What do they call it up at Terry Peak, getting out over your skis?
That seems to be what happened to some reporters in the story about the Catholic kid with the MAGA hat and smirk and the Native American elder with the drum and the song.
Out in D.C.
It happened when a lot of non-reporters shared video clips and their outrage on social media, and when some real reporters hurried to get a hot story before they had the whole story.
And, voila, instant outrage — gone viral. The world we live in.
Then as the days passed and more information and video became available, a clearer picture of the incident emerged, reminding me of what my old newshound pal John Austin liked to say: “What do you want, speed or accuracy?”
Speed kills, uh, accuracy, or at least can.
We live in a time of image immediacy and indignation on steroids. We go crazy over things we see on social media, even if we don’t really know what we’re seeing. Sometimes it seems like we don’t even care. We just need to be outraged, and we want somebody to pay. And pay big.
Then we share our furious disgust online with a compounding momentum that, apparently, is called going viral.
It affects professional news reporters sometimes, forcing the pros to jeopardize accuracy in the name of speed and context in the name of impact. That’s always been a dangerous reality in the business, but never to the extent that it is today.
Take the kid with the cap and the elder with the drum, for example.
Maybe you saw the video clips. Lots of people did. Lots of people were outraged. Then, of course, the storm on media — the social and the more conventional media — began to split on predictable political lines.
So now the incident is flatting out into just one more tattered playing field for the exchange of meaningless partisan rhetoric.
But it wasn’t meaningless, that incident. And it shouldn’t be forgotten. It should be put in some kind of memorable perspective, however.
I spent as much time as I could stand watching video clips of the incident that blew up on social media and inspired national news coverage, some of which had to be amended to make it more true to reality. And here’s what I think I think, for now:
It was more complicated than the first flurry of oversimplified reports — most of them by not-so-professional reporters —indicated. Different versions of the truth made reality difficult to figure out.
It seems pretty clear now that it was not quite the blatant act of racism it appeared to be at first. But there was certainly a racist element at play, a harmful one, along with a substantial degree of cluelessness that, on its own, requires some attention.
Now the kid from Covington Catholic High School in Covington, Ky., says he never mocked the Native American elder and has no idea why two small groups protesting Friday in Washington, D.C. might have turned their attention on the group of kids from Covington.
Well, may I say this to that: Seriously?
You don’t show up with a bunch of your buds wearing red Make America Great Again baseball caps — and some MAGA stocking caps, shirts and sweatshirts, too — and then contend you weren’t planning to engage people, promote a message or inspire a reaction.
Of course you were. The MAGA message is all about initiating engagement and inspiring a reaction.
Covington junior Nick Sandmann is front and center in his MAGA cap in videos being circulated and debated on social media. He is wearing a smirk as Nathan Phillips, an Omaha Tribe elder who went to the nation’s capital for the Indigenous People’s March, beats the drum and chants.
Sandmann contends that he was simply trying to be a peace maker when he stood his ground in front of the Lincoln Memorial as an advancing Phillips moved to his own drumbeat and song into a crowd of dancing, chanting Covington kids.
Phillips did seem to be the one doing most of the approaching. But it’s also pretty clear from the videos what Sandmann was doing. He was playing to the audience of his pals, some of whom were capturing it on cell-phone video, and in the process he was mocking Phillips and disrespecting his song and his drum.
He was also making his president proud, I'd guess, and perhaps truly earning that MAGA hat. Isn’t that just the kind of behavior the president likes to promote. Heck, Sandmann might end up with an invitation to the White House over this. And I’m not kidding. In fact, I’ll be a little surprised if he doesn’t.
But he won’t convince many of us of his innocence. At least, not many of us who aren’t wearing the red caps, which are both top-notch celebrations of Trump’s presidency by his supporters and rhetorical symbols certain to prompt emotional responses — pro and con — in pretty much any public setting.
You don’t wear the MAGA stuff, especially in collective numbers, if you’re seeking to promote peace. You just don’t. I’m pretty sure Sandmann knew that. And so did all those among the throng of Covington kids who were also sporting the cap and their messages, and the adults who allowed and approved of the attire.
And what are those messages? Well, they certainly include an affirmation of the kind of unsettling nationalism and mean-spirited rhetoric that Donald Trump believes in, uses and encourages.
Not everyone is thrilled by that. Especially the not-everyones in minority communities, members of which were in front of the Lincoln Memorial when the Covington kids started to gather there Friday afternoon, apparently to wait for their bus.
In theory, the kids from Covington were promoting life with their trip to D.C. And the annual March for Life is a worthy cause, and issue that should never be far from the hearts and minds of our citizens. Of course, I always wonder if there might be better ways for thousands of teenagers from across the country to support life, such as volunteering at or donating to pregnancy crisis centers and social programs that aid young mothers.
That’s direct help in promoting a culture of life, before and after birth. But I know that political gatherings matter, too. And the D.C. trip is probably a lot more fun for teenagers than buying diapers and formula for a young single mom or cleaning the bathroom at the crisis center.
Anyway, according to an account Sandmann and his family released to the news media, after the March for Life event, the Covington group broke up into smaller groups and did some sightseeing, which is understandable. There’s plenty to see in D.C. Positive stuff. Educational stuff. Historic stuff.
But there wasn’t much of that to see in front of the memorial. And none of what was there was tied to the March for Life.
