Judge, Jury and Executioner: Outrage in the Age of Trump


The media’s rush to portray Nick Sandmann as the aggressor violated journalistic ethics and excacerbated the situation. (Courtesy of Flickr)

By Timothy Kyle

On Jan. 19, a minute-long video broke the Internet. A confrontation between a Native American man and a group of white males wearing “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hats, during which the boys appeared to harass the Native American, caused an immediate outrage. Pundits rushed to condemn the boys.

The Twitter mob howled for blood and the media spin machine kicked into high gear. The next day, another nearly two-hour-long video emerged and revealed a different viewpoint. The boys did not confront the Native American man, Nathan Phillips; he approached them. The high schoolers had been subject to incendiary, racist and homophobic taunting by a recognized hate group, the Black Israelites. No video emerged in which the boys chanted “build the wall,” as originally reported. Instead of being another example of hate-filled bigotry that does indeed exist in the age of Trump, the Covington Catholic incident and ensuing political inquisition functions as a reminder of the disgraceful state of the mass media and the power of the self-righteous mob.

To fully understand the incident, one must first understand the full sequence of events as shown by the two-hour-long video, recorded by the Black Hebrew Israelites, which adds important context to the shorter video. The Black Israelites are shown haranguing passersby for more than an hour, including the Covington Catholic kids and participants in the Native American march, in which Phillips was taking part. The Black Israelites hurled disgusting, vitriolic, racist, sexist and homophobic slurs at both parties. At one point, a Black Israelite preacher told a Native American woman that she was “out of order,” asking “Where is your husband?” The Black Israelites then turned their attention to the Covington Catholic boys, who were standing nearby, attacking them with vicious homophobic slurs, which prompted boos from the teens. The Black Israelites then focused on an African-American boy standing with the Covington Catholic teens, telling him that his white friends would “harvest his organs.”

It is into this hate-filled, highly-charged atmosphere that Nathan Phillips walked, beating his drum and engaging in a Native American chant. The boys did not block his way, which refutes his retelling of the story on national television. Instead, the two-hour video proves Phillips walked right into the crowd and began drumming in the face of the now-infamous smiling boy. The smiler, now known to be Nick Sandmann, 16, said nothing to Phillips, even stopping a friend from mocking Phillips by turning around and saying “no” when the other teen began to speak. Some of the teens did engage in the Florida State Tomahawk Chop and began dancing to the beat of Phillips’ drum, and that was wrong. However, the reaction to this insensitivity was disproportionate.

It seems that Phillips has a habit of making false and misleading statements. He notably claimed in the aftermath of this incident that he was a “Marine recon ranger” from “Vietnam times.” Not only do “Marine recon rangers” not exist, it was quickly discovered that Phillips served four years in the Marine Corps Reserve and was never deployed to Vietnam. All of these “facts” are key context that should have been researched and released by the media in conjunction with the story. Instead, in their rush to spin a narrative, most media outlets revealed that they couldn’t care less about truth.

And what was the reasonable, logic-driven reaction from the Twittersphere and the Internet to the original video? Nothing short of atrocious. CNN’s Reza Aslan said on her official Twitter she had never seen “a more punchable face than this kid’s.” National Review’s Nicholas Frankovich said the boys had “spit on the cross.” Disney producer Jack Morrissey called for the “MAGA kids” to go “screaming, head first, into a wood chipper.”

The result of this hysteria? Covington Catholic High School was closed for almost a week due to threats of violence, and a mysterious package was found outside the Diocese of Covington’s offices. Sandmann’s face was plastered all over the internet, where he was brutally castigated on both social media and the national news. Let’s be clear about something: this is a kid. He is 16. He said nothing to Nathan Phillips.

He didn’t even move. Sandmann is guilty of smiling awkwardly and wearing a MAGA hat. For this transgression, his name has been dragged through the mud relentlessly as grown men and women howled for his blood.

Only 32 percent of Americans trust the media, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. With stories like these, it is easy to understand why. It is essential that context and background are understood and fairly reported. If the media followed their own Journalistic ethics guidelines, perhaps a group of children wouldn’t have been needlessly attacked. And shame on those who took part in the online mob, whose credo is “guilty until proven innocent.” If a minutes-long video of a boy in a MAGA hat smiling is enough to provoke you to overzealous rage, you need to do some soul-searching and realize you’re just as complicit in the destruction of American political discourse as President Trump is.


Timothy Kyle, FCRH ’21, is a political science major from West Hartford, Connecticut