On Friday, Jan. 18, Catholic students from Covington Catholic High School clashed with other groups during the March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. However, the highlight of the event seems to be an incident that occurred between a student (Nick Sandmann) and a Native American activist (Nathan Phillips) at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Most media outlets reported the incident as the following: while a huge wave of white Catholic students chanted and protested, Nathan Phillips began to beat his drum, sang hymns and said some prayers. Eventually, the white Catholic students closed in and Sandmann impeded Phillips from advancing forward. Furthermore, it is emphasized that as Sandmann maintained a smirk, Phillips remembered his wife and called for unity amongst the groups.
This narrative sparked a huge backlash against Sandmann and Covington High School. Although, it is important to note that media outlets have falsely framed the Catholic students as being the only ones at fault through personal narratives, assumptions, nitpicking, video editing and by feeding incomplete information to the public. Furthermore, the media has made it quite tedious to criticize Phillips by granting him the moral high ground based on his background and characteristics.
As mentioned before, there is a personal narrative that most media outlets have established through a common retelling of the incident. In other words, the students have been framed as the only ones that were violent, rowdy, disrespectful and ignorant. Consider, for example, an article from the Washington Post which compares Sandmann’s “relentless smirk” to Phillips feeling “threatened” and pushing for unity in a hostile environment.
It is important to note, however, that the media has decided to leave out vital information. For example, another group present at the time was the “Hebrew Israelites.” The Hebrew Israelites ultimately believe that African Americans (and other minorities such as Hispanics) are the descendants of the Israelites in the Bible, and that white people have tainted or disrupted their rightful heritage. As if their extremist beliefs weren’t outrageous enough, media outlets failed to cover things said by the group during the protest.
Apart from already developing tension after an hour of preaching packed with profane and provocative language, the Hebrew Israelites began harassing the Covington Catholic High School students, calling them “future school shooters.” After one of the students went ahead to call out the comment as being highly offensive and unreasonable, the Hebrew Israelites went on to ask if their water tasted like incest, and they labeled the students as “young Klansmen.”
Media outlets have thus ignored this group and its actions to instead propel a narrative that targets the students. However, people have also criticized the high school students for creating a cacophonous ambiance by chanting and refusing to quiet down. Is it not fair to say that most of us would speak up one way or another against such fatuous and flagrant comments? This also fails to mention that the response from students were mostly high school chants or comments looking to alleviate tension; a sharp contrast to attacking someone’s race or background.
Apart from leaving out information, the media further propelled a personal narrative through nitpicking and video editing. Besides ignoring the Hebrew Israelites, the media also solely focused on the moment in which Sandmann apparently “approached” Phillips. This is a huge contrast to what one can garner from watching the full 2-hour coverage of the incident; Phillips actually is the one to approach the students.
Although it may be true that Sandmann is smirking, there seems to be no indication that he prevents Phillips from moving forward. In other words, Phillips walks up to Sandmann intentionally and puts him in an awkward position by singling him out. Sandmann also stated that he smirked since he saw it as the best option towards dealing with an awkward situation and avoiding escalation.
There is still one more aspect in which the media is at fault too. The media victimized Phillips by not only noting that he was an elderly Native American, but also a Vietnam War veteran. Not only did this victimize Phillips, but also granted him the moral high ground through his identity. In other words, regardless of who is at fault, the media has automatically given him the benefit of the doubt.
It is important to note that Phillips is not a Vietnam War veteran, but rather an active duty member during the Vietnam War era. Also, this is not to mention his rather shaky criminal record which includes assault charges and alcohol-related crimes. However, ignoring one’s actual actions is not a new trend when it comes to identity politics.
One of the public figures that immediately come to mind is Henry Kissinger. Henry Kissinger is one of the few politicians I can think of that people persistently refer to as “Doctor.” Furthermore, he often champions being Nixon’s secretary of state and a Harvard alumnus. Due to his accolades and background, many people often tend to grant him the moral high ground and the benefit of the doubt.
For example, after a group of protesters demanded the arrest of Kissinger for “war crimes,” John McCain referred to the protesters as “low-life scum” and apologized to Henry Kissinger for their immaturity. Thus, his background and accolades do not excuse him from his countless war crimes, association with crooks, and a close relationship with one of America’s most disingenuous presidents — Richard Nixon.
Although it may be argued that everyone shares some sort of responsibility for the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, it is unfair for us to allow the media to egregiously push forth a single narrative as the only correct interpretation of the event.
Complete and fair information should be given by all media outlets to allow the American public to formulate their own ideas and thoughts.