The Covington Catholic Story Shows that the Media Will Never Learn
The right-leaning news media, places like FOX or Breitbart, have a proven strategy on how to manufacture outrage. They take a story that is rooted in some truth and has enough qualities that could be attributed to the left, and make it seem as though the entire left is pushing that point. Remember when there was a supposed controversy over the lyrics to the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" after a Ohio radio station chose to ban it? It was (as you might have guessed from the use of the singular) only one radio station that originally did this, resulting in a FOX News story on November 30, where the headline cited concern by (again) a single "listener". So ONE person was upset by the lyrics, causing ONE radio station to ban it. That story even discussed an online poll conducted by the radio station where 92% of the responses were in favor of overturning the ban, something that happened less than two weeks later. But it didn't matter. It was a national story because of ONE person and ONE radio station. FOX ran stories in the vein of 'Has the #MeToo Movement Gone Too Far' and devoted significant on-air coverage to the topic, even having original singer Dean Martin's daughter on Fox & Friends to criticize the outcry.
And these aren't isolated, sparse incidents. It's an annual tradition to claim that there is a War on Christmas, a war usually instigated by a combination of Starbucks' anti-Christian gay-loving holiday cups and Obama's apparent insistence on saying "Happy Holidays". Just two weeks ago it was the Gillette ad's War on Men. Before that it was Kavanaugh. The problem isn't necessarily that these are so effective. Outrage marketing is an eventuality in a world dominated by Twitter, where anyone's reaction is weighted equally and trending topics are based on the sheer volume of response. Rather, the problem is when (every so often) the left buys into the outrage, amplifying its noise and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's similar to the idea of a government shutdown. The right doesn't believe in the power or the utility of government to do good in people's everyday lives, so when they force a government shutdown, they can point to the fact that government doesn't work even though they're the ones who shut it down. If you're someone who buys into the premise that government isn't supposed to work, then you probably believe in the conclusion as well. And over the past week, we've seen yet another one of these incidents play out, completely by the book. This time, as they have in so many instances before, the media took the bait.
The story of the students from Covington Catholic High School has been an evolving, layered mess. Two Fridays ago, a video was posted that showed an apparent confrontation between a MAGA-hat-wearing teenager Nick Sandmann face-to-face with a Native American man Nathan Phillips, where the man drummed and sang while the smirking teenager stood motionless. Phillips later claimed that the surrounding crowd – dozens of students on a field trip – chanted "build the wall", "Trump 2020", and "go back to Africa". A second video later surfaced, showing a third party involved: the Black Hebrew Israelites, generally unlikable people who hurled insults in the direction of the students. Sandmann also released a statement denying hearing any of the chants that Phillips alleged, and claimed that he and his peers were merely shouting school chants with the permission of their chaperone, in an effort to offset the vitriol directed their way. Additional videos uploaded later would separately show the students harassing some young girls, and a student saying (seemingly unprompted) "it's not rape if you like it." Sandmann and his family have hired the RunSwitch PR firm to help deal with the situation, old stories about Nathan Phillips were brought to light, and Donald Trump has invited these high schoolers to the White House. Phew.
Because this saga unfolded over the course of several days, many people's Twitter pages show a series of discrete, frozen-in-time thoughts in response to each new video or comment. And while the initial reaction was bad enough, the worst part was the flood of apologies following the release of the second video. Many of those who had been among the first to decry the actions of Sandmann and his peers found themselves collectively trying to not look like partisan hacks: they had been far too harsh on these poor, frightened children. In their excitement to tell everyone they had learned their lesson to wait until getting all the details, they once again commenting without all the details. They were still partisan hacks – just in the other direction.
The obvious issue is that they were right in the first place. And this is the true secret of outrage marketing: when you can convince people that they were wrong to be outraged in the first place, even if they weren't. All of the adjectives that these commentators and personalities levied on the Covington kids – arrogant, disrespectful, racist, to name a few – were accurate. So why were these apologies issued? It wasn't because the second video necessarily disproved any of the original assertions. It didn't change the narrative, it added to it. It might have been because of the PR firm or the media blitz Sandmann has been on as of late. Most of all, it was probably the avalanche of anger from the right, a fabricated outrage that attempted to amplify the slightest dent in the criticism of the Covington boys.
But faced with all of these together, there were two options for reacting: either issue an additional more nuanced critique, or retract everything you originally said. Thrown off that their confident assessment didn't holistically characterize the situation, they chose the latter. And after these apologies were issued, they were locked in. No one who issued an apology can turn face and once again criticize the kids, because at that point their credibility would be absolutely shot, their role as a flip-flopper entrenched in the public discourse. Those who were foolish enough to apologize were lauded by their peers for being brave enough to admit they were "wrong", and continued to be attacked for their original 'poor' reaction on the chance that they didn't learn their lesson.
This is all despite the fact – and it's worth revisiting this point – that you can look at the original video to confirm that your initial reactions were appropriate. But now the apologies dominate the conversation. So the machine turns.