The Media Frenzy over Protester Clash at the Lincoln Memorial

Published by Mrs. AD on

(Covington High school students, Nick Sandmann center, and elder Nathan Phillips; Photo credit: Gronamorin.com)

Privacy, net neutrality, and information security have been huge topics in the news throughout the last year. Lindsey Stone’s story struck me on a personal level. Although I can say that my own feelings are that the photo was taken in poor taste, no one deserves the kind of doxing (dumping personal information on the net for malicious purposes) and vengeful responses she endured. The podcast brought several recent topics to mind, Gamergate for one, where female gamers in the public eye were doxed, sent hate mail, threatened, trolled, and ridiculed, not for the way they actually play but the fact that they were women (as a girl gamer this was heartbreaking to me). In very recent news, there is the controversy over the protests in Washington DC on Friday, Jan 18, 2019.

(Note: I originally meant to write this blog about the Gamergate fiasco and the more recent hazing of the female Overwatch champion that ended in her leaving a professional tournament shortly after being announced. Then I thought of the more recent and notable video of the students from Covington Catholic High school, and this topic took over the post).

A quick Google search for “Covington Catholic incident” will bring up a plethora of articles and opinions on the confrontation of the multiple factions of protesters involved. Most circulate around the video clip of teen Nick Sandmann and Native American veteran Nathan Phillips. In one video, the two are standing very close to each other as Phillips plays the drum and chants while Sandmann smiles and fellow students cheer in the background. The video was taken by a third party of protesters, members of the Black Hebrew Israelites. This video blew up over the news and social media platforms over the weekend of Jan. 18-20, 2019. The school and the students have received outcries for their expulsion and for physical harm and even death on their social media feeds (Perez, Chris). There were even calls to fire Sandmann’s parents from their jobs even though they were not at the rally. Perez’s article shows Sandmann’s perspective, stating that Phillips walked up to Sandmann, got in his face, and tried to provoke the teen into an altercation through his song and drumming. CNN’s interview with Phillips (Sidner, Sara) tells a very different story of how Philips waded into the group to defuse tension between the teens and the Black Hebrew Israelites, then Sandmann got in front of Phillips, blocking his path forward. Yet other sources push blame onto the man of the Black Hebrew Israelites for trying to insight conflict with both the Native American protesters and the high school students, lobbing insults and names at both parties (Packer, George). In Packer’s article for The Atlantic, “The Covington story was a collective American Nightmare,” he quotes the Black Hebrew Israelites as saying the Native Americans lost their land for worshiping false gods, calling then Uncle Tomahawks who are up the white man’s nether regions. Later, they call the Covington High Schoolers crackers, future school shooters, and Drumpf’s incest children. Admittedly their behavior seems the most provoking and aggressive, but I was not there so I cannot testify to any of these interpretations.

This is an unfortunate, yet very representative instance where news media and social media have construed the truth to fit their respective narratives and turned a small event into a storm. I am reminded of a discussion point from my time in film school: everything shot through a lens is mediated to someone’s point of view. If you cut to a different angle, you are choosing how the conversation should be viewed. Even the framing of the subjects by the camera is selectively editing the scene on camera from that which lies off screen. The close angle of the initial video and the cuts made to the start and finish times painted a heavily mediated picture.

Written word can likewise be mediated to favor one side of the story just by the descriptive words used. Referring to Phillips as either a veteran, or a violent criminal gives a very different spin to the story. Initially many news sites jumped on the title “Vietnam Veteran” when Phillips is clearly heard stating he is a veteran and it was “Vietnam-times.” The Washington Post article titled “Nathan Phillips, man at center of standoff with Covington teens, misrepresented his military history” makes you think he did this with intention (Lamothe, Dan). If you only saw that headline and the bolded quote at the top ““I’m bummed. I’m definitely disappointed,” said a man who had advocated for Phillips,” then you might be led to think Phillips was a liar, when in reality the ‘Vietnam Veteran’ came from a press release of the Lakota People’s Law Project. The Post did quote a video Phillips posted to Facebook a year ago for a Native Youth Alliance where he does refer to himself as a Vietnam Vet, but then goes on to say that in several formal interviews Phillips said he was a veteran of “Vietnam times.” At the very bottom of the article there is a note in italics stating that “This story was originally published at 3:11 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 23, and updated with a new headline and additional reporting Jan. 24 after a Facebook video emerged showing Phillips calling himself a “Vietnam vet.” Semantics, that’s really what the article is about. Some media referred to him as a “Vietnam Veteran” when they were taking a stance to vilify the actions of the teens. Now some of those same outlets are condemning Phillips falsifying his military record.I am very interested to know how the article read and what the title was before they made the changes. Perhaps this change in narrative has something to do with the PR firm that publicized Sandmann’s account.

(Sandmann and Savannah Guthrie at Today show interview; Photo credit: Savannah Guthrie’s Twitter page)

