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How the Media Turned the MAGA Teens Into Martyrs

A confrontation between students from Covington Catholic High School and a Native American protester began as an example of the corrosive effects of the MAGA menace. Then it became a cause célèbre for conservatives.

Social media via Reuters/Ringer illustration

“The media” picked a fight with several teenage boys and lost.

On Saturday, a video showing several high school students confronting and surrounding a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial went viral on social media. It was ugly. The students, from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, all boys, mostly white, many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and T-shirts, were in Washington, D.C., to attend the March for Life, an anti-abortion rally, and they seemed to be hectoring Nathan Phillips, a Native American protester, as he peacefully beat his drum and sang. But the original video did not fully reveal how the MAGA teens and Phillips crossed paths. As the story moved quickly, the news media stumbled.

At Reason on Sunday, Robby Soave reported on more extensive footage of the incident, a 105-minute video that those outraged by the original four-minute clip hadn’t yet seen, and accused the media of having “wildly mischaracterized” the incident. The longer video reveals a far more complicated interaction, involving several members of the religious group the Black Hebrew Israelites who taunted the Covington students with epithets before Phillips—having just finished the Indigenous Peoples March at the Lincoln Memorial—inserted himself between the two groups. Phillips beat his drum, and the Covington students drowned out his singing with their high school’s fight song. The videos depict a tense encounter involving two factions who had just concluded two different political marches. For a brief moment, the Lincoln Memorial hosted a strange political mix: the Omaha elder Phillips, several Black Hebrew Israelites, and the MAGA teens, three disparate groups engaging in vague hostilities.

Nicholas Sandmann is the 16-year-old Covington student whom the original video shows in the closest confrontation with Phillips, and the subject of much of the ire on social media. In the days after the incident, Sandmann has vigorously defended himself against the initial reports, which characterized the teenager as a sneering colonizer. “I am being called every name in the book, including a racist, and I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination of my family’s name,” Sandmann wrote in an early statement. Sandmann’s mother blamed “black Muslims”—presumably, the Black Hebrew Israelites—for antagonizing the Covington students, including her son. Liberal critics of the Covington students cite still more footage of the MAGA teens doing tomahawk chops in the direction of Phillips. Regardless, conservatives and political moderates defended the students as the real victims, suffering from bigoted remarks by the Black Israelites, “lies” from Phillips in the press, and, worse yet, smears by the lying, liberal media itself. Sandmann’s defenders presented the incident as a misunderstanding—teenage boys caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time—and cautioned against rushing to judgment, regardless of the MAGA hats. Indeed, Sandmann’s defenders pivoted from apologizing for their hastiness in assessing the earlier video to scapegoating the liberal media for getting the story wrong.

The story transformed, and so, too, did its significance. It was proof of Trumpism’s menacing bigotry; but then it was proof that “the media” demonizes conservatives, and conservatism, in all forms. The liberal critics seized on the more superficial cues in the footage—the young, white Sandmann smirking at Phillips while wearing a MAGA hat—and conservatives interpreted this disgust as an attack on one of their own children, on themselves. And so they decided: The boys were in the right.

The Covington controversy might have come and gone as a parable about “fake news,” “media bias,” “outrage culture,” “tribalism,” “online bullying,” and all the other buzzwords that resonate in the MAGA moment. But now it lingers as a conservative cause célèbre. (Mercifully, the Covington controversy has cured the right’s week-long outrage about a Gillette commercial.) The White House is providing daily statements. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump tweeted: “Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be. They have captivated the attention of the world, and I know they will use it for the good—maybe even to bring people together.” They have indeed united the right. Sandmann, in particular, has stood his ground in the press as defiantly as he seemed to stand in Phillips’s face. Sandmann and his family have mounted a public relations campaign to absolve the teen and to further endear him to conservatives who have quickly come to regard him as a folk hero in the general struggle against liberal media biases. Sandmann’s martyrdom is an ironic if predictable twist: Right-wing media spent a year clowning and doubting school shooting survivors only to canonize some intrepid teenagers who survived wearing MAGA hats while visiting Trump’s Washington. “The media” has eagerly—foolishly—enhanced Sandmann’s right-wing regard. The two parties in this argument have kept one crucial perception in common. They look at Nicholas Sandmann, and they see Brett Kavanaugh. They look at Covington Catholic, and they see Georgetown Prep. They look at the MAGA hats, and they see red.

Several tangential arguments have since emerged: The students were wearing MAGA hats, which are, inherently, offensive. If Sandmann and the other MAGA teens hadn’t been wearing those red alarms, the Covington media fiasco never would have happened. The MAGA teens may have been misunderstood, but they’re also unconditionally protected by their visible allegiance to Trump and his tribe. The teens behaved poorly; the Black Hebrew Israelites even worse. But “the media” behaved worst of all, having compounded so many ambiguities and then having the nerve to call these revisions a clarification.