Nathan Phillips

Covington Catholic update: Was that epic late-Friday Washington Post correction a good move?

Covington Catholic update: Was that epic late-Friday Washington Post correction a good move?

If you’ve ever worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., you know that things often go crazy right about 5 p.m. on Fridays.

It’s the end of the work week. Most of the power brokers have headed for home, their home back in their home district (or state) or that special weekend home where they relax in private. They have turned off their “official” cellphones or left them at the office. Many of their gatekeepers — the folks who negotiate media contacts — have flown the coop, as well.

In newsrooms, the ranks are pretty thin, as well.

Professionals inside the Beltway knows that this dead zone is when savvy press officers put out the news that they hope doesn’t end up in the news. This tactic worked better before Twitter and the Internet.

Thus, the Washington Post posted an interesting editor’s note or correction at the end of the business day this past Friday linked to one of the biggest religion stories of the year — the March for Life drama featuring that group of boys from Covington Catholic High School, Native American drummer-activists and amped-up protesters from the Black Hebrew Israelites (click here for various GetReligion posts on this topic).

It appears that Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway was either the first pundit or among the very first to spot this interesting Friday dead-zone PR move by the Post.

If you travel back in time, here is the lede on one of the key “Acts of Faith” pieces about this controversy:

A viral video of a group of Kentucky teens in “Make America Great Again” hats taunting a Native American veteran on Friday has heaped fuel on a long-running, intense argument among abortion opponents as to whether the close affiliation of many antiabortion leaders with President Trump since he took office has led to moral decay that harms the movement.

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What did press learn from Covington Catholic drama? Hint. This story wasn't about Donald Trump

What did press learn from Covington Catholic drama? Hint. This story wasn't about Donald Trump

This week’s “Crossroads” feature post is brought to you by the letter “A,” as in “Atlantic ocean.”

In other words, I am writing this while looking out a window at the Atlantic Ocean. I think this week’s podcast introduction will be a bit shorter than normal.

Oh, the podcast is the normal length (click here to tune that in) and it focuses on reports about an investigation into the basic facts of the Covington Catholic High School media storm. Here’s my previous post on that topic: “Private investigators: Confused Covington Catholics didn't shout 'build the wall' or act like racists.”

The main subject that host Todd Wilken and I discussed was the lessons that two groups of people — journalists and church leaders — could learn from that encounter between a bunch of Catholic boys, a circle of black Hebrew Israelites and Native American activist Nathan Phillips.

I hope that everyone learned to be a bit more patient when considering “hot take” responses to short, edited YouTube videos prepared by activist groups. That includes Catholic bishops, if and when they face withering waves of telephone calls from reporters (and perhaps other church leaders).

We may have a new reality here: When news events take place and lots of people are present, journalists (and bishops) can assume that there will be more than one smartphone video to study.

The stakes for journalists (and perhaps a few Hollywood pros) could be high. Consider this passage from my earlier post, focusing on What. Comes. Next.

… 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.

So, are journalists pausing to think about what happened in this Twitter-fueled train wreck of a story?

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

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.

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A question that won't fade: Why did Covington Catholic boys instantly become the bad guys?

A question that won't fade: Why did Covington Catholic boys instantly become the bad guys?

Stop and ask yourself the following journalism puzzler (I apologize for the length of this thing).

Why did the Covington Catholic High School “smirk” incident with Native American elder Nathan Phillips seize the American media and even cause waves overseas, while the effort by Phillips and his drummers to march into and interrupt a Mass at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (security personnel stopped them) drew a radically mainstream media response (something like this, click here)?

The answer is clear: The gatekeepers in key, elite newsrooms thought the first story was big news and the second one was not.

But why did they feel that way? Why ignore one story and carpet-bomb the other?

That gets us into the media-bias minefield that I have been exploring my entire professional career, starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s (click here for my 1983 cover story for The Quill, a professional journal). But that answer only raises more questions: Why do so many journalists ignore, downplay or even mangle religion stories? What kind of bias is involved? As for that topic, click here for my second cover story at The Quill, in 1993. There is no one bias linked all this — there are four of them.

Welcome to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which — #DUH — returns to the Covington Catholic story. Click here to tune that in.

I want to point readers to a new mini-essay by one of my favorite writers, David French of National Review. He is a Harvard Law School graduate who specializes in religious liberty cases. As an outspoken #NeverTrump #NeverHillary conservative, he has been caught in the middle of many media flash fires in recent years.

