After a weekend marked by bitter recriminations over race and political bias, with the nation transfixed by viral videos depicting a confrontation between a crowd of Catholic schoolboys and a Native American elder, calls went out Monday — the federal holiday celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. — for restraint.
On the Twittersphere, a warning not to leap to conclusions gained currency across the political spectrum. As the events in question grew murkier, some who had reacted angrily sought to muffle their own social-media megaphones, chastened by yet another illustration of how the Internet widens the ideological differences among Americans, sowing confusion and discord. “This whole nation needs to take a deep breath before rushing to judgment,” advised Dana Loesch, spokeswoman for the National Rifle Assn., who is not known for her mild approach to rhetorical combat.
But for President Trump, the dispute was not to be missed. It offered red meat to a president who has eagerly stoked the culture wars while seizing every opportunity to discredit the media.
Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be. They have captivated the attention of the world, and I know they will use it for the good - maybe even to bring people together. It started off unpleasant, but can end in a dream!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2019
He has made the NFL one of his chief antagonists because of players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence, sending approval of the league plummeting among Republicans. He accused the media of misrepresenting his views after the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., for which he blamed “both sides.” Last fall, he suggested that the media was responsible for the anger behind the series of pipe bombs delivered to CNN and to prominent Democrats.
That the students at the center of the latest controversy over race and political malice were wearing hats trumpeting his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” made Trump’s role difficult to discount. That their cause found support on the president’s favored television channel made his input all but inevitable.
The president entered the fray on Monday night, lending his support to a campaign to vindicate the students, whose cause has been taken up by conservative media and a GOP-linked public relations team. Trump tweeted in defense of Nick Sandmann, the 11th-grade student at Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., who was censured on social media when early footage of the Friday encounter in front of the Lincoln Memorial showed him grinning as an Omaha elder, 64-year-old Nathan Phillips, beat a drum in prayer.
The all-male college preparatory school was closed on Tuesday, according to a local Fox affiliate, though it was unclear if that owed to weather or to security concerns.
Trump blamed the media for the fallout, which he said was responsible for “early judgements proving out to be false.”
Looking like Nick Sandman & Covington Catholic students were treated unfairly with early judgements proving out to be false - smeared by media. Not good, but making big comeback! “New footage shows that media was wrong about teen’s encounter with Native American” @TuckerCarlson— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2019
Trump’s verdict appeared to draw on Tucker Carlson’s segment Monday night on Fox News. It signaled the White House’s endorsement of a rival narrative, which first took shape on Reason.com, the libertarian website, after fuller video of the encounter emerged later Saturday.
The opposing account casts the teenager and his classmates as victims twice over, not just of verbal abuse on the National Mall but also of online vilification drawing on headlines that appeared to reach conclusions about the episode based on incomplete evidence.
At first, politicians sounded the alarm. Celebrities professed outrage. School officials joined the Catholic Diocese of Covington in apologizing for the students, who were threatened as their private information poured out online.
But the tides shifted as additional footage emerged, showing that the standoff came on the heels of an encounter with a group of Hebrew Israelites, who believe black Americans are God’s chosen people. The African American protesters, several of whom said the students had mocked them, directed racial and homophobic invective their way, videos show. So, too, did the extended footage reveal behavior by the students that some saw as confirmation of their wrongdoing.
Organizers of the March for Life, the annual antiabortion event that had drawn the teenagers to the nation’s capital, initially called the students’ behavior “reprehensible,” but, in a revised statement Sunday, said, “It is clear from new footage and additional accounts that there is more to this story than the original video captured.” Their congressman, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), praised the students, tweeting that “in the face of racist and homosexual slurs, the young boys refused to reciprocate or disrespect anyone.”
Massie weighed in again Monday to thank the president for supporting his constituents.
“Not good, but making big comeback!” the president wrote of the treatment of Sandmann, who released a statement over the weekend maintaining that he was blameless. Trump quoted a chyron splashed across the screen during the Fox segment, “New footage shows that media was wrong about teen’s encounter with Native American.”
Carlson criticized the media for circulating an incomplete clip, which he called “an entire morality play shrunk down to four minutes for Facebook.” He was particularly hard on conservative commentators who had joined liberals in sympathizing with the Native leader, singling out Bill Kristol, the co-founder of the now-defunct Weekly Standard magazine, for a since-deleted tweet asking his followers to mull the “contrast between the calm dignity and quiet strength of Mr. Phillips and the behavior of #MAGA brats who have absorbed the spirit of Trumpism.”
“It wasn’t just left versus right — it was the people in power attacking those below them, as a group,” Carlson said, suggesting that Republicans had been moved to speak out in order to “inoculate themselves from charges of improper thought.”
Still, the partisan fault lines that seemed to shape the disagreement were reinforced Monday, when the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that the teenager’s family had retained a Louisville-based public relations firm called RunSwitch PR. One of the firm’s partners, Scott Jennings, served in the George W. Bush administration and “is regarded as one of Mitch McConnell’s closest outside political confidants,” according to his profile for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.
“You’re hardly a Trump partisan,” Carlson said of Robby Soave, an associate editor at Reason.com who joined the Fox host on his show Monday night. Soave was among the first to question whether the Catholic teenagers were in the wrong. “It was all there,” Soave told Carlson. “You just had to watch the almost two hours of footage.”
Soave’s analysis gained broad attention over the weekend, disseminated by high-profile members of the media, such as CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“I, like many others may have reacted too quickly,” wrote Meghan McCain of ABC’s “The View,” who also shared the Reason rebuttal on Twitter. “Apologize for being part of a media pile on.”
“I Failed the Covington Catholic Test,” announced a headline in the Atlantic, where Julie Irwin Zimmerman, a writer based in Cincinnati, which lies across the Ohio River from Covington, gave voice to a media mea culpa. In the future, she pledged, she would reserve judgment until she had access to more facts, and, until then, “stick to discussing the news with people I know in real life, instead of with strangers whom I’ve never met.”
She also wrote that the story of the Catholic schoolboys and the tribal elder was a “Rorschach test — 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.”
But not everyone was convinced that a fuller picture of the events in Washington exonerated the students.
Walter M. Shaub Jr., who departed as the federal government’s top ethics watchdog in 2017 after clashing with the Trump administration, objected to Soave’s conclusion. Waleed Shahid, communications director for the left-wing Justice Democrats, argued that the earlier footage was in fact “so much worse.” And the writer and activist Amy Siskind asked why the school’s chaperones had not intervened.
Isaac Stanley-Becker writes for the Washington Post.