Wisconsin Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes employed a now discredited narrative of a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial Friday during a Martin Luther King Day event at the UW-Madison Campus Monday. The confrontation was between a Native-American elder and students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky. As USA Today reported:
A viral 3-minute, 44-second clip that shows the teenagers – several of them wearing “Make America Great Again” hats – laughing, hooting and hollering while surrounding Phillips drew widespread condemnation and prompted the school and the Diocese of Covington to issue an apology and promise to take “appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.’’
By Sunday, major news organizations, including the New York Times and USA today were reporting that a fuller picture of the complexity and nature of the conflict was emerging, the result of a much longer video recording of events. From the Times:
Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs — against a national backdrop of political tension — set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.
Leading up to the encounter on Friday, a rally for Native Americans and other Indigenous people was wrapping up. Dozens of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who had been in Washington for the anti-abortion March for Life rally, were standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, many of them white and wearing apparel bearing the slogan of President Trump.
There were also black men who identified themselves as Hebrew Israelites, preaching their beliefs and shouting racially combative comments at the Native Americans and the students, according to witnesses and video on social media.
Even some conservative commentators had been highly critical of the students after release of the shorter video. Among them was CNN host S.E. Cupp, who issued an apology on Twitter Monday morning after seeing the more extensive coverage of the incident:
Hey guys. Seeing all the additional videos now, and I 100% regret reacting too quickly to the Covington story. I wish I’d had the fuller picture before weighing in, and I’m truly sorry.
— S.E. Cupp (@secupp) January 21, 2019
Yet, in addressing the MLK Day event, Barnes’ comments seemed informed only by the earlier reporting as if the additional Sunday reporting had never happened. (Relevant audio begins at the 24 minute mark.) “Because unfortunately America can still be a mob of high school students wearing red hats, inspired by what they see in the nation’s highest office,” Barnes said. “The audacity of surrounding and taunting a native American Vietnam war veteran.”
Barnes then repeated the name of the man involved in the conflict, Nathan Phillips, three times, calling him an American hero. In the additional reporting, Phillips acknowledged that it was he who first approached the students. Barnes then said, “the audacity of those high school children yelling ‘build the wall’ is convenient ignorance.”
Coverage by several media outlets called into question whether the students had in fact recited such a chant. New York Times Columnist David Brooks asked in a Monday Opinion column if the Covington Catholic High School “fiasco” will change social media? Brooks points out that Phillips gave two separate versions of events:
He told The Washington Post that he was singing a traditional song when the teenagers swarmed around him, some chanting, “Build that wall, build that wall.” He decided the right thing to do was to get away. “I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation.”
He told The Detroit Free Press that the incident started when the boys started attacking four African-Americans. So he decided to intervene. “There was that moment when I realized I’ve put myself between beast and prey. These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey.”
Many news organizations ran one of these accounts. Before you judge the reporters too harshly, it’s important to remember that these days the social media tail wags the mainstream media dog. If you want your story to be well placed and if you want to be professionally rewarded, you have to generate page views — you have to incite social media. The way to do that is to reinforce the prejudices of your readers.
In this one episode, you had a gentle, 64-year-old Native American man being swarmed by white (boo!), male (boo!), preppy (double boo!) Trump supporters (infinite boo!). If you are trying to rub the pleasure centers of a liberal audience, this is truly a story too good to check.
By Sunday, the emergence of the longer video and numerous witness accounts forced the media to concede that the Saturday narrative was incomplete at best, and discredited at worst. On Monday, in Madison, Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes still appeared to be living in Saturday.
Jerry Bader is the editor of Media Trackers.