Was the media biased against the Covington students?
Conservatives accuse media organizations of trafficking in stereotypes that Trump supporters are bigots. Is there any merit to that claim?
Two recent incidents have strengthened conservatives’ belief that liberal journalists are implacably opposed to Donald Trump and his supporters: the 18 January encounter between a group of Kentucky students and a Native American activist on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the claims by Jussie Smollett that he had been attacked by hoodlums shouting racist and anti-gay slurs. In both cases, conservatives say, journalists – based on flimsy evidence – trafficked in stereotypes that Trump supporters are vulgar bigots.
Is there any merit to these claims? Of the two cases, Smollett’s seems less revealing. If it is true (as the Chicago police now say) that he orchestrated the attack on himself, it can only be considered the twisted product of a warped mind. The initial reports about the incident were so troubling that even President Trump condemned it as “horrible”. Journalists – relying on police sources and quickly correcting the story as it unfolded – performed more or less responsibly.
The Lincoln Memorial case is more telling. As journalists themselves have acknowledged, the initial stories about the encounter between the students of Covington Catholic high school and Native American activist Nathan Phillips were based on a short video posted online that gave a partial and skewed account. A much longer video posted the following day showed that before the encounter the students had been taunted by a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, who called them “faggots”, “incest babies” and “dirty ass crackers”. The video also called into question claims made by Phillips in a series of interviews that the students had suddenly swarmed around him and blocked his path to the monument. All of this seems to provide another cautionary tale about the rush to publish in the age of 24-hour news.
But what about the charge of bias? Aside from the haste, was the coverage influenced by the media’s disgust with Trump and disdain for his supporters?
To assess these questions, I examined the coverage of one news organization. The Washington Post was the first major outlet to run a story based on the initial video, thus playing a key part in moving the incident from the internet to the mainstream. In addition, it is the subject of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Nicholas Sandmann, the 16-year-old student at the heart of the story, and his family.
According to the suit, the paper engaged in a modern form of McCarthyism by competing with other news organizations “to claim leadership of a mainstream and social media mob of bullies which attacked, vilified, and threatened” Sandmann, “an innocent secondary school child”. The Post, it claimed, targeted him “because he was the white, Catholic student wearing a red ‘Make America Great Again’ souvenir cap” on his school’s trip to Washington for the March for Life. According to the suit, the Post falsely accused Sandmann of instigating the incident and of engaging in “acts of racism” by “swarming” Phillips and “blocking” his path.
The paper, it went on, “ignored basic journalist standards” because it wanted to advance its well-known “biased agenda” against the president by “impugning individuals” perceived to be his supporters. The suit said it was seeking damages in excess of $250m because that is the amount Jeff Bezos paid for the paper in 2013. The Post says it plans to launch a vigorous defense.
It’s strange to see a suit accusing the Post of being politically motivated presenting its own case in such starkly political terms. But the details command attention. The Post’s initial story, it notes, was headlined, “It was getting ugly’: Native American drummer speaks on the MAGA-hat wearing teens who surrounded him.” Relying heavily on an interview with Phillips, the article relayed his claim “that he felt threatened by the teens and that they suddenly swarmed around him”. It also noted his assertion that he heard some in the crowd chanting “Build that wall.” It stated as well that he had served in Vietnam.
The piece carried statements from the Indigenous Peoples Movement calling the incident “emblematic of our discourse in Trump’s America” and from a Native American attorney branding it “an aggressive display of physicality”. It noted that school officials did not respond to a request for comment and that a spokeswoman for the diocese of Covington said officials were investigating; it gave no indication that it had sought comment from any of the students.
After the longer video (made by the Black Hebrew Israelites) was posted, the Post ran stories on both that group’s history of militant confrontation and on their profane taunting of the Kentucky students. It also corrected its earlier statement about Phillips’s military service (he had served in the Marine Corps but not in Vietnam).
In addition to these tangled reports, the Post ran a number of stories and columns that hewed to a clear story line. A historian named William S Cossen, for instance, wrote about “the Catholic Church’s shameful history of Native American abuses”. While the diocese and high school were investigating the incident, he wrote, they should also investigate “the Catholic Church’s history of interactions with indigenous people in the United States”. He went on to relate sordid highlights of that history, which included forced assimilation and “spiritual colonialism”.
Apparently that was not enough, for a few days later the Post featured another piece on how “the face-off between Catholic school teens and a Native American elder is a reminder of 500 years of conflict”. It quoted one scholar as saying that the confrontation “was just so in line with the history of colonization and appropriation” and another maintaining that “this seems like the latest iteration of using religion to beat Native people in the head”.
As the controversy unfolded, Post opinion writer Paul Waldman weighed in on why Trump felt “overjoyed” by it. It was, Waldman wrote, because it allowed him and conservative commentators to fire up the base with “the same metanarrative” they have been feeding it for years – that “white people, men and Christians are the only remaining victims of racial discrimination”. Liberals have their own “outrage system” but it is “much more decentralized and ad hoc” than the conservative one, which “was built for this very purpose”. The article made no mention of the death threats that Sandmann and his school were receiving nor of the calls on social media for Covington students to be doxed, punched in the face, and fed to a woodchipper (as proposed by film producer Jack Morrissey).
On the opinion pages, Post editorial board member Jonathan Capehart devoted not one but two columns to condemning Sandmann and his fellow students. The added context provided by the longer video, he insisted, did nothing to diminish the despicable nature of their actions. Likening Sandmann’s “smirk” to “the Kavanaugh scowl”, he wrote: “Ask just about anyone who is not straight, white and male what they see in that smirk and you’ll most likely open up a world of hurt,” including “memories of continual bullying and other abuse at the hands of entitled men and boys who weren’t or never feared being held accountable”.
Finally, Robin Givhan, the Post’s fashion critic, penned a polemic denouncing the MAGA hat and its status as “an inflammatory declaration of identity”. The aesthetically benign baseball cap, she wrote, has been transformed into “an open wound, a firestorm of hate and a marker of societal atavism”. It’s an “angry roar” that’s been “weaponized” into “a symbol of us vs them, exclusion and suspicion, of garrulous narcissism, of white male privilege, of violence and hate”. Again, there was no mention of the angry roar that had been directed at Sandmann, nor of the firestorm of hate that had forced him and his family to live in a constant state of concern over their safety.
On 13 February, an independent investigative firm hired by the Covington diocese released its report on the incident. It found “no evidence” that the students had made “offensive or racist” statements or chanted “built the wall”. It did, however, find that some of the students had done a “tomahawk chop” while Phillips was chanting. But even if one accepts that Sandmann was smirking and that the Covington students were rowdy, does that warrant the whirlwind of fury and bitterness that the Post and other news organizations helped to unleash on them? Is it fair to implicate this 16-year-old in 500 years of Catholic oppression of Native Americans or in generations of bullying of blacks, gays and women? Don’t the attacks on him qualify as their own form of bullying?
The Post ran columns by Megan McArdle and Kathleen Parker that made this point. “All things considered,” Parker wrote, “this potentially combustible situation was relatively innocuous compared with what transpired afterward via social and other media … how many times must we witness these rushes to judgement before skepticism gets a chance to show off?”
We live in an era of hatred, incitement and bitter polarization, all skillfully stoked by Donald Trump. Journalists have to do their best not to succumb to it.
Michael Massing is a former executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is the author most recently of Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind