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How The Media Covered The Standoff Between High School Student, Native American Man


A tense encounter on the Washington Mall Friday between a Native American elder and a group of high school students from Kentucky has also become a battle over media coverage. Questions about how each acted in the episode have led to online condemnations, apologies and then recriminations against the press. Joining us to sort it all out is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hey there, David.


CORNISH: So we have multiple videos out now online of the same scene, but it began with one, and it showed a Native American man and a white high school student inches apart with this crowd of other students chanting and jumping and smiling around him. Do we have a clearer picture now of what led to that point?

FOLKENFLIK: I think we do. I want to be careful about that, but I think we do. I mean, initially, this was a Rashomon moment meeting a Rorschach test, right? And what I think we now find is that these students were part of, in some ways, a three-party encounter. You had - a bunch of largely white, largely male students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky outside Cincinnati were at the - in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Life event Friday. You had a fringe hate group called Black Hebrew Israelites, African-Americans, heaping invective upon whites they saw - just incredibly ugly rhetoric. And into this wanders a couple of Native American activists, including Nathan Phillip, who plays a drum and sings a song that he later says - tells NPR and others that he hoped in some ways would bring peace and de-escalate.

Some of the things the kids did were, you know, derogatory, derisive, denigrating. You saw some tomahawk chops from some students. You saw some chanting and mockery in some ways satirizing the Native American song. And so there was some ugliness as well as some other stuff there - perhaps not as bad as was initially alleged and charged.

CORNISH: Now, how does the media fall into all of this?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think you saw some great lurching. You saw it on social media and particularly on online and cable, say, as Friday gave way to Saturday, Sunday - some real invective against the students. And there was condemnation by journalists and pundits, particularly online but also on cable. And then you saw, you know, calls for the students to be doxed - that is, their identities exposed, their homes, claims that they should be punished by their schools. You saw apologies by officials from the archdiocese locally there. And then the media went the other direction as more information came to light as it was clear that they were being subject to some abusive things from the Black Hebrew Israelites. And some questions - they didn't themselves surround the Native American protesters. It turns out that Philip (ph) and the small group of others approached them.

CORNISH: President Trump says the students of Covington Catholic High School have become symbols of fake news. What is the media's role in this becoming politicized?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think the fact - the combination of social media and a somewhat polarized media and a quick-twitch media just desperate to get it out in some ways amplified some of the flaws in the reporting and, you know, overlooked some of the nuances and some of - a little bit of the texture in this - that is, there was ugliness there, but it wasn't as clean as presented. And I think that the president, of course, uses this regardless.

But I also think that it's important to note, you know, the students were there. They were wearing, you know, Make America Great Again caps. They seemed derisive. And, you know, the student at the center of it, Nick Sandman, he's hired in response to this criticism a PR firm based in Louisville with close ties the national Republican Party. He is set to show up tomorrow on the "Today" show on NBC to make his case. So, you know, he's willing to utilize the media as well.

CORNISH: What should people take from this?

FOLKENFLIK: I think you take from this some of these verities. You know, a buddy of mine texted me over the weekend. He said I think media people were expressing the need to learn lessons they should have learned in journalism school. I think all journalists have - and in fact, all citizens, all of us, have to constantly relearn lessons we should know. Take your time. Take a breath, maybe not the sharpest judgment. Maybe don't draw the deepest conclusion. There should be the accretion of information, not this sort of pendular lurching from side to side.

CORNISH: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you.


[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly refer to the March for Life as the March on Life and we incorrectly refer to Nathan Phillips as Nathan Phillip.]

(SOUNDBITE OF J DILLA'S "JAY DEE 49") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 23, 2019 at 12:00 AM EST
In this report, we incorrectly refer to the March for Life as the March on Life and we incorrectly refer to Nathan Phillips as Nathan Phillip.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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