George Boardman: Covington confrontation shows the perils of rushing to judgment
Observations from the center stripe: Endangered species edition
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Russell Baker, longtime humor columnist for the New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for his column and another one for his autobiography, died recently at the age of 93.
His passing received little attention from the always on, always-screaming modern media, and it’s probably just as well. I don’t think he’d feel very comfortable in today’s media culture.
Baker wrote the “Observer” column in the Times for 35 years with the goal of making public affairs accessible through plain, easy-to-read language, an approach that he said set him apart from the “High-Church, polysyllabic” writing common in the Times. “Well, I soon discovered, in those days if you wrote short sentences and plain English in the Times, everybody naturally assumed you were funny,” he said.
Baker covered Congress, the military and State Department until, as he put it, he got tired of politicians coming out of meeting rooms and lying to him. Unlike many featured columnists for major newspapers, Baker took a modest view of his impact on society: “Those who expected me to have something to say had obviously never heard the classic definition of a newspaper man: A man with nothing on his mind and the power to express it.”
He retired from the Times in 1998 — he wrote in his farewell column that he had “said enough for the time being” — just as online news was starting the gain traction and change the way the trade is practiced.
Gone were the days when reporters had the luxury of making several more phone calls and checking a couple of additional sources to get the story right because their deadline was several hours in the future.
Now, every minute of the day is a deadline, and print journalists aren’t just competing with online news media — ”citizen journalists” using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media can also beat them on the story.
You have to go with the story you have now, even if it’s incomplete and will prompt more questions than it answers. As we found out from the recent “confrontation” involving a group of students from Covington Catholic High School and a group of Native Americans, this approach creates a rush to judgment that does nothing to enhance the credibility of journalists.
When the pressure is on to get the story out now, it’s easy for news people to fall back on stereotypes. As the legendary columnist Walter Lippmann once observed, stereotypes are attractive because they don’t require editors and reporters to think.
So it was real easy for a lot of the media to figure out what was happening when a viral video surfaced showing a boy wearing a MAGA cap appearing to confront a Native American beating a drum. The video played into stereotypes that are prevalent today — the video was proof of racist bullying (even if it showed no evidence of it) and the boy quickly became the subject of rage and disgust.
The Native American drummer, Nathan Phillips, was a “native elder” who said he was a Vietnam War vet (it turned out he served during the war, but never went overseas). Phillips embellished his story with each succeeding interview. The media treated him with such patronizing gentleness that he was never directly confronted about his conflicting accounts.
But that was apparently good enough for the New York Times, which topped its initial story will this headline: “”Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous People March.” CNN, MSNBC and other news outlets piled onto the boys, along with numerous celebrities eager to burnish their liberal credentials. Unfortunately for those who rushed to judgment, the viral video wasn’t the Zapruder film of 2019.
It turned out there were several, much longer videos that suggested a different scenario. It now appears the main culprit was a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, who claim to be descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel and who hold social views that make “Mike Pence look like Ram Dass,” according to one writer.
The Israelites appeared to be taunting the Native Americans, who were gathering to conduct their own ceremony. The Covington High School boys, who had just participated in a pro-life rally in Washington, became curious bystanders while they waited for their bus. That’s when Phillips appears to confront the students, banging his drum in the face of 16-year-old Nick Sandmann.
The media started to back track. The Times topped its follow-up story with “Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Students,” other media started questioning what they thought were the facts a day earlier, and social media users started erasing incendiary comments from Facebook, blog posts, and other outlets.
Of course, the damage had been done by then. The students were receiving death threats and the school decided to cancel classes for a day because of safety concerns. Even the local bishop apologized for the students’ “behavior.”
Sandmann stood his ground, staring down Phillips as he beat the drum, and now wishes he had turned around and walked away. But he’s a teenager with a lot to learn. What’s the excuse of the adults here?
I’m thinking of the Times and Washington Post in particular, which claim to hold their reporters and editors to the highest ethical standards. Where were the papers’ journalistic ethics in this case, the idea that if you don’t have the full story, that there are a lot of questions to be answered, that non-public figures could be hurt if the story isn’t right, then you hold the story until you’re confident it’s complete and accurate.
In a rush to remain relevant in today’s hothouse media world, they forgot the old adage that it’s better to be right than to be first.
CORRECTION: Sweetgreen, a restaurant chain, was misspelled as Sweetgarden in last week’s column.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at email@example.com.
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