BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is On The Media. Brooke Gladstone is off this week, I'm Bob Garfield.
NICHOLAS SANDMANN: My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Philips. I respect him. I like to talk to him. I mean, in hindsight I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing. But I can say that I'm sorry for listening to him and standing there. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The MAGA kid, Nicholas Sandmann, the not especially remorseful centerpiece of a week-long national nervous breakdown. In a moment, some thoughts about where that episode has left us. You already know how it began.
BOB GARFIELD: The stare down between high school student and the native elder was everywhere.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Newly elected congresswoman, Deb Haaland, is among the first Native Americans elected to Congress and she reacted on Twitter writing, 'this veteran put his life on the line for our country. The students' display of blatant hate, disrespect and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking.' [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The mainstream media quick reaction force was led by the Associated Press, which reported that the kids were jeering at Philips. And further passed along an accusation that moments earlier the boys had been quote heckling a couple of black men nearby. The headline from that story in The Chicago Tribune was Catholic High School Students in MAGA hats mock Native American After D.C. Rally.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Look at some of these headlines. The Hollywood Reporter: Students in Make America Great Again hats Mock Native Americans after a Washington Rally. CNN: Teens in Make America Great Again Hats Taunted a Native American Elder at the Lincoln Memorial. Vox: White Students and MAGA Gear Crash the Indigenous Peoples March and Harassed Participants.
BOB GARFIELD: The media outrage even got, shall we say, proactive. GQ's Nathaniel Freedman tweeted that the Covington kids should be'doxed.'
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: And my CNN colleague, Kirsten Powers, tweeted at the schools superintendent. 'What are you going to do about this Superintendent Mike Clines? This is absolutely contrary to Catholic teaching and you know it, do something. Also these boys need a better education. You are failing them.' [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Of course people fulminated. It was just another reminder of how low we have sunk. There was this whole mob of poster children for arrogant intolerant white privilege and oppression. And on social media and TV, wherever you looked, trigger warning, that smirk. Then other footage emerged. Not so close-up but far more revealing. Capturing the preceding few minutes and with a wider view. The kids had been under verbal attack in the vilest imaginable language from a group of Hebrew Israelites–identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a black supremacist group that takes a Westboro Baptist Church approach to protesting its version of biblical prophecy.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A bunch of child molester [BLEEP]. All these dusty [BLEEP] crackers. With that racist garbage on. Look at these dirty [BLEEP] crackers. That's right.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A bunch of incest babies. A bunch of babies made out of incest. The biggest terrorists on the face of this earth is the pale faced women and men. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Whether they were unnerved or amused, the kids responded by doing school cheers–not ‘build a wall,’ school cheers. That's when the video shows native elder Nathan Phillips walking toward the boys, not the opposite. Oh and the kids were mobbed together because they were waiting for a bus. Oh and elder Phillips account of what he saw it doesn't square with the video. And Philips in a conversation with NPR's David Greene acknowledged that he thought, that based on two years of Trump-ism news, that the MAGA adorned white kids were a threat to the black protesters.
DAVID GREENE: You saw this group of black Israel, Hebrew Israelites, potentially in danger by this--this large group of white men based on what you had seen in the news in our country and in recent months and years.
NATHAN PHILIPS: Yes. Thank you for that clarity because that's, that's what it was in my mind in my heart. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: All of the above is what comes of Twitter style mediation. It doesn't leave much room or time for nuance or reflection. What it's really handy for is certainty, A ruinous glut of certainty. And so very, very soon on all platforms, America was playing the gold dress, blue dress identity game. As Julie Irwin Zimmerman wrote for Atlantic quote, '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.' Meanwhile the Washington Post and other news organizations ran correction. New York Times columnist Kara Swisher deleted a tweet in which she said she wanted to find quote, 'every one of these blank kids and give them a very large piece of my mind.' And apologetic celebrities copped to rushing to judgment. This is Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar on The View.
WHOOPI GOLDBERG: Why is--do we keep making the same mistake?
JOY BEHAR: Because we're desperate to get Trump out of office. Maybe that's why. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The mea culpas sparked yet another wave of revulsion. Not just in harum scarum social media but in the supposedly deliberate press, where commentators castigated those so indecent as to, in the face of new context, re-evaluate the first reactions. Now freshly irate hot takes burned through screens everywhere. In Deadspin, writer Laura Wagner called out the apologetic by name. Informing them, not only were they wrong in their judgments about what they saw in the additional footage but they were apologists for the evil apparatus that MAGA represents. Quote, 'I don't see how you could watch this and think otherwise. Unless you're willing to gaslight yourself and others in the service of granting undeserved sympathy to the privileged.' Vox brought an author an education professor Adam Howard who has written a book about privilege in affluent education. And who evidently can divine intention and motivation from facial expressions. The MAGA kid's smirk he said, 'quote communicates I'm better than you. I don't even have enough respect for you to even say anything to communicate but I will communicate everything I need through my body language. On such evidence, seventeenth century Salem women were hanged as witches. Maybe most startling was a Slate piece beneath a headline declaring that the MAGA kids quote, 'aren't innocent victims.' Following a rigorous examination of the ambiguous video evidence, Ruth Graham concludes that we mustn't quote, 'let the complexities of the scene at the Lincoln Memorial dissuade us from telling the truth about who Trump is and exactly what he stands for.' I'm sorry isn't the truth about Trump pretty well documented every single day without pinning it on a bunch of high school kids. Meanwhile, the whole episode absolutely obscured the realities of Trump-ism and, instead, open to the press up to charges of bias and even vigilantism.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: In the mind of your average reporter in Washington, these kids are from a different country–less than that actually. They're from a hostile country, a place we must subdue for our own safety. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And there's some there, there. It's as if the press, in those first few crucial hours were not just feeding on Twitter but turning into Twitter, which is to say reflexive, emotional, careless and shallow–which, as I noted at the outset, is a bad place for this episode to leave us. Because in journalism, there is time to gather evidence. There is time for reflection. There is space for context and nuance. Hot takes last week left behind a hot mess.
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BOB GARFIELD: Look it's entirely possible that the Covington Catholic high school boys are as loathsome as advertised. But no matter what we assume, we simply do not know. Yes, the society is poisoned with hate and injustice. Yes, our history reeks of abused privilege impunity and oppression. But journalism must take care of how and where it imposes that narrative. Rounding up, ganging up on conveniently smirking suspects, that's a mob thing. That's a Twitter thing–that is not us.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, MAGA hats: are they really the new white hood? This is On The Media.