The story of Nicholas Sandmann and Nathan Phillips stands as a perfect symbol of what mainstream media has become in the Trump era. And it serves as an unmasking of political journalism that is causing Americans to walk away by the millions.
The iconic image of Mr. Phillips beating a hand drum inches from the face of a young teenage boy wearing a Make America Great Again hat has become a Rorschach test for Trump-era politics.
If you hate President Trump and everything you perceive the MAGA hat stands for, you see a smug, arrogant, smirking punk and his gang of cohorts aggressively surrounding and defiantly mocking a stoic, dignified American Indian elder who heroically fought in the Vietnam War. If you believe that, you believe it because that’s exactly what the mainstream media told you was happening in that iconic image. Not coincidentally, that’s what most reporters, anchors, writers, producers and network executives hold as preconceived notions when they saw that image as well.
This was the story that was spread far and wide on television, the internet and across all social media platforms within hours of the image and the short, edited video being posted to Twitter last weekend.
But it just wasn’t true.
As we all learned within 12 hours of the original story’s publication, the American Indian man deliberately walked into the middle of the young men who were peacefully standing at the base of the Lincoln Memorial waiting for their bus. The boys had just suffered a withering barrage of profanity-laced racist attacks at the hands of a group calling themselves the Black Hebrew Israelites.
Welcome to Washington, boys.
Furthermore, Mr. Sandmann, a 16-year-old thrust into the center of the viral hurricane, was not smirking (that characterization is full of subjective opinion and loaded with obviously negative connotations). He says he was smiling and felt intimidated. He says he did not want to turn his back on the awkward scene and really didn’t know how to react to the odd moment when an elderly American Indian man randomly marched straight to his face, beating a drum a whisker away from his cheek as he loudly chanted an ancient Indian song.
Really, how would you react to such a scene? How would the 16-year-old boy in your life react?
Oh, one more big lie about the story we were fed about this image: Mr. Phillips is not a Vietnam War veteran. He was a Marine Corps reservist from 1972-76 and he spent most of his time fixing refrigerators in Kansas when he wasn’t AWOL — three times.
All of these facts, the ones that dispute the understood and agreed-upon narrative that first burst through our televisions and computer screens when the story broke, were uncovered after citizen journalists, conservative pundits and just everyday Americans stood up and said, “Wait, this story does not make sense. What really happened here?”
If you saw that image and the headlines accompanying it, you’d be forgiven for believing what you were told. After all, you are the consumer of news, it should not be incumbent upon you to research every data point you are fed by multibillion-dollar media companies. You have better things to do, such as raising a family.
The reporters, anchors and producers who not only believed this fairy tale but also repeated and promoted the lie should not be forgiven. Their job is to ask questions and not accept what they’ve been spoon-fed. Their job is to seek the facts, not act as a tool to promulgate propaganda for a hidden political end. Their job is to discover and report the truth.
And therein lies the biggest crisis for American journalism today. Because the reporters and media outlets who now admit they “got it wrong” on the Covington kids story are the same ones who have been feeding us anonymous leaks and dubiously sourced blockbusters that claim President Trump colluded with Moscow to steal the 2016 election.
The same sloppy reporting that led to the Covington fiasco is employed every day on the Trump/Russia story. The same confirmation bias. The same desire to get it first rather than to get it right. The same instinct to accept the story as delivered rather than challenge even the most basic facts that supposedly “everybody knows.”
Who’s asking the questions? Who is seeking the truth? Who’s repeating propaganda for a hidden, anonymous political end?
The Covington kids story should be a tipping point.
It’s time for the lesson to be learned across our political press before they render themselves completely irrelevant. It’s time for our major media outlets to apply some skepticism to the Trump/Russia stories they’ve received via anonymous, whispered leaks and re-examine how they’re reporting on this critically important story.
On the bright side, at least now we know what it takes to get the mainstream media to cover the annual March for Life.
• Larry O’Connor writes about politics and the media for The Washington Times and can be heard weekday afternoons on WMAL radio in Washington. Follow Larry on Twitter @LarryOConnor.
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