It has been a while since we commented on the dubious usefulness of Twitter when it comes to journalism (“Angry birds: Is Twitter making us useless?” Feb. 7, 2019). At the time, we were appalled by the treatment of Nicholas Sandmann.
In January of 2019, Sandmann was on a field trip, near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., with other students from Covington Catholic High School, in Kentucky. He and some of the others wore red MAGA hats. They were waiting for their bus when several Black Hebrew Israelites insulted them. Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist, later said he thought he was defusing the situation by approaching the boys while beating on a drum, and this is where several videos taken by passersby and uploaded to social media began.
Sandmann was smiling tightly. Reporters and others, from a welter of media organizations, including CNN and The Washington Post, rushed to pronounce on social media that Sandmann was smirking. New information – including videos showing the Black Hebrew Israelites taunting the boys – led not to a whoops moment but to polarization, and so, more than a year later, many people still insist Sandmann was smirking in the same way there may always be people who believe it has been proven U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is a rapist. They believe Sandmann deserved to be infamous.
The treatment of the encounter was an “explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs,” The New York Times said the next day, in a news article. It was the “nation’s biggest story,” Vox said several days after that, which seems quaint from the vantage of 2020.
The mainstream news media had wallowed in “a ruinous glut of certainty,” opined Bob Garfield, a host of the public radio program On The Media. “It was as if the press ... were not just feeding on Twitter but turning into Twitter .... reflexive, emotional, careless and shallow.”
Sandmann’s family sued for defamation. That’s almost always a long shot, but, as people who work in news media should know, differing facts may lead to differing outcomes.
They sued Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who retweeted a video of Sandmann, stating “Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran Nathan Phillips endured hateful taunts” from the 16-year-old (the tweet is still up). The suit was dismissed because Warren has legislative immunity. Not so CNN, NBCUniversal and the Post, whom they also sued. CNN, the suit said, asking for $275 million in damages, had viciously attacked the student. In January of this year, CNN settled for an undisclosed amount.
The Washington Post directly abused Sandmann online and in print in 33 statements, the family claimed. Last year, a judge ruled 30 were protected opinion, but the suit could proceed with three which falsely stated Sandmann had “blocked” Phillips and “would not allow him to retreat.” On Friday, Sandmann announced – in a tweet – “Today, I turned 18 & WaPo settled my lawsuit.”
The amount has not been made public. But it should be. (Attorneys who specialize in libel speculate Sandmann could have been paid $1-2 million or more by the Post alone.) Presumably, the Post will not say because it is stuck; it would be embarrassed that it held a losing hand once it had been caught demonizing a presumed Trump supporter. Yet that is something many people on Twitter and elsewhere still want it to do, which probably bodes worse for American journalism than an insurance premium hike will for a gold-standard news organization owned by the world’s richest person.