On Saturday the national media got swept up in a viral outrage that had all the ingredients of a sensational story: White teenagers, black activists, Make America Great Again hats, accusations of anti-Native American racial demagoguery, and supposedly damning video.
In short, Catholic students who had just attended the March for Life rally were being accused of taunting an older Native American man. A short clip posted online appeared to support the claim, and this narrative quickly rocketed around the world; the students were soon being doxxed and receiving death threats; their school even warned they might be expelled.
But as the outrage meter began peaking, the students started pleading that the whole incident was being misreported, and that they were the ones being taunted with racist epithets. (The student at the center of the maelstrom, Nick Sandmann, released a lengthy statement detailing their version of events.)
As more video became available, the students’ accounts were born out, and it was established they had indeed been the victims of targeted harassment — not the other way around. Black activists known as the Black Hebrew Israelites had come upon the MAGA hat-clad crowd and started harassing them with racist and homophonic attacks; eventually the students began shouting chants for their high school, but did not respond to their attackers on racial grounds (at least based on currently available video). Eventually the drum playing Native American enters the fray (he says to help calm tensions), and for some reason gets into the face of Sandmann, who looks at him in the eyes, at one point smiling. (Reason’s Robby Soave posted a more comprehensive report on the progression of events.)
And … that’s it. The clip of Sandmann smiling as Phillips banged his drum while a crowd of students rowdily chanted behind them was enough to fuel this social media fracas.
Yet many in the media who helped get this “scandal” off the ground have refused to back down. Even if these students did nothing wrong, surely this is still an abject lesson on the perils of white privilege, they argue.
An editor at The New York Times, Tina Jones, said the “single best commentary” on the situation comes from a man named Marlon James, who said Sandmann smiling at Phillips conveys how little he thinks of Native Americans:
During the height of the media freakout, The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti attempted to expound on what this means for race relations more generally, writing: “Let's please not forget that this group of teens who crowded around to mock & harass Nathan Phillips were there for the March for Life: There is an inextricable link between control over women's bodies, white supremacy & young white male entitlement.” She predicted that 50 years from now, the image of Sandmann smiling will be “a defining image of this political era.”
Once it became clear her analysis was based on a false premise, she doubled down anyway. On Sunday she continued tweeting hateful attacks against Sandmann, including retweeting this post imagining Sandmann as a grown man wearing a “Grab America by the p*ssy shirt”:
After the New York Times amended its original report so that the students were no longer being accused of accosting the Native American, CNN’s Kirsten Powers took objection, saying it was “really problematic”:
This thread that Powers found so persuasive is basically a re-statement of the original media narrative from Saturday, only more hyperbolic. For example, Lisa Sharper tweets at one point that the students featured in the video owe everything they enjoy to slavery:
CNN’s Bakari Sellers tweeted Saturday that the student prominently featured in the videos should “be punched in the face.” (He later deleted it.) On Sunday, after the story had been thoroughly discredited, Sellers was still mocking Sandmann. Responding to a tweet that said Sandmann’s mother was blaming the black radicals for the kerfuffle, Sellers wrote: “Laugh. Cry.”
BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen went furthest. Even after the story had been taken apart, Petersen went on a tirade against Sandmann, suggesting he’s an example of “white patriarchy” in action. Sandmann, she argued, is guilty simply on account of his appearance:
CNN’s Ana Navarro, who was tweeting over the weekend was “taunted by racist MAGA-hat wearing teens” and that the March for Life was “overshadowed” by racism, refused to back down after that narrative was debunked. Instead, she wrote the whole matter off as a joke and attempted to move on:
The Atlantic’s James Fallows penned a column likening these students to whites at Little Rock in the 1950s who harassed blacks. When enough information came out to debunk the original narrative of events, Fallows didn’t back down, writing a lengthy addendum that argued his original linking of the students to actual racists from the 1950s still applies.
A writer for Vulture, Eric Abriss, said tweeted amidst the media maelstrom that he wanted the teenagers in the video to die, as well as their parents:
We checked to see if he’s since taken down these tweets, but Abriss locked his account.
Meanwhile, it turns out that not only was Phillips apparently fibbing about how the students were treating him, but also, reportedly, about his own background. A Twitter user researched Phillips claims of serving as a Marine in Vietnam and found that there were no more Marine units in Vietnam when the Native American claims he was deployed.