By the close of business Friday, lawyers for Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann sent letters to over 50 institutions and celebrities they were considering suing for libel and defamation, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
The move was the first step in a potential lawsuit against publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post and TMZ; journalists like Chuck Todd, Kurt Eichenwald and Maggie Haberman; and celebrities who weighed in on the matter like Alyssa Milano and Bill Maher.
“There was a rush by the media to believe what it wanted to believe versus what actually happened,” legal counsel Todd McMurtry said. “They know they crossed the line. Do they want 12 people in Kentucky to decide their fate? I don’t think so.”
How did the media get it so wrong when it came to a group of students from a Catholic high school in Kentucky? How did they come up with a narrative based on a short clip from a Twitter account and run with it? And why did so many of them stick with the narrative after it became clear that it simply didn’t cohere?
L. Lin Wood, an experienced libel and defamation lawyer whose firm is representing Sandmann and his family, posted a video to his Twitter account on Saturday which chronicled how the incident spiraled out of control in just under 15 minutes.
First were the facts of the day: The first ever Indigenous Peoples March and the 46th annual March for Life were both taking place in Washington, D.C. on the same day. The students from Covington Catholic High School had been brought down for the march, many of whom were wearing “Make America Great Again” caps, described in the video as “acceptable attire for the pro-life event they had just attended.”
They were told to wait by the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to wait for their bus ride home. As they were waiting, members of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, a hate group, were harassing members of the Indigenous Peoples March with racist language. When students from Covington Catholic ventured over to see what was going on, they became subjects of the group’s invective as well, particularly as more students from the all-boys school began gathering to await their buses home.
All of this, by the way, is documented with footage — footage which media organizations likely should have waited to for before weighing in on the short clip available on social media.
In the footage, the students from Covington Catholic — quickly painted as bigots by the national media — were shown booing some of the racist, homophobic statements made by the Black Hebrew Israelites, including statements made toward a black student at their school. They allegedly asked a chaperone whether they could drown out the group with one of their school chants. They were allowed to.
This is when Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist, came into the picture, walking over to the group as they were chanting. He said he was trying to get to the Lincoln Memorial — though, as the video showed, he had an unobstructed path up the steps if he wanted to do so and instead came over to the student group. The video posits that the students could have plausibly seen Phillips and other Native Americans as allies.
Over the video footage was audio taken from an interview Phillips did with liberal news program “Democracy Now!” in which many of his original claims were made.
“There was a group of over 200 young angry white men,” Phillips said. “And they were facing down just four black individuals. And it was coming to a point where just a snap of the finger could have caused them kids to descend on those four individuals.”
The video does note that some Covington students were seen as having “crossed the line” by potentially doing the “tomahawk chop,” a popular sports move, in a mocking gesture. Phillips then moves on to Sandmann, who was merely standing there on a higher step than Phillips; the Native American activist gave the student his undivided attention.
The video then begins playing more of the media coverage, including Phillips’ claim that he was blocked by Sandmann. He also claimed the students kept chanting “build the wall.”
Both of these were almost certainly untrue. No evidence has been found of the Covington students chanting “build the wall,” although footage exists of the Black Hebrew Israelites saying it. As for Phillips blocking him, as the video points out, he went directly over to 16-year-old. Whatever situation existed could have been defused if the activist had simply backed away.
The video also points out that Sandmann was the actual peacemaker here; he was the one who seems to try and silence one of the students from Covington as he debates with another Native American protester. The narrator of the video claims it’s in order to show more respect to Phillips. Yet, this is the young man who became the face of the Covington Catholic kids.
Phillips, the video notes, doesn’t advance up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial. It then pays attention to the activist’s claims regarding his service during the Vietnam War, which have been described as misleading; he didn’t serve overseas even if his interviews seemed to give that impression.
And then came the media coverage, which I won’t belabor since most of you know all of this already. Less well-known is the fact that Phillips made a similar claim several years earlier in which he said a group of Eastern Michigan University students dressed as Native Americans at a party harassed him and threw a beer at him. While Phillips’ claim received some play in local media, there were no further reports indicating arrests.
The video concludes with some in the media admitting they blew it. That hasn’t been everyone, of course. That’s why the video exists and why lawsuits could be filed.
If only the media had waited. Now, if there isn’t some serious backpedaling, this is the side of the story jurors in a trial will see and hear.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.