Private investigators: Confused Covington Catholics didn't shout 'build the wall' or act like racists

Let’s face it, mass-communications researchers are going to be studying the Covington Catholic High School media meltdown (click here for GetReligion files) for years to come.

I’d still like to know why the Lincoln Memorial drama was an earth-shaking event, but attempts by Native American protest drummers to invade a Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was a “conservative” non-story. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Of course, there’s an outside shot that legal scholars may be involved in future accounts of all this, depending on how judges and, maybe, some juries feel about journalists basing wall-to-wall coverage on short, edited videos provided by activists on one side of a complex news event. In the smartphone age, do journalists have a legal obligation — in terms of making a professional attempt to check basic facts — to compare an advocacy group’s punchy, edited YouTube offering with full-length videos from others?

Before someone asks: I feel exactly the same way about covert videos (think Planned Parenthood stings) by “conservative” activists. Nobody knows anything until the full videos are available to the press.

Now we have an early Washington Post story about a a private investigation of the Covington encounter with Native American activist Nathan Phillips, as well as those angry black Hebrew Israelites. The headline is rather blunt: “Investigation finds no evidence of ‘racist or offensive statements’ by Covington Catholic students during Lincoln Memorial incident.”

Yes, I would like to know who hired the private investigators. Nevertheless, here is the overture. The key findings: No “build the wall” chants. But isolated tomahawk chops.

An investigation released Wednesday into an encounter between Covington Catholic High School students and Native American activists at the Lincoln Memorial last month largely supports the students’ accounts of the incident, which prompted immediate and widespread condemnation of the boys after a video of the encounter went viral.

A short video clip showed Nathan Phillips, playing a traditional drum, in an apparent standoff with student Nick Sandmann, who was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School, which arranged the trip, were among those who initially condemned the boys’ actions in the video.

The report, prepared by Greater Cincinnati Investigation, Inc. and dated Feb. 11, employed four licensed investigators for approximately 240 hours to take statements from students and chaperones, as well as to interview third-party witnesses and review about 50 hours of video. Investigators were not able to interview either Phillips or Sandmann in person and instead reviewed the student’s written account.

The investigators said they found no evidence that the students responded in an offensive manner to the black Hebrew Israelites or that they chanted “build the wall.” After asking chaperones, they performed a school cheer, according to the report, to drown out the black Hebrew Israelites.

You would think, by this time, we would have heard all of the interesting details about this incident. However, this Post report has some new information, via the Greater Cincinnati Investigation report. Here’s a few details that jumped out at me:

* Yes, the tapes clearly indicate that Covington students were confused when Phillips approached them.

* What about the actions of school leaders? The Post noted that a chaperone told students that if “they engaged in a verbal exchange with the Black Hebrew Israelites, they would receive detention when returning to school.”

* Those trigger-warning red Make America Great Again hats? The boys bought them as souvenirs from street vendors on the day of the March for Life. In previous years, Covington boys bought Barack Obama “Hope” hats.

In terms of reactions among various Catholic — local and national — here is an angle I’d like to see reporters investigate:

The Bishop of Covington welcomed the report. … Roger Foys wrote that he was pleased “that my hope and expectation expressed in my letter to you of 25 January that the results of our inquiry ... would ‘exonerate our students so that they can move forward with their lives’ has been realized.”

The day after the march, the diocese denounced the boys’ behavior in a joint statement with the school, calling it “opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.” …

Foys later wrote that he was “bullied and pressured into making a statement prematurely” and that it is “important for us to gather the facts that will allow us to determine what corrective actions, if any, are appropriate.”


Who is in a position to bully a bishop? Are we talking about hostile calls from Catholic media or, this would be amazing, were there hot calls from leaders of elite Catholic offices and institutions. Maybe even the U.S. Catholic bishops?

Now, I would like to request a favor from readers.

I am going to be away from my computer, and television, all of tonight because of a speaking engagement. I would really appreciate comments-page feedback from readers — URLs even — on how this report from private investigators is played in prime-time and cable television news. Can we expect a big splash? A few jokes in late night?

Come to think of it. If there are Washington Post subscribers out there — old-school readers — please let us know where this story plays in the dead-tree-pulp edition. Did it make A1?

Please respect our Commenting Policy