Nathan Phillips, a Native American man, provided The Post with some compelling firsthand material regarding the clash at the Lincoln Memorial last Friday. “It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’ ” Phillips told The Post. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way, and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”
“That guy in the hat” was Nick Sandmann, a student at Covington Catholic High School whose facial expressions on Friday afternoon earned the scrutiny of everyone with a Twitter account. Sandmann and Phillips engaged in a standoff at the crossroads of two protests: Along with his classmates at Covington, a Kentucky school near Cincinnati, Sandmann had arrived in Washington for the antiabortion March for Life; Phillips was there for the Indigenous Peoples March. Also on the grounds of the memorial was a group of Hebrew Israelites who made homophobic and other offensive remarks to the assembled students. As the day wore on, the students broke out in school chants, with one student taking off his shirt and leading cheers.
Though Washington is thronged with reporters, there was no press pool hovering at the Lincoln Memorial at sundown on Friday. The story, rather, became a national thing via social media. As CNN has reported, Twitter suspended an account that had posted a clipped version of the encounter between Sandmann and Phillips. “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the indigenous Peoples March," said the tweet, which was good enough for millions of views and more than 14,000 retweets. Journalists, commentators, activists and many, many others expressed their outrage over the clip. Media outlets had themselves a story.
A developing story, that is.
Below are three charts that highlight certain changes to accounts published in the New York Times, The Post and CNN. In the cases of the Times and The Post, the analysis covers two separate stories on the events. In CNN’s case, the analysis covers two different versions of a single story, the first one archived here as of early Sunday morning.
|New York Times||Version 1||Version 2|
|Headline||Viral Video Shows Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Surrounding Native Elder||Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Students|
|Details||...a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.||Soon, the Native American man, Nathan Phillips, 64, was encircled by an animated group of high school boys. He beat a ceremonial drum as a boy wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat stood inches away. The boy identified himself in a statement released on Sunday night as Nick Sandmann, a junior.|
|Clash||In video footage that was shared widely on social media, one boy, wearing the red hat that has become a signature of President Trump, stood directly in front of the elder, who stared impassively ahead while playing a ceremonial drum.||On Sunday, Mr. Phillips clarified that it was he who had approached the crowd and that he had intervened because racial tensions — primarily between the white students and the black men — were “coming to a boiling point.”|
|Quote||“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’” Mr. Phillips told The Post. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”||“I stepped in between to pray,” Mr. Phillips said.|
|The Post||Version 1||Version 2|
|Headline||‘It was getting ugly’: Native American drummer speaks on his encounter with MAGA-hat-wearing teens||Viral standoff between a tribal elder and a high schooler is more complicated than it first seemed|
|Details||Surrounding him are a throng of young, mostly white teenage boys, several wearing “Make America Great Again” caps. One stood about a foot from the drummer’s face wearing a relentless smirk.||Phillips played a prayer song on a drum as he walked toward the students. Some of the students began doing a “Tomahawk chop” and dancing, the video shows. Phillips said he found it offensive but kept walking and drumming. Most of the students moved out of his way, the video shows. But Sandmann stayed still.|
|Clash||In an interview Saturday, Phillips, 64, said he felt threatened by the teens and that they swarmed around him as he and other activists were wrapping up the march and preparing to leave.||The Native American elder said he was caught in the middle.|
|Quote||“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’ ” Phillips recalled. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way, and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”||“He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face,” the [Sandmann] statement said. “I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me.|
|CNN||Version 1||Version 2|
|Headline||Teens in Make America Great Again hats taunted a Native American elder at the Lincoln Memorial||Teen in confrontation with Native American elder says he was trying to defuse the situation|
|Details||A crowd of teenagers surrounded a Native American elder and other activists and mocked them after Friday’s Indigenous Peoples March at the Lincoln Memorial.||A crowd of teenagers surrounded a Native American elder and other activists and appeared to mock them after Friday’s Indigenous Peoples March at the Lincoln Memorial. (Bolding inserted to highlight change)|
|Clash||“I did not feel safe in that circle,” said Kaya Taitano, a student at the University of the District of Columbia who participated in the march and shot the videos. She told CNN that the teens were chanting things like “Build the wall” and “Trump 2020.”||Kaya Taitano, a student at the University of the District of Columbia, participated in the Indigenous Peoples March earlier in the day. She said the teens were chanting things like “Build the wall” and “Trump 2020.” Those chants were not audible in videos reviewed by CNN. “I did not feel safe in that circle,” she said.|
|Quote||Phillips also appeared upset in a video Taitano posted after the confrontation. He wiped away tears as he talked about the chants of “build that wall.”||Phillips also appeared upset in a video Taitano posted after the confrontation. He wiped away tears as he talked about the students' actions.|
No matter how you slice this particular story, the original video that touched off this controversy contained indisputable elements. Covington students were indeed surrounding Phillips & Co.; the students were indeed carrying on in a derisive and offensive fashion, with the “tomahawk chop” a key outrage. Laura Wagner argues on Deadspin that all the folks on Twitter and the media who revised their initial condemnations for the students should return to their first impressions. “They were all too happy to say that the sky was not blue if it meant burnishing their credentials as serious and objective, and fell over each other to back away from what was right in front of their eyes,” she writes.