There were a few protesters there who were described in media reports as being from the Black Hebrew Israelites, an organization I don’t really understand. But I did understand, by watching videos and especially hearing some of the audio, that the small group was going all Fred Phelps-Westboro Baptist crazy on others within shouting range, particularly a small group of Native Americans there for the Indigenous People's March and, eventually, the Covington kids — and their hats.
It was some hateful, nutty speech, and I don’t blame anyone, including the Covington kids, for being offended. So call me crazy, but that seems like a pretty good time for a group of sightseeing high-schoolers and their chaperones to slip off to the side a bit and disengage. That’s what wise people do with crazy situations.
The other option would be to stay and engage. Which they did, in some fairly flamboyant, provocative ways, whether they were intended to be that or not.
I have to ask how that happened if, as Sandmann says, there really were adult chaperones there. How did any of it happen, if there were adult chaperones present? I’d have to conclude that the chaperones wanted it to happen or allowed it to happen. Or they were absent from their posts as chaperones.
Based on the videos and the audio you could hear, there’s no question the worst rhetoric came from the Black Hebrew Israelites protesters. But the Covington kids responded with some group chants that included one kid taking his shirt off and acting like an over-caffeinated cheerleader.
Sandmann said in his statement to the news media that before that chanting began, one of the kids asked a chaperone if it was OK, and received permission.
“We would not have done that if we had not obtained permission from the adults in our group,” Sandmann wrote.
If that’s true, I can only say: Wow. What were those adult chaperones thinking?
Then Covington kids had the encounter with Phillips and his small group. Did they approach Phillips or did he approach them? It certainly looks in the longer videos like Phillips did much of the approaching, although not in any aggressive way. He sort of wandered into them, saying later he was trying to tone down the emotions between the kids and the Black Hebrew group with his drumming and song.
Phillips’ account of the incident was less than rock solid. But in general, he said he was going to move through the crowd up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but was blocked by Sandmann.
Maybe that’s true. Or maybe he was inspired to engage because of the MAGA hats. After all, he was there to make a statement. And maybe he was responding to what he considered to be disrespectful behavior of the crowd.
Whatever it was, Phillips ended up face to face with Sandmann, who didn’t speak or gesture or threaten. But neither did he try to move out of the way or show any signs of respect for the drum or the singing, either or both of which would have been wise, thoughtful, charitable.
My friend Lori Walsh raised an interesting question today as we discussed this on her public-radio program, In the Moment: What if Sandmann had simply taken off his MAGA hat in the face of the drum and song, as he might, say, at the recitation of a prayer of the playing of an the anthem?
You want to diffuse a situation? What better way than showing such humble respect?
Instead, Sandmann remained where he was under the hat with an expression that most rational people would call a smirk, or what my mother would have called a smart-aleck smile, as he and Phillips sometimes moved to within a foot or two of each other, face to face..
While Sandmann engaged in his silly stare-down, his pals from Covington behaved like overindulged nincompoops, chanting and hooting and hollering to the Native American’s drumbeat and song, with some occasionally making chopping motions with their arms, tomahawk style.
Sandmann said in his statement that he was trying to keep things calm after the two groups of protesters confronted them. And indeed on one occasion he seemed to be cautioning one of his buds to not engage with a Native protester who was yakking at him.
Good for him, on that.
In Sandmann’s statement later, he expressed bewilderment that seemed concocted.
“I never understood why either of the two groups of protestors were engaging with us, or exactly what they were protesting at the Lincoln Memorial,” he said. “We were simply there to meet a bus, not become central players in a media spectacle.“
The Black Hebrew screamers mentioned the MAGA hats a number of times. Maybe Sandmann missed that. But I suspect he didn’t. And I suspect he wasn’t surprised that the hats were an issue. I’d guess that he kind of liked the fact that they were in issue.
I’d guess the adults from Covington who approved those hats and other MAGA attire kind of liked it, too.
Neither the MAGA stuff or the behavior of the Covington kids in front of the Native man justifies the kind of vulgar, hateful language the Black Hebrew protesters were using. And it certain doesn’t justify any threats or harassment against Sandmann and his family, of which there apparently has been a barrage.
“I have received physical and death threats via social media, as well as hateful insults,” he wrote in the statement. “One person threatened to harm me at school, and one person claims to live in my neighborhood. My parents are receiving death and professional threats because of the social media mob that has formed over this issue.”
If that’s all true, it’s all terrible. And I expect it’s true. We live not just in a time of instant outrage but also a vindictive era when those offended call for harsh penalties, whether they are certain of the “crime” or not.
People should be sued! They should be fired! They should be disqualified, suspended, expelled! And worse.
There’s little room anymore in these emotional wildfires for the cooling possibility of reason and redemption.
The threats should stop. The social-media attacks should stop. But the conversation should continue.
Whatever exactly was said or not, whoever engaged who first, some things are clear: You don’t show respect for another human being and another cultural tradition — one that, in this case, the Covington kids likely knew little about — by laughing and hooting and hollering and jumping around and doing the tomahawk chop.
And you don’t show respect for the truth by professing to be a naive peacemaker when in reality you were just showing off, with a smirk, and promoting a controversial message.
Kids will be kids, of course. And maybe this experience will teach this bunch of kids something that will be useful at next year’s March for Life, and beyond in their lives.
Meanwhile, how about some chaperone training at Convington?
And caps. Different caps. Maybe next year wear something like “Choose Life” or “Life is Sacred.”
Those would be a lot more appropriate, if that’s really why you’re going to Washington, D.C.