The media, your school and diocese, and commentators (me included) failed to prevent a serious miscarriage of justice
To the boys of Covington Catholic High School:
Many of you are still reeling from the trauma of the past few days. Some of you are no doubt fending off vicious online attacks, instigated by loudmouths on the internet with blue checkmarks next to their names. Your parents are worried sick about what all this portends – for college admissions and scholarships and employment prospects that now appear dimmed by false news accounts about your actions at the March for Life.
I wish I could offer a word of reassurance amid your troubles. But all I can say is that everyone failed you. The elite media failed its duty to truth and fairness. Your school failed you. Your diocese failed you. Your Church failed you, with some of the nation’s most visible Catholics, lay and clerical, rushing to join the pile-on. America failed you.
Start with the media. If you have taken a high-school journalism class, you have heard that reporters are exacting with facts. That they are supposed to seek comment from people they criticise. “Even if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” runs an old journalistic maxim. These standards are especially pertinent when stories involve children.
Well, I’m sorry to say that many “real”, adult journalists don’t follow these professional rules anymore, including and especially at the prestigious outlets that went after you.
The New York Times headlined their story “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March”. The Times subsequently replaced the word “Mob” with “Surround”. But that was little better: more extensive footage later emerged that covered the entirety of the altercation, and it showed how it was Phillips who approached you and started banging his drum in your faces.
The Times eventually appended an editor’s note to its story, noting that “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.” As my former Wall Street Journal colleague James Taranto likes to joke in these instances: Other than the whole story, the story was correct.
By that time, the false narrative took a life of its own, and it was staged nearly identically by other publications – and by news channels: CNN showed what it called “a crowd of teenagers wearing ‘Make America Great Again’ hats taunting a Native American elder”.
Had the reporters gathered more facts before going to press, they could have saved themselves much embarrassment and played the honourable public role they claim.
Then came a deluge of online abuse. The pornographic actress Stormy Daniels called you “disgusting punks.” Ana Navarro, a political commentator, described you as “a–wipes.” (Navarro later deleted the tweet.)
Other digital lynchers raged against your appearance. The writer Reza Aslan posted a photo of one of you and asked: “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” Numerous well-known figures took issue with your “smirk,” an alleged symbol of male privilege and white supremacy.
A “smirk” – though it looks more like an understandably uncomfortable smile – is enough to destroy a child’s life in 2019.
But let’s face it, when a liberal journalist or talking-head looks at you, they find much that is objectionable. You come from a deep-red, rural state. You are Catholic and pro-life. Worst of all you, you support President Trump — in their eyes, an unforgivable sin against “democracy” (by which they really mean liberalism).
There is no way you would triumph in their mind’s intersectional court of justice, even if actual justice is on your side.
What about your school and your Church, charged with protecting your wellbeing and your souls, respectively? Rather than wait for the facts, school and diocese quickly issued a joint statement denouncing you in the strongest terms. So did the March for Life, though they later re-assessed.
A number of prominent Catholics brought their own pitchforks to the scene. Mollie O’Reilly, a Commonweal editor, tweeted: “You don’t let your kid wear a MAGA hat, and then act offended when they get taken for a racist.” Celebrity Jesuit Fr James Martin said he was “disgusted” and even questioned your integrity as Catholics: “These actions are not Catholic… Would that these students fully understood the dignity of all human life.” Fr Martin later apologised, though retractions and apologies rarely garner as much attention as the original fulminations.
I also failed you. I rebuked you, though more mildly than others did, because I too can sometimes be credulous in the face of a media consensus; lesson learned. Thanks to the Herald columnist Matthew Schmitz, I quickly wised up to the discrepancies and inaccuracies in the media-mob account.
In short, every institution that could have prevented this miscarriage of justice compounded it instead. I won’t bore you with uplift that will ring hollow in your moment of crisis. But don’t apologise for a thing, boys of Covington Catholic.
Sohrab Ahmari is op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the forthcoming memoir, From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)