At exactly a year after the media botched the story of a racially charged confrontation between mostly white Catholic high school boys and Native American activists on the National Mall in Washington, CNN has settled a lawsuit from 16-year-old Nick Sandmann for an undisclosed amount. It is a victory for justice, common sense, and journalistic responsibility. But it’s also a reminder to all of us, professional journalists or not, to think twice — or more — before joining the rush to vilify an alleged bigot based on a snippet of video.
Sandmann, then a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, became infamous on Jan. 18 last year as the “smirking boy” in a viral video of the encounter. Wearing a “Make America Great Again” red hat, he stood in front of Native American elder Nathan Phillips, apparently blocking his path and smirking while Phillips was chanting and beating a drum and other MAGA-hatted boys around them were whooping and clapping. Reports in social media said the boys were harassing and mocking Phillips, who was leading the Indigenous People’s March.
News organizations including CNN, The Washington Post and NBC — also named in Sandmann’s lawsuit — promptly picked up the story, which fit a perfect progressive narrative: arrogant, Donald Trump-loving young white males bullying a person of color. (Early reports said the boys chanted, “Build that wall.”) The fact that they were in town for the anti-abortion March for Life added more fuel to the online firestorm. The boys, whose identities were made public, began receiving violent threats.
Yet more video footage emerged contradicting the narrative. Before their encounter with Phillips, the Covington boys, who were waiting for their bus home, were harassed by preachers from a racist cult, Black Hebrew Israelites, who shouted anti-white, anti-gay slurs.
The teenagers’ chanting and dancing was not meant to mock Phillips but to drown out the verbal abuse from the preachers and respond with the school cheer. When Phillips approached, some of them seem to have thought he was intervening on their side and joined in his chants as a friendly, not hostile gesture. In fact, Phillips thought the boys were being hateful to the black preachers; once it became clear that he and his companions were unfriendly, things got tense, and Sandmann’s “smirk” was an apparent nervous reaction.
Once the facts emerged, many who had assumed the teenagers’ guilt apologized; others continued to attack them, dismissing new revelations as reactionary spin. Meanwhile, the threats continued, forcing Covington Catholic High School to shut down for security reasons a few days after the story first broke.
The “MAGA kids” incident was one of many viral videos of racially charged confrontations that were picked up and amplified by the news media. Some of these videos involve unambiguous cases of racism. But others represent snapshots of far more complex situations — such as the “napping while black” scandal at Yale in May 2018 when a white graduate student, Sarah Braasch, called campus security about a black classmate sleeping in the dorm lounge. Later reporting, including my own for the online magazine The Bulwark, showed that the call was part of a tangled ongoing situation in which Braasch believed she was being stalked by the other student. Harassment charges against Braasch were later dropped, though she has to complete her Ph.D. away from campus. She is suing Yale for police bodycam footage that she claims will exonerate her.
Outrage at racism is a noble sentiment; but when it becomes a knee-jerk reaction, it can breed fake news and wreck lives. The Sandmann settlement should be a lesson in caution.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.