The ability of social media to elevate the smallest of issues into national controversies has been well documented. But the past few days has done more to show the ability of social media in mutating stories into false narratives that do damage to the nation as a whole.
On Saturday, a group of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky were on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, part of their trip to the nation’s capital to participate in the March for Life. They were met by numerous Progressive activists, including a number of African American Black Hebrew Isrealite protesters, and several Native American activists. Among those activists were Omaha elder Nathan Phillips, who confronted the students while banging on his drum. The students then stood their ground, and were accused of taunting taunting him and other participants. Philips then became reportedly became upset while watching the Black Hebrew Israelites make speeches. More and more Covington students arrived and were then “in the process of attacking these four black individuals,” according to Philips.
The story was quickly latched on to by mainstream media accounts on Twitter and elsewhere, and the story exploded from there.
If only that had been the full story.
As is the norm these days, more and more videos of the incident trickled out in the hours following the initial mob fury on Twitter. Slowly, one thing became more and more apparent: the story that the media had latched on, as told by Nathan Phillips, was at the very least inaccurate, and at worst, grossly disingenuous.
In an update on Reason.com today, Robby Soave describes the different picture the new evidence, in totality, paints of what actually occurred:
Far from engaging in racially motivated harassment, the group of mostly white, MAGA-hat-wearing male teenagers remained relatively calm and restrained despite being subjected to incessant racist, homophobic, and bigoted verbal abuse by members of the bizarre religious sect Black Hebrew Israelites, who were lurking nearby. The BHI has existed since the late 19th century, and is best describes as a black nationalist cult movement; its members believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites, and often express condemnation of white people, Christians, and gays. DC-area Black Hebrews are known to spout particularly vile bigotry.
Phillips put himself between the teens and the black nationalists, chanting and drumming as he marched straight into the middle of the group of young people. What followed was several minutes of confusion: The teens couldn’t quite decide whether Phillips was on their side or not, but tentatively joined in his chanting. It’s not at all clear this was intended as an act of mockery rather than solidarity.
One student did not get out of Phillips way as he marched, and gave the man a hard stare and a smile that many have described as creepy. This moment received the most media coverage: The teen has been called the product of a “hate factory” and likened to a school shooter, segregation-era racist, and member of the Ku Klux Klan. I have no idea what he was thinking, but portraying this as an example of obvious, racially-motivated hate is a stretch. Maybe he simply had no idea why this man was drumming in his face, and couldn’t quite figure out the best response? It bears repeating that Phillips approached him, not the other way around.
And that’s all there is to it. Phillips walked away after several minutes, the Black Hebrew Israelites continued to insult the crowd, and nothing else happened.
This is another example in a long line of embarrassing examples in recent years where journalists, whose primary job is to verify and prove the facts and truths of the situation, failed totally in their mission. CNN, the Washington Post, and other mainstream outlets led with the story, without ever truly verifying it. They quickly accepted a narrative they were biased into believing (that MAGA hat wearing white teenagers clearly were racists and the instigators) instead of spending even a few moments interviewing those same teenagers, and getting a second viewpoint on what was clearly a contentious interaction on the National Mall.
And before I go too far out on a limb, I want to quickly admit I fully admit I don’t know if this is the full story as well. We could absolutely wake up 24 hours from now, and have a new narrative for the story.
But the inability of mainstream press to do their due diligence in stories like this has become a cultural epidemic. In the 12 hours between the beginning of this controversy to the point where a factual push back started (started not by journalists, but average Twitter users who saw flaws in the initial story), people on Twitter, mostly from the political Left, started doxxing the students involved, started calling for violence against these kids, and were voicing the intention of activists to protest at their school, hopes that the students would be expelled. The intensity of the anger even caused the Covington local Catholic diocese to put out a statement denouncing the events, apologizing to Philips, and promising swift punishment to their students…punishment now that seems to be either unnecessary, or in need of severe tempering.
If this had been the only episode this week where the media had rushed to judgment and fallen flat on its face, that would be bad enough. But this was at the very least the second episode of such incompetence in the last 24 hours.
The previous story had to do with Buzzfeed’s apparent blockbuster report this week, stating that they had rock solid, documented proof that President Donald Trump told his then lawyer Michael Cohen to lie in testimony to Congress.
If true, this would be the first clear evidence that Trump had committed impeachable offenses; offenses that even his allies in the GOP would be hard pressed to ignore.
For 24 hours, the liberal news networks poured over the various possibilities. Would Trump resign? Would Democrats impeach him in the next few weeks? Who were the Republican Senators who would cross party lines to convict Trump in the Senate, and oust him from office? The possibilities were endless.
Only one problem: the story seems untrue; or at the very least, flawed.
24 hours into the liberal political orgy, no less than our liberal hero of the moment, special counsel Robert Mueller, poured the largest bucket of ice water in recent political memory over the entire story.
“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.”
From the tight lipped Mueller probe, who has been reticent to leak any detail of their investigation whatsoever, such a statement is profound, and had to be taken with a great amount of seriousness.
Moving past the facts of this case, the reality once again was journalists marching far out on a limb to promote a story that they themselves had not verified.
Both the Covington story above, and the Buzzfeed below, illustrate this point; a point that time and again gets our media into trouble. The failure of journalists to rely on their own reporting skills, and their own ability to verify facts and details of stories, undermines their credibility.
The Buzzfeed story, because of its specifics, would be far harder for most journalists to verify; but even in that case, a little bit of patience before latching on to a story accusing the President of the United States of lying to obstruct justice might be well founded. In fact, a wise man would argue that the larger the accusation, the more reticent journalists should be in blindly accepting the basic underlying facts of the story.
The story about the Covington students, on the other hand, just simply shows the gross incompetence of our media personalities these days. Multiple outlets rushed to interview Mr. Phillips, in their absolute certainty that he was the victim. The possibility that a bunch of white teenagers bearing MAGA hats may not have been the culprits never dawned on them. And their blindness to that possibility prevented them from taking the simple step of calling these students, and asking for their version of events. A short call would have allowed them to receive the videos that we now all have, that undermine the story Mr. Phillips initially told.
Of course, much of the blame for all this is the influence social media has not only on our journalistic class, but on all of us, as individuals. I fully admit that I sometimes react to stories far quicker than I would have if I never spent time on Twitter. We all must bear responsibility for those actions, which do a lot to undermine the fact checking process in our society.
But journalists must also carry the majority of the blame. Their very raison d’etre is to be the professional class that verifies truth and facts objectively, with a calm rational approach that puts aside emotional and personal interests in the cause for truth. They keep failing in this regard, and thus, continue to undermine the very profession they are trying to defend.
In this sense, our ancestors understood the reality better than we do. Patience used to be a commonly accepted virtue. Leo Tolstoy stated, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” In our modern society, we have given up both in lieu of speed and publicity. The rapid turnabout on social media undermines the wisdom garnered by being patient. Maybe all of us, especially journalists, should start to learn a little humbleness, and once again claim that virtue for our own benefit.
This was originally posted at Riccohet.