The headline on this piece: “We’re Plagued by a Partisan Press. Here’s One Cure.” It focuses on the lack of intellectual and cultural diversity in many newsrooms. This reality affects decisions about what is and what is not news.

But before we get to French, let me remind readers of the following language in the amazing 2005 self-study conducted by the New York Times, during a time of turmoil over journalism ethics. The title: “Preserving Our Readers' Trust.

Our paper's commitment to a diversity of gender, race and ethnicity is nonnegotiable. We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason — to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it.

The executive editor should assign this goal to everyone who has a hand in recruiting. We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar).

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Friday Five: Twitter mobs, Covington Catholic controversy, ABC journalist's faith

Friday Five: Twitter mobs, Covington Catholic controversy, ABC journalist's faith

In the age of outrage, it’s hard to escape social media mobs.

People screaming from behind smartphones and keyboards feed a seemingly endless loop of headlines like this one: “Twitter rips Savannah Guthrie for 'appalling' interview with Nicholas Sandmann on 'Today.'“

Certainly, Guthrie’s interview of the Covington Catholic High School teen at the center of this past weekend’s viral videos is fair game for criticism and debate. But isn’t there a more productive way to do that than succumbing to a clickbaity “Twitter rips” approach?

What would happen if newspapers such as USA Today stopped biting or at least insisted on doing actual interviews and quoting smart sources with strong, nuanced opinions? That used to be called journalism, right?

Speaking of a better way, over at Poynter, Tom Jones makes a fair, sensible case for why “Guthrie did her best and did well.” He notes:

When you’re getting criticized from both sides, there’s a decent chance you did a good job.

Amen.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The villains were clear — or seemed to be — in the original stories Saturday (examples here, here and here). But by Sunday, a much more complicated pictured emerged. And days later, we’re still talking about this.

There’s still time to catch up on all the excellent analysis and commentary on this subject here at GetReligion:

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Jamming another Catholic story into the Covington media mold: Flashback to the gay valedictorian

Jamming another Catholic story into the Covington media mold: Flashback to the gay valedictorian

I continue to be stunned and depressed, at the same time, by the never-ending “news coverage” of the Covington Catholic High School story, which is now a week old.

Stop and think about that wording for a second.

Why isn’t this the “Black Hebrew Israelites story”? Why isn’t this conflict defined in terms of the actions of Nathan Phillips and his Native American followers, especially in light of what we now know about events that followed at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. What story was that? Well, readers may need to click here for details, because I’m not seeing that story — uninvited activist drummers try to march into a Mass in DC’s most symbolic Catholic sanctuary — getting mainstream ink.

Then we have a strange NBCNews.com story. Surely it needs to receive an award for stretching the furthest to drive the square peg of one controversial Catholic story into the round hole of the Covington coverage.

The headline: “Gay valedictorian banned from speaking at Covington graduation 'not surprised' by D.C. controversy.

The problem, right up front, is the phrase “Covington graduation.”

How many readers read that and assumed this “Out News” feature was about a graduation ceremony at Covington Catholic High School?

Wait more it. Let’s look at the overture:

Video of white students from Covington Catholic High School confronting a Native American elder at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C., last Friday went viral this past week. However, this is not the first time a school overseen by the Diocese of Covington in Kentucky has come under national media scrutiny.

OK, ignore the reference to the Covington kids “confronting” an elderly Native American, since the longer videos showed that Phillips marched toward the students — who were being harassed by obscene, often homophobic chants from the Black Hebrews

The hint at what this story is about is contained in the words “a school.” Let’s read on:

In May of last year, the Catholic diocese ruled just hours before Holy Cross High School's graduation that the openly gay valedictorian and the student council president could not give their planned speeches at the Covington school's official graduation ceremony.

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Mainstream media have some explaining to do about Black Hebrew Israelites. Also: It's complicated

Mainstream media have some explaining to do about Black Hebrew Israelites. Also: It's complicated

“I still can't believe that the *black Israelites* are playing a key role in a multi-day national controversy,” Washington Post political writer Dave Weigel tweeted Monday as the various videos of whatever happened Friday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were dissected again and again.

“If you live in a big east coast city you've been putting in headphones and ignoring those guys your whole life,” Weigel added.

Here at GetReligion, my colleagues already have delved into various crucial angles of the brouhaha. Read the latest here, here and here.

But let’s go ahead and delve into another one, especially since the Black Hebrew Israelites angle is so fascinating and, believe it or not, important to grasping the full story.

Kudos to the Washington Post, which turned to Sam Kestenbaum, a contributing editor at The Forward, to write an explainer on the group:

In the initial media churn, they were nearly missed.

