some grey area in some of their response to him. Whether Phillips was, indeed, trying to diffuse an escalating situation between the students and the small group of Black Hebrew Israelites, who had hurled heavyweight obscenities and hateful speech at the kids and just about any poor soul who walked by (including Native Americans who may have been in Phillips group), is impossible to know. That’s a truth that only Phillips himself knows. But the casus belli cited by the media and the mob as justification for going medieval on the kids was a well-trafficked lie.
It all comes back to the full video. I invite everyone to suffer through the entire video for complete context, but the portion in which everything comes to a head is about a five or six-minute segment beginning at around the 1:09 mark. The Black Hebrews have been insulting these kids off and on for the better part of an hour. One student begins to lead the others in some school spirit cheers—the kids, as kids do, join in. Within a minute, Phillips slowly paces over to the where the students are standing on the steps. The students form a loose half-circle around him. Yes, some do seem to be mocking his native chanting. (Not cool, kids.) Then the kids do actually surround Phillips, but most of them aren’t even facing inward to where Phillips and Sandmann were being captured by a different camera in an indelible, and ultimately misleading, snapshot in time. After a time, Phillips disengages; the students go back to milling about and receiving direct abuse from the Black Hebrews. At about the 1:26 mark, the students erupt into cheers and applause and swarm off. Their bus has arrived.
Even after watching the video, there are still elements of the students’ behavior that warrant further conversation, but in a dialogue on the level of a parent-faculty summit not a demonizing national outrage. The mob calls to destroy these kids on the basis of what was initially portrayed are without justification and are wrong. That should go without saying, because – and we don’t even need to cite scripture to make this point – all calls to destroy people for non-violent actions of any kind are inherently wrong. Remember that none of this happens without the media green-lighting a story in which context had not been investigated as much as it had been sloppily deduced.
Was the rush to an easy narrative done for the race to clicks? Maybe. But who’s doing the clicking? Many corners of the political mediasphere are feeding the beastly confirmation cycle, but supply only follows demand. It’s the ethics of a fast food exec: “Maybe we’d make better food if people showed any inclination to not eat the garbage we sell.”
Had anyone in the media decided to wait to run Phillips’ words until after searching for the fuller cut of video from the scene, or holding out for additional eyewitnesses to give contrary or conflicting accounts, one has to hope that the result would have been a story with a less inflammatory narrative, perhaps even no story at all. Members of the media could also have waited until speaking with Sandmann. His statement stands in stark conflict with that of Phillips, but comports better with what is seen on the video.
In this case we know with one hundred percent certainty that allowing time to pass so that more facts could be gathered would be avoided a national outrage campaign that smeared a group of Catholic teens as racists, homophobes, hatemongers, and more. (In fact, it should be a chilling ‘stare into the mirror’ moment for the left to recognize that the actual instigators at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, the Black Hebrew Israelites – who give the Westminster Baptist Church a run for their money when it comes to intolerant hate-spewing – were casting many of the same vile, hateful, racially charged insults at the boys as the left-wing social media mob.)
Now is the time for the same media that spent the better part of President Trump’s political life chiding him for being unable to own his mistakes to demonstrate that they possess the character they find lacking in him. We can cheat at cards, or at golf, but not at maintaining our credibility. You can refuse to count penalty strokes for duck-hooking your tee shot out of bounds, but that doesn’t negate the damage if you also have shattered a picture window and demolished case of heirlooms and objet d’art. Bad journalism in the age of social media has real costs and it isn’t acceptable to consider those costs as a kind of collateral damage in a war against Trump, or the libs, or whatever other super-villainous force a particular media institution seems to have chosen as its foe.
And we, the consumers of media, probably need to stop putting unhealthy demands on the media to deliver stories that aren’t actually news, to give us half-baked context and analysis, or worst of all, to tell us things that make us feel righteous in continuing to hold our beliefs or that simply bolster a broader agenda. We need to find a way to replenish our value for solid, well-sourced journalism that does take time. We need to have some tolerance for errors, and continue to reward the outlets that do strive to get it right, no matter how long it takes to do so.
Whoever decides to be brave enough to take the first step – media or consumers of it – it should be pretty clear that we can’t expect society to function this way.
*Under ordinary circumstances, we would not publish the name of a minor and student, but Sandmann has issued his own public statement. For ease of describing events, and considering his self-identification, we are comfortable with this editorial decision.
*The original article reference other early media reports stating Phillips was a Vietnam War veteran, and we used the word “correctly” to describe these accounts. Since publication, additional reporting has exposed questions about whether Phillips is a veteran. We have edited the story to reflect the most current available information.
We all make mistakes and sometimes speak too soon. The nature of social media preserves our sometimes reflexive and even impulsive comments for posterity. Some own up to misstatements some don’t. You clearly are.
I remember my initial reaction to the seemingly smug expression of the high school student. I don’t remember my specific thoughts but it was negative.
If there is a lesson to be learned it is get some context and facts prior to posting.
All the best.