Yet news accounts aren’t so much about takeaways as about facts, sequences, context and all those things that make a scene reconstruction true and honest. What knits together the initial accounts highlighted above is the absence of input from the students who were actually at the Lincoln Memorial for the event. Yes, the early stories had a statement from the Catholic Diocese of Covington and school officials condemning the behavior. But those words were silent about specifics on the ground. That came later, through Sandmann’s statement. Other illuminating video footage also came later.
None of the outlets above called it a day after publishing their initial accounts. They kept pushing and produced stories that synthesized those other elements. In the cases of The Post and the Times, however, those initial stories are still standing, albeit with italicized notes at top steering readers to the more complete accounts. The Post’s says, “[For the latest on this story: A tribal elder and a high school junior stood face to face, and the world reacted].” And the Times’s says, “Interviews and additional video footage have offered a fuller picture of what happened in this encounter, including the context that the Native American man approached the students amid broader tensions outside the Lincoln Memorial. Read the latest article here.”
Those are helpful measures, but they boil down to this essence: Don’t bother with this initial piece.
And that unstated note of caution is there for a reason: The initial stories were not helpful about how Phillips and Sandmann had come face to face in the first place. Given Phillips’s comment to The Post that he was “swarmed” by the students, readers would be licensed to conclude that the students saw him from afar, targeted him and advanced. We learned later that Phillips himself had walked straight into the student group, making a swarm all but inevitable. Let’s say a man jumps from a platform into an aquatic expanse. Did he dive into the water? Or did water surround and swarm him?
The Erik Wemple Blog asked all three outlets to discuss their work on the story. The Times sent this note: “We believe the note directing readers to more recent coverage adds appropriate context to the initial article. We are continuing to report out this story.” A CNN source told this blog that the digital operation worked feverishly to update the story highlighted above. As more information became available, the site adjusted the story. Policy at CNN.com is to publish an editor’s note when the updates shift the story in fundamental ways, according to the CNN source, though the team didn’t step back from the hurly-burly to do so. Management at the site has concluded that it should have done so, and a note is in the process of being drafted.
Mike Semel, The Post’s Metro editor, sat for an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog to discuss the paper’s stories. “We wanted to talk to one of the principals or at least a witness and get a statement from everybody involved in that video,” said Semel of the paper’s initial story. “And we didn’t post until we had both of those things.”
As for the second Post story, Semel pointed out that it included the statement from Sandmann, independent eyewitnesses, the Hebrew Israelites and more input from Phillips. “It’s a more complete but probably not a full account. I don’t think it ran counter to the first day [story]. It was more of an evolution rather than a counter,” he says. Is Semel 100 percent behind that first story? “The first story was an accurate portrayal of the facts known at the time. It remains an accurate portrayal. The second story is obviously more complete because it has more voices and more witnesses.”
To draw his argument out, Semel said, “We wrote a story off of Adam Schiff saying if BuzzFeed is right, it’s an impeachable offense.” Then special counsel Robert S. Mueller III issued a statement taking issue with the BuzzFeed story, which alleged that President Trump had directed lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. “Should we go back to that story?” asked Semel. The point here seems to be that if news organizations had to go back and update every story with facts that later emerged, they would do nothing else.
Another example from Semel: “Take a guy that’s charged with murder for shooting 15 people and he’s acquitted: Do we go back to the arrest story? I’m not saying this guy is acquitted or not acquitted. I’m just making analogy. … The analogy is: A bill is introduced and it fails. Do we go back to the bill introduction story and say that it failed? News evolves. This is one of those cases."
True, but folks know that an arrest is the first part of a process in the criminal-justice system; folks also know that a bill faces a difficult lifetime in a legislature, per “Schoolhouse Rock!” An episode at the Lincoln Memorial isn’t a process; it’s an event. Fairness, in every version of the story, requires spelling out that the confrontation occurred after Phillips marched into the group of children. And everyone is entitled to their opinions about how they behaved before and after that moment.