The Trump-Era Overcorrection

The evolving coverage of a confrontation on the National Mall offers a case study in how media outlets zigzag wildly in their efforts to please their readers.

Covington Catholic High School
Bryan Woolston / AP

It was like a scene out of left-wing protest literature: a group of white, parochial-school boys in “Make America Great Again” gear taunting an American Indian protester, jeering and laughing, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after attending the anti-abortion March for Life.

The video lit up social media, leading to harsh condemnations of the school and the children in the video, and linking their behavior to the president. Disgust was, for the most part, bipartisan, and both the school, Covington Catholic, and the March for Life issued condemnations. Many observers, including me, saw another dramatic example of people publicly affiliating themselves with the president acting in cruel or prejudiced fashion.

But wait: Maybe it didn’t happen like that. An analysis by Reason’s Robby Soave posited that “far from engaging in racially motivated harassment, the group of mostly white, MAGA-hat-wearing male teenagers remained relatively calm and restrained despite being subjected to incessant racist, homophobic, and bigoted verbal abuse by members of the bizarre religious sect Black Hebrew Israelites, who were lurking nearby.”

Although Soave’s post added relevant context, it led to a sweeping counter-narrative that also failed to adequately describe what had occurred. The post, as Deadspin’s Laura Wagner wrote, was widely shared by media figures who apologized for jumping to conclusions, and the narrative shifted entirely in the other direction: It wasn’t the teenagers who were misbehaving; they were reacting to a circuslike atmosphere in which they were being taunted with insults by an extremist faction of the Black Hebrew Israelites in Washington, D.C.

The whole saga is an example of the Donald Trump–era overcorrection. The president has no use for facts; he simply says whatever he wants, and his followers repeat it uncritically. That has made it even more important for journalists to get the facts right, and to acknowledge when they get them wrong, to prove that they abide by facts rather than sentiment. The president’s conscious attempts to delegitimize the media make this task even more difficult. Much of the mainstream media, meanwhile, is working tirelessly to win back the trust of Trump’s followers, whether by conceding the president’s framing, offering endless watercolored portraits of Trump supporters in Midwest diners, or making other displays of sympathy.

Video of the incident posted by the American Indian outlet Indian Country Today shows the beginning of the confrontation. Far from being “calm and restrained” in response to the taunts of the five Black Hebrew Israelites, the students are shown responding with loud chants, gestures, and shouts of their own, as though facing off against a rival team at a sporting event, escalating the confrontation. When the American Indian activist Nathan Phillips walks between the groups with his drum, many of the students respond by performing the “tomahawk chop” gesture, laughing, or doing a mocking imitation of his singing. Not all of the children are being disrespectful; others are confused about how to react, and say so out loud.

The Black Hebrew Israelite faction that was present in front of the Lincoln Memorial does not reflect most of the loose grouping of congregations, which can be roughly described as synthesizing Jewish and Christian ideas and practices, but it is a frequent bother for D.C. residents. Its members stand on crowded street corners with bullhorns and yell vile things, including racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs, at anyone who passes by. D.C. residents do not respond to these provocations with confrontation. They ignore them. They do not engage in chants or taunts of their own in an attempt to display their dominance. They don’t engage in their own taunts of people who happen to be nearby.

The incident reflects most poorly not on the children, but on their adult chaperones. Much of the initial reaction to the children’s behavior—calls for doxing, violence, or permanent shunning—was indeed over the top. The school closed Tuesday for security reasons; officials said the institution was receiving death threats. That is an absurd overreaction.

No children deserve to be thrown away like refuse because they make a mistake, even a cruel one. Part of being a child is not understanding how your actions affect others, and part of growing up is learning to understand that.

The real issue raised by the video is the messages these kids are being sent by adults and authority figures about how to treat people, especially those who are different from them. And in both cases, the escalation with the Black Hebrew Israelite faction and the jeering of Phillips, what is most clear is that in this regard, the adults in their life have failed them.

The incident became a national story in part because of the way the images seemed to confirm first one sweeping narrative, and then another, opposite one: the first, that the heart of Trumpism is prejudice; the second, that anti-prejudice, abetted by the liberal media, has become a malevolent force comparable to racial oppression. But only one of these bears any resemblance to empirical reality, and that would still be the case no matter what unfolded in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

As the Covington students ascend to right-wing martyrdom, some perspective is in order. The disproportionate reaction to their behavior does not, as some conservative commentators have suggested, represent a new kind of oppression comparable to that experienced by historically disfavored groups. While all children deserve forgiveness and understanding, in America, children who are not white are often simply not seen as children at all.

The Covington students are not likely to have their summary executions by police officers justified; they will not be separated from their parents for the crime of seeking asylum; they are not disproportionately more likely to be charged as adults for crimes they committed as children; they are not likely to be stalked in the night and murdered by grown men who become folk heroes for acting out the violent, racist fantasies of others. The president’s campaign merchandise remains a favorite of white-supremacist groups, and his name remains a racist taunt for those seeking to antagonize people of color of any age. None of this has changed, and the disgraceful overreaction of some liberals does not change it. If the right extended the sympathy the Covington students are now receiving to children who don’t remind them of their own, this would be a more just society.

A similar overcorrection happened last week with BuzzFeed News’ story that Special Counsel Robert Mueller possesses evidence that Trump told his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, a straightforwardly impeachable offense. News outlets reported on the story with caveats—offering attribution and plenty of “if true” statements—but on Friday night, the special counsel’s office took the rare step of disputing the story, saying “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.”

Mueller’s office has built up a great deal of credibility because of the special counsel’s record of public service, and because it so rarely comments. Nevertheless, despite the fact that under both Republican and Democratic presidents many government statements denying significant stories have proved either to be wrong or to omit relevant details, much of the media simply concluded or suggested that the story was wholly false. BuzzFeed News, where I formerly worked for several years, maintains that its story is accurate.

Over the weekend, the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, allowed that Trump might have told Cohen to lie to Congress or tacitly approved of his intention to do so. Giuliani said that Trump was negotiating a real-estate project in Moscow right up until the moment ballots were being cast in the 2016 election, even as he deflected responsibility from Russia for the very hacking and disinformation campaign that Mueller is investigating. He said that Cohen and Trump might have discussed Cohen’s testimony, but insisted that there was no proof the president told him to lie—a suggestion that the president may have committed an impeachable offense but that there may not be as much proof as BuzzFeed News had reported there was. The story may turn out to be incorrect, but the special counsel’s statement doesn’t, on its own, prove it was, and there is not yet enough public evidence to adjudicate its claims.

In both instances, the initial reaction would have benefited from additional context. But once that context was revealed, much of the media overcorrected by assuming the exact opposite of the original story was true, when that overcorrection was just as mistaken. The overcorrections are a symptom of the mainstream media’s ongoing preoccupation with winning the affection of the president’s most enthusiastic supporters—an impossible task, because those supporters believe what the president wants them to believe. If you write something they don’t like, you’re fake news. If you correct something you got wrong, you’re also fake news. The only way not to be fake news is to say what they want you to say, the way they want you to say it. News outlets should neither ignore legitimate criticism based on the source nor go out of their way to assuage critics in the hopes of improving their brand.

It is an understandable impulse to want to repair a relationship with an estranged audience—news is about informing the public, and you can’t inform the public if a large segment of it doesn’t trust you. But the only goal that really matters is getting it right. The overcorrection is not about getting it right; it is about convincing people who will never trust the media to trust the media. And it is certain to fail, since in the end, it can only prove that these same critics are right about the fake-news press and its habit of shading the truth. When journalism becomes about popularity, getting the facts right becomes secondary.