Last Friday, a group of students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School mocked a Native-American protester named Nathan Phillips outside of the Lincoln Memorial. As their behavior was criticized, video emerged of a small group of Black Israelite protesters yelling insults at the students prior to the run-in with Phillips. Though the added context in no way excused the behavior of the students, conservatives launched a propaganda campaign to portray them as victims of a reactionary liberal media that rushed to condemn the students without knowing the full story.
President Trump was eager to pick up the thread. On Tuesday, he tweeted that Nick Sandmann — the student who was filmed smirking a few inches from the face of Phillips — and his peers had “become student symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be.” Later that day, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders invited the Covington Catholic students to visit the White House some time after the government shutdown ends. “We’ve reached out and voiced our support” she said. “Certainly no one understands better than this president when the media jumps to conclusions and attacks you for something you may or may not have done.”
She continued to bash the media while speaking to Sean Hannity later that night. “I’ve never seen people so happy to destroy a kid’s life,” she said.
The Trump administration deliberately separated almost 3,000 children from their families, in an attempt to use their suffering as a deterrent to immigration. https://t.co/KKl6i3HPGa
— Adam Serwer🍝 (@AdamSerwer) January 23, 2019
David Hogg, the Parkland survivor who has been targeted relentlessly by conservatives for his gun control activism, also objected.
— David Hogg (@davidhogg111) January 23, 2019
When the White House decides to take hold of the narrative, the mainstream media often follows, presumably out of a belief that if they don’t they will be accused of bias. And so the Today Show invited Sandmann to sit down for a one-on-one interview with Savannah Guthrie that aired Wednesday morning.
A few days before the appearance, a publicity firm with deep Republican ties helped Sandmann craft a statement in line with the narrative being pushed by conservatives: that he and his peers were victims of a “social media mob.” While speaking with Savannah Guthrie, Sandmann essentially regurgitated lines from this statement. Guthrie took it all at face value, coddling Sandmann like a concerned mother determined to give her son the benefit of the doubt.
“Do you feel from this experience that you owe anybody an apology?” she asked. “Do you see your own fault in any way?”
"Do you feel from this experience that you owe anybody an apology? Do you see your own fault in any way?”
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) January 22, 2019
At no point in the segment did Sandmann apologize. After all, the president has already endorsed his actions. Nevertheless, Guthrie assured viewers that Sandmann has learned some sort of lesson from the experience. “Sandmann says doesn’t want to live his life in fear, and he now hopes to come out of this with a deeper understanding of others,” she said.
“I have the utmost respect for Mr. Phillips. It’s another person that freely used his First Amendment right. And I want to thank him for his military service as well – and I’d certainly like to speak w/ him.” -Nick Sandmann pic.twitter.com/Mr1mVjeq4n
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) January 23, 2019
The Today Show interview serviced a bad-faith effort from the right to use the Covington Catholic students as props to fight the media. There is video evidence contradicting much of what Sandmann claimed. He is also asking people to believe that he was not “intentionally making faces” at Phillips and that he was smiling at him because he “wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry.” Many commented that Sandmann’s smile did not seem like one of peace; it looked more like one of domination, of condescension.
Sandmann is just a minor; so was David Hogg, who has received untold measures of harassment and no sympathy from the White House; so were Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and the countless other young people of color who were not given the benefit of the doubt. So are the thousands of migrant children who have been separated from their parents at the southern border. On Tuesday, After Sandmann’s appearance on the Today Show was announced, New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie reminded his Twitter followers of a fitting quote from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”