Only a week after the Herald’s editorial board penned a lengthy editorial about the press and its obligations to accuracy and thoroughness, events have proven us depressingly correct.
The last seven days have seen the unfolding of several conflicting narratives regarding an encounter between a group of Catholic high school boys from Kentucky and a Native American protester at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. By now everybody with a TV or an internet connection has seen the photo taken from a four-minute video that shows a smiling (or smirking, depending on the account) white teenager face-to-face with an elderly Native man beating a drum. The video appeared on social media on Jan. 18 and went viral immediately. Naturally, several nationwide news outlets reported on the incident.
So far so good. The video was, after all, news. And it raises issues far beyond the two people in the foreground. The Kentucky boys were in D.C. for the March for Life, a pro-life demonstration held every year around the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling. Moreover, the ones who appeared in the video were wearing hats that said “Make America Great Again,” President Trump’s campaign slogan. The Native man, identified later as Omaha elder and Marine Corps veteran Nathan Phillips, was present for the Indigenous Peoples March, a separate demonstration. This little video clip thus roiled the waters of race, religion, abortion, treatment of veterans and the 2016 election, all volatile issues. So the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN and other news outlets had every reason to report on the incident.
Where they went wrong was in refusing to look a gift story in the mouth. Superficially it was cut-and-dried: privileged white boys taunting an elderly Native man, a snapshot of racial tensions in America. The trouble with a snapshot is that it by definition cannot contain the entire picture. And sure enough, a couple of days later a longer version of the video surfaced showing that the boys were in fact being harassed by yet a third group, identified as Black Hebrew Israelites, who shouted racial, homophobic and religious slurs at them. The boy with the smile, identified as Nick Sandmann, was not taunting Phillips but trying to be respectful. The boys had not chanted “build the wall,” or made neo-Nazi hand signs. The purported villains had done nothing aggressive and the purported victim had not been harmed or even disrespected. The assumptions that the news media had jumped to fell one after another like dominoes.
To their credit, most of the networks, newspapers and websites that carried the false story corrected themselves and reported on the newly-revealed information. (A few doubled down and maintained that the initial story was correct and the second video a smokescreen.) But the damage was done. In the days between the incident and the extended video, the boys’ personal information was posted online, putting them and their families at risk. Petitions were circulated to get the principal of their school fired. The school itself remained closed until yesterday, when it resumed classes under heavy security because of the deluge of threats it had received. A cartoon circulated on social media showing the boys being fed into a wood chipper, referencing the movie “Fargo.” A TV writer tweeted an offer of favors of an intimate nature for anyone who would punch Sandmann in the face. Not that all the vitriol came from one side. As soon as Phillips’ allegations hit the datawaves, conservative niche media began looking into his background, discovered that his Vietnam-era military service was not as the initial reports had described it, and accordingly branded him a liar. (And a coward, since apparently he had never seen combat, as though that had been up to him.) The fleshed-out story was seized on as proof that the media had no scruples and cared for nothing except persecuting conservatives.
All of this could have been avoided had the various news outlets done their due diligence and looked beyond the surface of an exciting story. This is the flip side of freedom of the press, an example of what happens when the press fails to take its responsibility seriously enough. We hesitate to ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence, and believe that the Post the Times and others of our profession simply jumped the gun in order to make a scoop. But their rush to judgment had real-world consequences. Sandman, Phillips and Covington Catholic School will still be trying to clean up the rubble in their lives left behind by journalists for years to come, long after those journalists have forgotten them in their pursuit of the next hot story du jour.
A fettered press would be catastrophic for America. We must take care that a free press is not equally destructive.
— Editorial board