Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.
Between the total collapse of the Covington Catholic story and the embarrassment of the Jussie Smollett hate hoax, 2019 has been a rough year for America’s embattled mainstream media.
Now, the hostility toward these supposed guardians of democracy that provided some of the energy behind Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign is about to get its day in court. Nick Sandmann, the 16-year-old Covington student who was accused of willfully intimidating the Native American activist Nathan Phillips at this year’s March for Life, has filed a defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post, requesting $250 million in damages.
The court filing, which is available online, is a fascinating read. My first question was how Sandmann’s lawyers came up with the figure of a quarter of a billion dollars, and the document duly provided an answer: it is “the amount Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, paid in cash for the Post…in 2013.” This lawsuit is not about Sandmann’s lost opportunities or mental anguish. It’s about “punish[ing], deter[ring], and teach[ing] the Post a lesson it will never forget.” That kind of rhetorical melodrama seems aimed at journalists, not judges. The goal, quite literally, is to take the paper for everything it’s worth, and make a big splash doing so.
Nor does the combative language end there. Sandmann’s attorneys accuse the Post of “wrongfully placing the anti-Trump, anti-Catholic, and [pro-choice] agenda over the harm its False and Defamatory Accusations caused to Nicholas” and of ignoring “contrary information in favor of its pre-conceived false narrative against President Trump and his supporters.” Sandmann’s name might be at the top of the complaint, but the attorneys who authored it clearly imagine their lawsuit is carrying the banner for every single victim of anti-MAGA discrimination.
Most of the complaint is devoted to listing and refuting all of the “False and Defamatory Accusations” in an exhaustive and highly repetitive manner. Taken together, the evidence is damning, even if it seems a bit exaggerated at points (such as the insistence that the Post’s seventh article on the incident, which seemed fairly balanced to me, was still defamatory).
Yet the complaint’s bellicose and overtly partisan language, as well as its reliance on the right-wing persecution complex, made me uneasy. So I decided to re-read the Post‘s first story on the Sandmann-Phillips incident. After all, it couldn’t be that bad.
Oh, but it was. Even the headline—“Native American drummer speaks on the MAGA-hat wearing teens who surrounded him”—was false, and has since been updated to say that Phillips “speaks on his encounter with MAGA-hat-wearing teens.” The version of the story currently available on the Post’s website also includes a correction, acknowledging that they made a mistake in publishing Phillips’ misleading statement about having served in Vietnam.
Both of these factual errors are unforgivable. As the court filing points out, unedited video of the event was available at the time the story was published. The reporters who wrote the story simply didn’t bother to look for it. Even after the corrections, the updated version of the story still describes Sandmann’s expression as “a relentless smirk” and retains several of Phillips’ statements, such as his claim that the students blocked his way and chanted “Build that wall.” They also include the sappy and totally irrelevant detail that, as he beat his drum, Phillips was “thinking about his wife, Shoshanna, who died of bone marrow cancer nearly four years ago.” The roles of hero and villain were already cast.
From there, the article degenerates into a something akin to the murder of Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, as people and groups come forward one by one to sink their knives into Sandmann. Democratic Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan, Covington Catholic High School officials, the Diocese of Covington, the mayor of Covington, the guy who started an online petition to fire the principal of Covington Catholic (for God’s sake!), and the Indigenous Peoples Movement all get their turn. And, for good measure, we also get a paragraph about Trump’s taunting of Senator Elizabeth Warren and a Post denunciation of the March for Life.
From the sheer scale of this pile-on, you’d think Sandmann had shot up a school.
If there was any attempt by these reporters to get Sandmann’s side of the story or talk to anyone who was with the Covington group, the article gives no indication of it. This is shoddy journalism, pure and simple, and it’s especially disappointing coming from a paper still basking in the light of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Meryl Streep.
By the seventh article, Sandmann was quoted and the story was becoming more balanced, but the damage was already done. For so many readers, the nuances and even the truth of the story don’t matter. If the MAGA hat is indeed the new white hood, then any attempt to be evenhanded is tantamount to offering aid and comfort to the enemy. One Twitter user summed up this opinion nicely: “Oh yes the kid who was marching against women’s reproductive rights while wearing a hat promoting an evil homophobic racist misogynistic sociopath was TOTALLY misrepresented.”
The details aren’t important when you can simply weigh the race, gender, class, and sexual identities of the parties involved and thereby come to an arithmetical solution. And that’s exactly what Sandmann’s lawyers accuse the Post of doing. The duty of a journalist is to explore every aspect of the story without prejudice, not to paint in broad, politically convenient strokes. That method is best left to the Soviets, as evidenced by a 1918 article in one of their newspapers:
It is not necessary during the interrogation to look for evidence proving that the accused opposed the Soviets by word or action. The first question you should ask him is what class does he belong to, what is his origin, his education and his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused.
Trump, despite his bluster, has made no real attempts to muzzle the “fake news media,” but he is cheering on this lawsuit. Now it looks like the Post‘s hatred of the president and his supporters could lead to disaster to the tune of $250 million. Either way, this has the potential to be the biggest court case of the Trump era.