The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A viral story spread. The mainstream media rushed to keep up. The Trump Internet pounced.

The online supporters of the president were ready for a moment like the Covington Catholic controversy.

Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and high school student Nick Sandmann give their versions of viral moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

The video, taken from an Instagram account and reposted to Twitter, went viral with the caption, “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the Indigenous Peoples March.” In the clip, an activist named Nathan Phillips beat a drum as a teen in a Make America Great Again hat stood inches from him, smiling.

As the story picked up speed on social media, a Washington Post editor assigned reporters to cover it. At about 3 p.m. on Saturday, one reporter spoke to Phillips about what happened. Others called the Catholic school and the local diocese, looking for a statement from someone who could represent the students in the video. The reporters weren’t aware of a critical third element in the scene: the Hebrew Israelites who had been taunting the high school boys moments before the viral video began.

At 5 p.m. on Saturday, still unaware of the moments preceding the viral video, The Post published its first story on what would become a days-long national argument about racism, the media and masculinity. The headline: “‘It was getting ugly’: Native American drummer speaks on his encounter with MAGA-hat-wearing teens.” The article quoted Phillips, saying he felt threatened by the teens. It also included a statement from the Catholic Diocese of Covington condemning the actions of the students seen in the video, in which they appeared to mock and taunt the Native American activist.

The smiling student, now identified as Nick Sandmann, released a statement 24 hour later saying that Phillips confronted him, not the other way around. Another video of the incident emerged showing Phillips slowly walking toward the teens, beating his drum.

In just a few hours on Saturday, the story took off with comet-like speed, propelled in equal measures by social-media outrage and by news reporting that drafted on its wake. In a now all-too-familiar process, people chose sides, and each side fed off the other, with mainstream news accounts pushing the whole slush pile along.

As is typical in such breaking-news situations, initial news accounts — which drew howls from partisans on both sides — were unable to provide all the context and facts. It took close to 48 hours for reporters, and a divided America, to fully grasp what had occurred, and to whom. At that point, President Trump weighed in with a tweet supportive of the Covington schoolboys, kicking the dust cloud up anew.

Like many viral outrage stories, the narrative became more complicated as more facts emerged, and more people stepped forward to talk about what they saw and experienced in that moment. But the Covington story isn’t just a run-of-the-mill incident of viral outrage. It involved MAGA-hat-wearing teens and Native American activists. Those who shared the video in those first 24 hours, including many conservatives, seemed to feel it was emblematic of the vitriol and racism that drives the worst of American culture. But when new details shifted the story into more ambiguous territory, a well-oiled machine of pro-Trump personalities and sites saw an opportunity to strike.

The Post’s next story on the incident was headlined, “Viral standoff between a tribal elder and a high-schooler is more complicated than it first seemed.” The reporters attempted to flesh out what, exactly, happened near the Lincoln Memorial with more sources and eyewitnesses. One witness said he heard students chant “Build that wall” at the protesters — a chant that is not heard in any available video footage — and suggested that Phillips approached the group to intervene. Others described the ugly insults that members of the Black Israelite group hurled at the teens in the lead-up to the video, ramping up the tension. March for Life, the nonprofit that organized the antiabortion rally that the Covington students were in town to support, deleted a statement condemning the teens. Instead, the group said it had decided to reserve judgment.

“Post journalists worked diligently on Saturday and Sunday to present the facts of the incident as we learned them,” Cameron Barr, managing editor of The Post, said in a statement. “This was a complex encounter involving many people with sharply different perspectives — we reported what we could verify by talking to participants and witnesses and examining the available video. As is often the case, reporting over time allows a more complete picture to emerge.”

For the students and their defenders, attempts by the media to widen the narrative of the first viral video came too late. Online vigilantes had identified the teens. Sandmann said he had received “physical and death threats via social media, as well as hateful insults."

Now, a new viral outrage emerged. This time the villain of the story was the news media.

That outrage came from a parallel universe online, one that has been waiting for a moment like this. The pro-Trump Internet has, for years, worked to create a media environment that is designed to destroy the traditional news media and replace it. Mike Cernovich, a popular figure in this world, helped to promote the Pizzagate conspiracy theory in 2016. Pizzagate falsely accused a D.C. pizza shop of housing a secret pedophile ring, and ultimately inspired a believer to show up at the shop with an assault rifle.

Cernovich has since rebranded himself as an anti-mainstream media source of real news — one who on some days tries to tie mass shootings to anti-fascist activists without credible evidence and on other days manages to get a Hollywood director fired from a major movie by using his popular Twitter account to amplify old, offensive tweets from the director about children and sexual misconduct.

The Covington story is the sort of thing the pro-Trump Internet and figures like Cernovich are made for. As videos emerged, showing Phillips slowly approaching the teens during an altercation with a third group nearby, they went to work.

C.J. Pearson, a teen conservative activist, collected tweets from verified users — including journalists and celebrities — who had reacted negatively to the first video of the confrontation. Pearson posted updates on his project with the hashtag #Verifiedbullies and promised to pass on the list to “legal counsel of the Covington Catholic students.”

An anonymous group of students and parents spoke to the Gateway Pundit, telling the right-wing news site that they’d retained the services of Robert Barnes, a lawyer popular in pro-Trump circles. On Twitter, Barnes offered to represent the students free if they wanted to sue a New York Times reporter who asked if any students would be expelled for the behavior seen in the original video.

“A lot of lawyers are begging to take these cases. Some of y’all gonna be Gawker’ed,” Cernovich tweeted, referring to the website that closed in 2016 after losing a lawsuit to Hulk Hogan.

According to the pro-Trump media, the Covington teens were blameless, the only victims who mattered. Cassandra Fairbanks, the Gateway Pundit writer who said she interviewed the families, tweeted, “Just asked one of the boys from Covington’s mom if she wants to comment on the new video that came out of the kids being bullied by the protesters and she said ‘I’m too busy crying.’ Nice job media.” She also shared a link to a petition with more than 22,000 signatures in support of the students.

Ben Garrison, a cartoonist who is popular on the pro-Trump Internet, drew his version of the scene: Instead of the smile seen in videos of the encounter, Sandmann was drawn looking small, wide-eyed, and terrified as a menacing, stereotypical caricature of a Native American beat a drum in his face.

The liberal backlash against the teens, and who had apologized, and who hadn’t, and whether those apologies were sincere enough, became a breaking news story on the pro-Trump Internet. “Just spoke to MAGA hat kid Nick on the phone - he is total hero and has been maligned by the media He is in good spirits and plans to FIGHT these lies by the media I told him we are with him 100%!,” conservative figure Charlie Kirk tweeted.

Eventually the president weighed in, tweeting Tuesday morning that “the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be.”

Amid speculation that the boys might get an invitation to visit the White House, Savannah Guthrie announced that Sandmann would be interviewed Wednesday on the “Today Show.” Guthrie posted a photo of the two of them on Twitter, sitting in front of the cameras. Sandmann was smiling.