First came video of the kid in a “Make America Great Again” hat staring down a Native American elder.
Then came video showing an interview with that very elder, Nathan Phillips.
“In the golden hour at the Lincoln Memorial, the lights illuminating the vault, Phillips stands framed against the light of the setting sun, wiping tears from his eyes as he describes what has happened, …” Caitlin Flanagan writes in an essay in The Atlantic.
The news media, she said, just couldn’t resist.
“By Saturday, the story had become so hot, and the appetite for it so deep, that some news outlets felt compelled to do some real reporting,” Flanagan wrote. “This was when the weekend began to take a long, bad turn for respected news outlets and righteous celebrities.”
The headline in The New York Times moved from “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March” on day 1 to “Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Students” on day 2.
“By Tuesday, The New York Times was busy absorbing the fact that Phillips was not, apparently, a Vietnam veteran, as it had originally reported,” Flanagan wrote, “and it issued a correction saying that it had contacted the Pentagon for his military record, suggesting that it no longer trusts him as a source of reliable information.”
More details also began to emerge about the boys and their school.
“I have found several things that various of the boys did that are ugly, or rude, or racist,” Flanagan wrote. “Some boys did a tomahawk chop when Phillips walked into their group.”
There’s also a video of what appear to be Covington Catholic students harassing two young women, and there’s a photo of a white kid in black body paint leering at a black player from an opposing team.
“I would not be surprised if more videos of this kind turn up, or if more troubling information about the school emerges,” Flanagan wrote, “but it will by then be irrelevant, as the elite media have botched the story so badly that they have lost the authority to report on it.”
Flanagan is right when she suggests that episodes like this reinforce the belief among many that traditional news outlets deal in “fake news.”
What could journalists have done to avoid such accusations?
“They might have hewed to a concept that once went by the quaint term ‘journalism ethics,’” Flanagan wrote. “Among other things, journalistic ethics held that if you didn’t have the reporting to support a story, and if that story had the potential to hurt its subjects, and if those subjects were private citizens, and if they were moreover minors, you didn’t run the story. You kept reporting it; you let yourself get scooped; and you accepted that speed is not the highest value. Otherwise, you were the trash press.”
That was true in the days when people got their news on the doorstep every morning, but now, in the age of viral videos and the 24-hour news cycle, such an approach is far less practical. When news outlets jump in too quickly, they're guilty of a rush to judgment. When they wait too long, they're part of a coverup.
In the constant rush of information, the audience looks to traditional news outlets for help in sorting fact from fiction.
What responsible journalists do in such instances is exactly what they did here. They keep reporting. They keep asking questions. They keep searching for the truth.
When they're wrong, they admit it. And they set the record straight.