Media attacked Covington teens at March for Life, bishops and schools piled on

There’s an old saying that life is like high school. I have no idea who originally said it, though American musician Frank Zappa is reputed to have elaborated on the idea by saying that “Life is like high school with money.” There was a time, very recently, when real life and high school were once considered very different things – the latter a waiting room for the former, and a place where you could be naive and unformed and worth excusing for minor transgressions, poor choices and lapses in taste.

That time, it seems, is over.

Covington teens at March for Life.

Covington teens at March for Life.

In all likelihood it probably ended many years ago, with the emergence of the school shooter and tragedies like the Columbine massacre. High school – a place and time some of us might recall fondly while many others do their best to forget – suddenly embodied the tensions playing out in civil society and families, in a time when we seemed to be losing our sense of how we treat each other publicly, and what a family even meant.

A high school – and high school students – were thrust into media attention early this year when a videotape of an incident that happened after the Washington March for Life went massively viral. What actually happened – not terribly important to most of the people who made the story go viral – wouldn’t become clear for days, but the cues for outrage were answered immediately, often by people who should have known better.

I first noticed the story on Facebook, when a picture of a young man in a red MAGA cap appeared on the feed of several of my friends, with statements that this young man was, at least on this morning at this point in history, the worst person in America.

It took awhile to actually figure out what was supposed to have happened. The gist was that this young man had confronted an older Native American in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington D.C., at a moment when the March for Life and an Aboriginal rights protest had intersected. The Native American activist, Nathan Phillips, had been filmed beating his drum and chanting while the young man – a student from a Kentucky Catholic school named Nick Sandmann – had responded with an insolent smirk.

I wasn’t sure if it was the smirk or the MAGA hat that had conferred villain status on the young man, but it was likely that one had a multiplying force effect on the other, like a power up in a video game. What wasn’t up for debate was how disrespectful Nick Sandman had been, and how his attitude – which could obviously be read in rich detail in the single frame grab that was being shared around all that day – was an indicator of Something Rotten in America Today.

By midday the chorus of Tweets proclaiming this fact were being joined by online op-eds, which would settle into print newspapers by the following day. America’s state of racial and social health was being judged as very nearly terminal, but the news cycle such as we’ve come to understand it by the end of the second decade of this century, was moving with obvious and expected efficiency.

I was pretty certain that the narrative being presented would probably not turn out to be strictly true once the facts got out, but I was also sure that whatever happened after the first 24 hours would be mostly irrelevant to the intended effect of the initial media firestorm that many of my friends were piling onto with their Facebook reposts.

What was really depressing, however, was the official response to the incident, by the school officials and the archdiocese who had nominal responsibility for the physical and spiritual well-being of Nick Sandmann and his fellow students from Covington Catholic High School.

Within a few hours of the first video of Sandmann and Phillips being shared, Bishop Joseph Foy of the Diocese of Covington and Sandmann’s school released a joint statement, part of which read: “This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person. The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.

“We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement.”

In short order, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky – metropolitan of Kentucky and a former president of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops – echoed his support for the statement in a tweet: “I join with Bishop Foy in condemning shameful actions of Covington Catholic students toward Mr. Nathan Phillips and the Native American community.”

In the following days, the initial story would start to unravel when longer, unedited video from the confrontation was released, showing that the Covington students had been baited by wildly racist provocations by the Black Israelites, a radical nationalist group that had also been at the Mall that day. Nathan Phillips had not tried to mediate between the two groups, as he originally claimed, but had, in fact, marched in opportunistically to confront the students with his drum, picking Sandmann as his principle target.

The school and the diocese would end up taking down their statements and Archbishop Kurtz would delete his tweet, but the message that played out over that first weekend was plain: If you were a Catholic teenager who had the bad luck to end up on the wrong end of a media outrage, neither truth nor facts would prevent the whole structure of authority around you – your teachers and school staff, and all the senior clergy – would rush to condemn you as quickly as a CNN journalist or a minor celebrity, threatening you with expulsion.

The new reality was that in the real world, as much as in high school, rumours trump facts and reputations can be ruined in a day. Even worse was that there was no chance of redemption or reinvention once you’d collected your diploma and moved on to a new school and new friends and classmates. The first 24 hours of a news cycle would leave a mark more permanent than any school expulsion that could be joked about years later just by saying “I was sort of a crazy kid.”

After climbing down from their condemnation of the students, the diocese and the school announced that an investigation would take place into the incident. “We pray that we may come to the truth and that this unfortunate situation may be resolved peacefully and amicably and ask others to join us in this prayer,” read the later, more conciliatory statement. “We will have no further statements until the investigation is complete.”

The report, when it arrived in mid-February, exonerated Sandmann and the other students. “We see no evidence that students responded with any offensive or racist statements of their own,” it stated, adding that the worst excess of the Covington High students’ response to the events on the mall that day was a round of school cheers.

By this point, however, a late night racist attack on a TV celebrity, Jussie Smollett – which itself turned out to be a hoax – had pushed the Covington kids off the headlines and out of the Twitter feeds, though Sandmann and his family announced that they were launching lawsuits against the media organizations that had printed the original allegations from the first weekend of the story, including one asking $250,000,000 from the Washington Post.

Many of my friends on Facebook applauded this – the ones who didn’t share pictures of Sandmann’s hateful smirk, it goes without saying – but there’s an argument to be made that, satisfying as it might be to hold the establishment media to account for irresponsible rushes to judgment, this isn’t a great idea.

It’s hard to parse sometimes, but there is a difference between sloppy reporting and libel, and suing the Postprobably wouldn’t do much to make the boundaries clearer. “The idea of routinely suing media companies is horrifying and could end up doing much more harm than good,” wrote conservative journalist Mark Hemingway in the Federalist. Sandmann’s suit might fail, but eventually one will probably succeed and set a precedent, especially in an era when reporting standards are sloppy and media bias is so naked.

“Of course, I’ve come this far and I’m not about to stop being cynical about my profession’s inability to reform itself,” Hemingway writes. “It’s hard not to look at the Covington incident and fear that I have seen the future of journalism, and it involves writing lots of checks for libel damages with many zeroes attached.”

A list of potential targets for Sandmann’s lawsuits was wide-ranging, though it might end up being more legal theatre than anything else. It includes media organizations (Conde Nast, The Atlantic, HBO, CNN) as well as pundits (Bill Maher, S.E. Cupp, David Brooks) politicians (Elizabeth Warren, Ilhan Omar) and celebrities (Alyssa Milano, Kathy Griffin). Notable on the list, though, were the dioceses of Covington, Lexington and Baltimore and the archdiocese of Lousville.

I’m not sure what damage Bill Maher or Alyssa Milano might have done to the reputation and future career of Nick Sandmann, and in some circles their opprobrium might actually be a badge of honour. But the knee jerk reactions of the Catholic institutions whose authority Catholic high school students might once have respected were – to me, a jaded career journalist but only a recent relapsed Catholic – something of a scandal, and definitely a betrayal. I don’t imagine that their actions will be judged harshly by church bureaucracy these days, so I can only hope that legal punishment might encourage bishops and archbishops to care more about the young people nominally in their care than appearing virtuous on Twitter.