We’ve all seen it by now: a smirking MAGA teen standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, blocking the path of an older Native American—Nathan Phillips. The visceral reaction that followed was logical, as the symbolism of our nation’s historical sins in that moment proved to be overwhelming. Outrage ensued, eventually overreaching to the point where some on the left tried to dox the kids. Then, rationalizations came from the right, and per usual, many in the mainstream media repeated the mistakes of the past and bought these insufficient explanations at face value because of the messenger and not the message.
That article from the libertarian blog, Reason, was cited throughout major media as the Rosetta Stone of What Really Happened in this shameful chapter in American history. The story from Washington's Very Serious Media always goes that the outrage was wrong, and reasoned reason is right. The problem is that the reasoning in this Reason blog is misguided, and this paragraph from Robby Soave is where his rationalization really goes off the rails (emphasis mine):
Phillips put himself between the teens and the black nationalists, chanting and drumming as he marched straight into the middle of the group of young people. What followed was several minutes of confusion: The teens couldn't quite decide whether Phillips was on their side or not, but tentatively joined in his chanting. It's not at all clear this was intended as an act of mockery rather than solidarity.
Essentially, the explanation goes that because a handful of cultists from the patently insane Black Israelites (Wu-Tang Clan listeners should be somewhat familiar with this extremist group) were verbally attacking the kids, everything that followed is exculpatory for the children (and their chaperones), and damning for the only minorities in this entire saga. The only context in the longer videos that really changes the narrative is that it's clear that Phillips was not accosted, but walked up towards the infamous MAGA teen, who did not move out of Phillips' way. While the extended video undeniably shows a handful of Black Israelites saying horrible things to the kids like “that's a group of future school shooters over there,” to think that it excuses the kids' MAGA behavior that ensues is absurd.
What's most asinine is thinking that the kids were chanting “in solidarity” with Phillips. Soave completely loses all credibility the moment he drops that garbage line. The video speaks for itself.
Not to mention, there are other videos of Covington Catholic kids harassing girls before the March for Life.
Plus, Covington Catholic has a history of racist behavior.
As Laura Wagner brilliantly wrote at Deadspin: do not doubt what you see with your own eyes in those videos. I encourage everyone to read her excellent piece about the ordeal, and how the media has altered the narrative based on the new information that five or so black cult members were yelling terrible things at the kids beforehand, and therefore what clearly looks like outright racism isn't actually racism!
Wagner raised an important point about the media that serves as the inspiration for my column:
As for why so many people are willing to not trust their own eyes; why they'll readily accept the MAGA teen's shitty and unconvincing publicist-created explanation that he didn't do anything wrong; why news organizations rolled back reporting based on little new evidence; and why so many people lashed themselves to the whipping post in the square and begged for forgiveness, the answer is, I think, simple: These people are willing to give the screaming mob of white teens the benefit of the doubt because it distinguishes them from the emotion-driven hordes. It's something like virtue signaling, but instead of attempting to signal that they hold any type of moral or ethical principles, these people are attempting to show that they are willing to be chastened, and so are thoughtful. I can admit when I'm wrong, they say, so you can always trust me.
That's really what we're selling here, folks. Trust—which is different from truth. Everyone in media is—Paste politics included. The difference is that we have made it our mission here at Paste politics to gain your trust by presenting an unvarnished, no-BS truthful view of politics in America. Like Jake Tapper and CNN, we have a profit motive too, but it is far different from goliaths like CNN, NBC, etc…who try to embody the ultimate capitalist mantra of being everything to everyone at all times.
Because American media is directed by capitalist motives, it means that truth ultimately takes a backseat to profits. This doesn't mean that truth always supersedes profits—or even usually—but if you could only have one of truth or profits, there is absolutely no doubt which one shareholders will choose. Because of this, the constant GOP screams of “fake news” and “liberal media” are serious threats to the business model of the CNNs of the world. Without the trust of their consumers, no one will consume their product, and they will make less money. That's all this is.
Which is why you saw so many members of elite media capitulate to yet another bad-faith argument from conservatives. While the inclusion of the five or so Black Israelites stirring things up is undoubtedly important context that should be included in an update to the story, it doesn't meaningfully change the basic structure of what happened, or more importantly, what Nathan Phillips said happened to the Detroit Free Press:
”They were in the process of attacking these four black individuals,” Phillips said. “I was there and I was witnessing all of this … As this kept on going on and escalating, it just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know? You see something that is wrong and you're faced with that choice of right or wrong.”
There is also another witness who disputes the MAGA teens' defense (a defense delivered through a PR firm whose partner, Scott Jennings, is also a current CNN commentator, and a close confidant of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell). And yet, as soon as this half-assed explanation from Reason hit the web, articles like “I Failed the Covington Catholic Test” appeared in The Atlantic, and “How We Destroy Lives Today” in the New York Times. Meanwhile, scores of mainstream anchors like Jake Tapper seemingly (and not so-seemingly) apologized for believing what their eyes told them, and updated their stories to include the handful of Black Israelites who apparently forced a mob of white kids wearing MAGA hats to seem racist.
Without trust, major media loses viewers, meaning that they lose money. What we are witnessing in this mass-capitulation is a test case in how conservatives have controlled major media for the last 40 years. There’s a lot of talk right now about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shifting the Overton Window (what is deemed politically possible) to the left, and this controversy is the result of 40-plus years of GOP movement of the Overton Window to the right (also exemplified in this insane tweet today from CNN’s Chris Cuomo, buying into some false birther nonsense spread by the far-right about Kamala Harris’ eligibility to run for president).
By establishing the (false) narrative of the “liberal media,” conservatives are able to police the media with bad-faith arguments damn-near whenever they want, and this is because the business model of major media needs their trust more than it needs to broadcast the truth that an argument put forth by conservative media is, yet again, completely disingenuous.
UPDATE: This post has removed references to Nathan Phillips as a Vietnam Veteran after widespread reporting revealed that while he was in the Marine Corps, he did not serve in Vietnam, as he falsely claimed.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.