But a small band of Hebrew Israelites, members of a historic but little-known American religious movement, may actually be at the center of a roiling controversy that has gripped the nation in recent days.

It began with a now-viral video clip, filmed Friday at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in which high school students from a Catholic school in Kentucky appeared to be in a faceoff with a Native American elder, who was beating on a drum. The boys, some wearing red hats with President Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, appeared in the clip to be mocking a man, named Nathan Phillips. The clip was widely understood as being centrally about the dangers of Trumpism, and the teens were condemned.

But a longer video soon bubbled to the surface, widening the lens. It showed how a group of half a dozen Hebrew Israelites had, in fact, been goading and preaching at both the Native Americans and high schoolers, using profanity and highly provocative language, for nearly an hour. Phillips later told journalists that he was seeking to defuse tensions between the Israelite group and the high school students by stepping in between them.

But who are these Hebrew Israelites?

From there, Kestenbaum does a nice job of explaining the group’s history. I won’t attempt to summarize here but rather point you to his full article.

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What do we know? Drum chants 3.0 at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (updated)

What do we know? Drum chants 3.0 at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (updated)

So what else happened after the 2019 March for Life?

At this point, do new developments matter? What are the odds of journalists managing to cover them in a calm, professional manner?

However, I think it’s crucial to keep paying attention and asking practical journalism questions.

So with that in mind, let’s turn to the Catholic News Agency — yes, a conservative Catholic news outlet — report about a tense confrontation at the faith’s most symbolic site in Washington, D.C. Here’s the overture:

While chanting and playing ceremonial drums, a group of Native American rights activists reportedly led by Nathan Phillips attempted Jan. 19 to enter Washington, D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a Saturday evening Mass.

The group of 20 demonstrators was stopped by shrine security as it tried to enter the church during its 5:15 pm Vigil Mass, according to a shrine security guard on duty during the Mass.

“It was really upsetting,” the guard told CNA.

“There were about twenty people trying to get in, we had to lock the doors and everything.”

The key phrase, of course, is this one — “reportedly led by Nathan Phillips.”

In light of the ongoing journalism train wreck surrounding the confrontation between Phillips and students from Covington (Ken.) Catholic High School, it’s totally valid to ask questions about sourcing on volatile information such as this.

What’s going on? If you read carefully, it appears that the “reportedly” reference is to draw a distinction between information that is clearly shown on videotape and information drawn from eyewitnesses.

Normally, journalists place a high degree of trust in eyewitness accounts — especially the testimony of participants in an event. However, these are not normal times.

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Catholic school boys Part II: Some media just can't say they're sorry

Catholic school boys Part II: Some media just can't say they're sorry

Well, the plot grows thicker.

The Make America Great Again hat-wearing Catholic students –- who were in the midst of this past weekend’s controversy told about here -- are back in Covington, Ky. However, the furor has not died down. It followed them home.

Various media continue to climb around this ant hill, digging out what they can.

The scene has shifted back to Covington, which lies across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. It took a little while for the Cincinnati Enquirer to get up to speed but they’re finally on it. We’ll start with this piece about local Catholic entities closing their doors out of fear of violence.

Covington Catholic, Covington Latin and Diocese of Covington will be closed for an undetermined period of time following the backlash after a video of students and a man from the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington D.C. went viral.

According to a statement from the Diocese of Covington, the schools and the diocese were closed to due threats of violence toward the school as well as a planned rally outside the diocese.

Now there had been a demonstration, apparently at the local diocesan headquarters (although this poorly written Enquirer story doesn’t specify the exact locale), so it’s little wonder why the locals are nervous.

Other media concentrated on Nathan Phillips, the Native American who waded into the group of boys, then made himself out to be a victim. Then videos and transcripts videos proved he was stretching the truth — at best — during his attempts to stay in the limelight.

Then Fox News interviewed a chaperone who was present during the controversial showdown. (Note to Fox: This was not on Capitol Hill; it was a mile away at the Lincoln Memorial.)

“They were singled out; I believe for the color of their skin they were targeted,” the chaperone said in part. “Nick Sandmann had the courage to look this man in the face and diffuse the situation by not reacting.”

Unfortunately, the network didn’t ask the chaperone some hard questions. For example, why were there so few adults with the teens on the steps of the Memorial, as they waited for their bus to head home. Fox also identified the Native Americans accompanying Phillips as “left wing activists.”

So the rhetoric is ramping up, not down.

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