Op-Ed: Grad Student's Analysis of Media Bias in Covington Catholic Story
David Keltz is a graduate student at New York University. He is pursuing a career in public relations. As part of his studies, Keltz examined the January incident in Washington, D.C. involving students who attended a Right to Life march, a group of Native Americans, and a group of Black Hebrew Israelites. Part of that case study is published below.
By now everyone is familiar with the false vilification of the Covington Catholic students by the mainstream media. The interaction between Nick Sandmann, a sixteen-year old student from Covington Catholic who was wearing a Make America Great Again Hat, and Nathan Philips, a Native American played on an endless loop by virtually all of the major cable networks and was front page news in January. Politicians, journalists, and pundits all chimed in to denounce Sandmann as a racist and bigoted white boy who used his smirk to exert his privilege and dominance over an elderly Native American. Ruth Graham of Slate, compared Sandmann’s smirk to that of a group of racist southerners during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s.
“The face is both punchable and untouchable. The face is in this photo of a clutch of white young men crowding around a single black man at a lunch counter sit-in in Virginia in the 1960s, and in many other images of jeering white men from that era.”
The New York Times wrote a headline about the incident titled, “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March.” Ilhan Omar, the Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, tweeted to her 611,000 followers that the Covington boys were “taunting 5 black men before they surrounded Phillips and led racist chants.” Rezla Aslan, a TV host, tweeted, “Honest question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”
One journalist who was later fired for wishing death on the students tweeted, “I don’t know what it says about me, but I’ve truly lost the ability to articulate the hysterical, nausea, and heartache this makes me feel. I just want these people to die. Simple as that.”
The only problem with the media’s reporting about the incident was that none of it was true. A longer video of the incident was later released which refuted most of the claims that Phillips made to the Washington Post, CNN, and NBC. The full-length video not only absolved the Covington kids of any wrongdoing, but also revealed that they themselves were subjected to verbal abuse by four people who identified as Hebrew Israelites, a fringe group that believes there are 12 tribes chosen by god and does not consider white people among those tribes.
The Covington boys who were waiting for their bus to take them back to Kentucky were curious as to what the Israelites were saying and so they moved closer to listen. Members of the Israelites noticed the students and then began shouting racial epithets at them. As the Israelites continued shouting pejoratives at the Covington students, they received permission from their teachers to perform one of their school spirit chants commonly used at sporting events to drown out the noise of the Israelites.
In that instant, video evidence shows Philips approaching the students from one end of the Lincoln Memorial, with a drum in his hand. Philips inserted himself directly into the group of Covington students, and planted his feet in front of Sandmann. He did not make any effort to get to the top of Lincoln Memorial as he had previously claimed in countless interviews including one with NBC, in which he said of the students, “they surrounded us, and that’s when I realized the dangerous situation, I was in. I couldn’t go left, I couldn’t go right, we couldn’t go back without running into this mob.” Philips then said of Sandmann, “When that young man blocked my retreat, he put himself in front of me.” As the media continued to smear Sandmann and the Covington students, Sandmann released a statement defending himself and refuted Philips version of the event.
Every word from Sandmann’s statement was confirmed by the full-length video of the incident. Yet the mainstream media did not issue an apology to Sandmann and the rest of the Covington students. One CNN video that had falsely accused Sandmann of mocking and threatening Philips was scrubbed from the internet, as if it had never existed. A Washington Post headline read, “The mainstream media rushed to keep up. The Trump internet pounced.” The real narrative was not that the media enabled a false story about a group of white male catholic students who were now receiving death threats, but rather that Trump supporters were angry at how the media falsely portrayed the Covington students. The journalists were now the victims because they simply could not keep up with the speed of social media.
Both Philips and Sandmann were interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s Today Show, yet the disparity in how they were treated was palpable. Sandmann who received multiple death threats was asked by Guthrie, “Do you feel from this experience, that you owe anybody an apology? Do you see your own fault? Have you looked at that video and thought about how it felt from the others perspective? In other words, there were a lot of you, a handful of the others, do you think they might have felt threatened by a bunch of young men kind of beating their chests? Do you think if you weren’t wearing that hat, this might not have happened, or it might have been different?”
Even as the questions became more nonsensical and inappropriately aggressive, Sandmann answered each question calmly and with poise. With Guthrie seemingly unable to unnerve Sandmann or bait him into losing his cool, for good measure she added, “There’s something aggressive about standing there, standing your ground.” Guthrie failed to ask Sandmann if he felt threatened by the racial epithets that were hailed in his direction by the Israelites, or by Philips, an adult who decided to walk up to him and bang a drum mere inches from his face. She also failed to ask him if he felt that he was owed an apology by members of the news media, or by Philips for all of the blatant lies that had been reported and written about him.
The national media’s takeaway from Sandmann’s interview was that he showed no remorse for his actions and did not believe that he owed Philips an apology. Eddie Glaude, a contributor to MSNBC, wondered why Sandmann was even allowed to be interviewed when he said, “there was this attempt to kind of give a fuller account of the young man...we give privilege to these white kids. He can sit down with Savanna Guthrie and redeem himself.” No one bothered to ask why Sandmann owed an apology to Philips while Philips, as Kyle Smith of
National Review wrote:
If you’re in a public place and someone starts heckling you, are you entitled to heckle back? How about if someone does something much worse than heckling you in a public place? What if that person in fact takes a drum up to you and starts banging it in your face? Are you entitled to heckle back? How about smirking? Are you allowed to smirk?i
Tucker Carlson of Fox News, said sardonically of Guthrie’s interview with Sandmann, “Failing to move is a hostile act. We can’t have people standing still in public places.” Carlson compared the medias attacks on Sandmann to the equivalent of what the author George Orwell called “Facecrime.” In his novel 1984, Orwell wrote, “To wear an improper expression on your face was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it Facecrime.”
Guthrie did not ask Philips why he accused them of threatening the Israelites and showing anger towards them. She also did not attempt to refute him when he maintained his stance that Sandmann had “surrounded him, even though the producers at NBC could have played the video of Philips inserting himself into the Covington crowd to refresh his memory.
The unspoken message from the mainstream media was very clear about the Covington incident. Anyone who supports President Trump ought not to be believed, and those who are affiliated with him are fostering a hateful ideology. Journalistic standards of integrity, and norms cannot be brushed aside, when an individual reporter or member of a particular media outlet or group is covering a President or supporters whose political views do not align with their own.
David Keltz is a graduate student at New York University