The free press is an essential part of American democracy, and the increased partisanship with regards to it is a problem that everyone has to confront. From the President on down, media and news outlets are being accused of bias and sensationalist reporting. While the conduct of these individuals is unbecoming of public officials, the issues that they bring up are valid. There is a narrative pushed by the mainstream media, and in order to restore trust in media institutions, which have always been and must continue to be the bedrocks of free speech in public life, that bias must be acknowledged and corrected. If a sizable portion of Americans feel they can only trust Fox News, the disconnect between the Left and the Right will only grow worse, and lead to the suppression of debate and the free exchange of ideas.
A blatant example of media bias occurred earlier this year, and even prompted Latin’s Ethics Committee to host a discussion on the subject. On January 18, 2019, Nick Sandemann and other students from Covington Catholic, a high school located in Park Hills, Kentucky, were at the Lincoln Memorial waiting for their buses after attending the pro-life March for Life Rally. A minute long snippet of the event was released in which it seems that Sandeman and his peers, mostly white and in Make America Great Again hats, are mocking Native American elder Nathan Phillips as he was beating a drum. As an out of context minute is not long enough to gauge a situation, the rational thing to do would have been to find out how the kids and the man ended up in this situation, and to publish a measured account of the video.
Sadly, the media did not take this route. CNN’s first article on the story was titled “Teens in Make America Great Again Hats Taunted a Native American Elder at the Lincoln Memorial,” and a broadcast on their network was headlined “Viral Video/MAGA Hat Teens Taunt Native American at Indigenous Peoples March.” CBS, the Washington Post, and the New York Times added on with similar articles.
Soon after the initial reports, a nearly two hour long video was released that showed what happened in its entirety. The situation started when a black nationalist group called the Black Israelites started harassing the boys. The initial articles did not have a single mention of them. They screamed things like “your president is a homosexual”, and “you give f****ts rights” at the boys, and called a black Covington student the n-word. This group is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, but that didn’t stop the New York Times from running a sympathetic piece on the organization. According to the article, titled “Hebrew Israelites See Divine Intervention in Lincoln Memorial Confrontation,” they are characterized as using “blunt, sometimes offensive language,” without once mentioning what they specifically said to the Covington kids. The article concludes with quotes from a black man who believes “Hebrew Israelites are a harmless part of their communities” and that black people are more concerned with “seeing a white guy in a ‘Make America Great Again hat.”
Nathan Phillips was also shown to have walked up to the students in the video, contradicting initial media reports and politicians’ accounts that said the Covington kids initiated the confrontation. Phillips claimed,“These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them,” and there has been little to no pushback from the media for this lie. CNN published another article on January 21st titled “A new video shows a different side of the encounter between a Native American elder and teens in MAGA hats,” and the Washington Post put in an editor’s note in their initial article, stating that the longer video “allow for a more complete assessment of what occurred, either contradicting or failing to confirm accounts provided in that story.” The Washington Post did not mention how another one of their articles, published January 20, titled “The Catholic Church’s Shameful History of Native American Abuses,” was written at an inappropriate time, nor did either of these publications offer an apology to the Covington kids.
This episode caused widespread outrage on the Right, and led many conservatives to blast the entire media apparatus. Tucker Carlson claimed “the liberal media has been left reeling,” and Ben Shapiro called the episode “a manufactured media lie.” Both of these personalities have millions of followers, and they were just the tip of the iceberg. What is going to happen when a good portion of the country believes that whatever they read from CNN or the Washington Post is false? Can free speech truly exist in ideological bubbles? There will be a reckoning for the current media environment, and the question is if it will end with our country being more united or divided.