RunSwitch PR was hired by Sandmann’s parents to clean up his image in the wake of the initial conflict (Storey, Kate). RunSwitch has ties to the Republican party through one of its co-founders, Scott Jennings, whose resume includes George W. Bush’s White House, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and Sen. Mitch McConnell’s super PAC. The PR firm helped Sandmann before he gave his full statement to CNN and the interview he gave on the Today Show. If you Google Sandmann’s name today the top articles you find are all about his statement and the interview which paint him as a blameless victim. This makes me think back on the podcast of Lindsey Stone’s story and how the PR firm scrubbed the original story from Google searches and replaced it with their own narrative. In Lindsey’s case, the firm said they did not make up information, but they did create fake posts and accounts for her. I wonder how much of the current story we are presented with has been constructed for us. As of Saturday, Jan. 19, the twitter account of Sandmann and the Facebook accounts of his parents, Ted Sandmann and Julie Weis Sandmann, had been scrubbed (Santiago, Ellen). Everything is mediated. In this instance, the words used in the rewriting of Sandmann’s account throw shade on Phillips. Sandmann said Phillips was “in my face” and that “[Phillips] has singled me out for confrontation” while he “remained motionless and calm” (Perez, Chris). Sandmann believed Phillips “should re-think his tactics of invading personal space of others.” He also made several references to his faith and Christian ideals. These statements are geared to spin the events to portray Sandmann as a good-hearted victim of the story. Sandmann’s parents have also hired a lawyer to sue the media for defamation of character over the initial coverage of the story. In a GQ article, it is noted that the Today show also did an interview with Phillips but that this was a regular “component the redemption infrastructure,” showing both sides of the story but neglecting to point out that one was being promoted and monitored by a PR firm (Willis, Jay).

As for privacy, I highly doubt that either Phillip or Sandmann gave written consent to be filmed in this way. They certainly did not give consent to be plastered over new and social media outlets. Legally the 4th Amendment has been interpreted to give individuals the right to privacy in their own homes, private properties, and in commercial means but not if they are recorded in a public setting. Conflicting with that is the 1st Amendment giving rights to the media of free speech (School Video News).

This really isn’t a story about politics, but the way it has been framed for the public eye has made it political. Political figures are jumping to the defense on both sides and using it to support their political agendas. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico supported Phillips in a tweet on Jan. 19 and condemned the White House, blaming them for the students’ actions as proof of “how common decency has decayed under this administration” (Twitter via Beauchamp, Zack). Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky responded to the longer video it was a “brutal lesson in the unjust court of public opinion and social media” (Harten, Ortiz). The POTUS even weighted in several times by tweeting his support for the students and vilification of the “evil” news media (Beauchamp, Zack). This happens to a lot of stories in today’s media, politicians clamoring to take the side that best suits their agenda. The initial outrage was stoked Twitter account @2020fight which claims to be a California teacher but has suspicions signs of being a fake account (O’Sullivan, Griffin). Twitter has since removed the account.

Personally, I am not sure what to make of the whole event. With all of the conflicting narratives, it is hard to say what really happened and who is at fault, or if indeed anyone should be assessed blame. Phillips could have stayed out of the situation; Sandmann could have moved aside like the rest of the crowd; the chaperones could have moved the students along as soon as the first insults were thrown; The Black Hebrew Israelites could have published the entire video from the beginning instead of a small clip. A lot of disruptive and uncalled for things happened on all sides: students making chopping motions to mock the Native protesters, the Natives telling the students to go back to Europe, and the Black Hebrew Israelites comments antagonized both parties. In summary, I believe each party acted in a manner they thought was best at the time, but in heinsight there were mistakes made on all sides. Had it not been for the current culture of sharing and shading content this story would never have been seen. For me, it is an example of the disadvantage of using social and digital media formats for honest content. I believe it would have been very hard for someone to disseminate the truth if they had looked for it back on Jan 19th because so many outlets were pushing the same narrow perspective of events. Now it is impossible to differentiate what of the many accounts to follow because most have been modified by PR intervention or political investment. The research I have done over the past week makes me very skeptical of the way I myself ingest topics on my own social media platforms. I leave you with this photo to remind everyone that every story, no matter how clear it may seem, has another side.

(Photo credit: Prince William, via Reddit)
(Note: Sandmann’s last name was listed as “Sandman” in several sources. His age was also listed as 15, 16, or 17 depending on which article you read. His twitter account has his last name as “Sandmann” and he is listed as CCH class of 20’)

References:

Beauchamp, Zack. (January 23, 2019). The real politics behind the Covington Catholic controversy, explained. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/1/23/18192831/covington-catholic-maga-hat-native-american-nathan-phillips
Harten, David and Ortiz, Jorge L. (January 23, 2019). Massie defends Covington students: ‘It is my honor to represent them’. Courier Journal. Retrieved from https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/2019/01/20/covington-catholic-video-thomas-massie-defends-kentucky-students/2634130002/
Lamothe, Dan. (January 24, 2019) Nathan Phillips, man at center of standoff with Covington teens, misrepresented his military history. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2019/01/23/nathan-phillips-man-standoff-with-covington-teens-faces-scrutiny-his-military-past/?utm_term=.23bbbfadc567
Packer, George. (January 2019). The Covington Story Was a Collective American Nightmare. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/covington-story-our-collective-nightmare/581785/
Perez, Chris. (January 21, 2019). Teen defends himself after confrontation with Native American man at march. New York Post. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2019/01/21/teen-who-taunted-native-american-man-at-march-defends-his-actions/
School Video News. Privacy versus the Right to Know. Retrieved from http://schoolvideonews.com/Broadcast-Journalism/Privacy-versus-the-Right-to-Know
Santiago, Ellen. (January 23, 2019). Nick Sandmann: 5 fast facts you need to know. Heavy. Retrieved from https://heavy.com/news/2019/01/nicholas-sandmann-covington-catholic/
Sidner, Sara. (January 23, 2019). Native American elder Nathan Phillips, in his own words. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/21/us/nathan-phillips-maga-teens-interview/index.html
Storey, Kate. (January 25, 2019). Behind the PR Machine that helped change the Nick Sandmann narrative. Town & Country Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/money-and-power/a26031489/runswitch-pr-scott-jennings-nick-sandmann/
Willis, Jay. (January 24, 2019). Nathan Phillips’ Today Show interview wasn’t a feel-good story at all. GQ magazine. Retrieved from https://www.gq.com/story/nathan-phillips-today-show-interview


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