Donald Trump is often criticised by liberal news organisations like CNN and the New York Times for resorting to the phrase ‘fake news’ whenever he’s asked an awkward question. This is evidence of his slipperiness, we’re told, as well as his arms-length relationship with the truth. What’s more, it’s irresponsible to repeat this charge endlessly because it undermines public trust in journalism. That’s not just bad for the fourth estate; it’s bad for democracy.
There’s some truth to that, which is why it was so disheartening to see the liberal media go out of its way last weekend to confirm Trump’s cynicism. I’m thinking of the coverage given to an incident that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Friday when a group of Catholic schoolboys from Kentucky came face to face with an elderly Native American called Nathan Phillips. Video footage surfaced on Twitter of one of the schoolboys standing inches away from Phillips, seeming to smirk as the indigenous man banged a drum and chanted, and hundreds of journalists immediately expressed their disgust. It didn’t help that the boy was wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat and he and his friends had just been on a pro-life march. Anne Helen Petersen, a ‘senior culture writer’ for BuzzFeed News, described the boy’s expression as ‘the look of white patriarchy’, while Kara Swisher, an opinion writer for the New York Times, compared him and his friends to ‘Nazis’. CNN’s Bakari Sellers suggested he should be ‘punched in the face’.
Phillips, who described himself as a Vietnam veteran, then gave several interviews that added fuel to the flames. The Catholic schoolboys were about to attack four black men, he told the Detroit Free Press, when he courageously came to their defence. ‘You see something that is wrong and you’re faced with that choice of right or wrong,’ he said. ‘There was that moment when I realised I’ve put myself between beast and prey. These young men were beastly and these old black individuals were their prey, and I stood in between them…’ According to Phillips, his ancient song, supposed to act like a soothing balm on the teenage ‘mob’, was drowned out by chants of ‘Build the wall, build the wall’. ‘It was ugly, what these kids were involved in,’ he said. ‘It was racism. It was hatred. It was scary.’
Well, you can imagine how things escalated after that. Within hours, tens of thousands of people had taken to social media to vent their rage. One activist said all the boys should be locked in their school and burnt to death. The New York Times ran a story headlined: ‘Boys in “Make America Great Again” hats mob Native elder at indigenous peoples march’ and claimed ‘a throng of cheering and jeering schoolboys’ were ‘surrounding a Native American elder’. The Diocese of Covington in Kentucky issued a joint statement with the school condemning the students and apologising to Phillips. ‘The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,’ they said.
Unfortunately, it all turned out to be ‘fake news’. More video footage soon came to light showing that the four ‘old black individuals’ were members of an extremist religious sect called the Black Hebrew Israelites. They accused the students of being ‘crackers’, ‘faggots’ and ‘paedophiles’ and racially abused a black boy, claiming his friends wanted to murder him and harvest his organs. They spat at the students and tried to goad them into attacking them. But the teenagers refused to take the bait.
This wasn’t the only piece of misinformation put out there by the media. Phillips wasn’t surrounded by a mob. On the contrary, he marched into the middle of the throng and got up in the face of the young man in the MAGA hat. All told, the boys behaved with remarkable restraint.
In fairness to the journalists who rushed to judgment, some of them have now deleted their tweets and apologised. But the damage is done. ‘The students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be,’ Trump tweeted on Tuesday. Now when he accuses the liberal media of making up stories it is all too believable.
The irony is, by comparing these Catholic schoolboys to Nazis and urging people to punch them in the face, the journalists believed they were advancing the cause of social justice. But it is precisely this knee-jerk condemnation of Christian white males that will drive them into the arms of Trump. If he gets re-elected in 2020, we’ll know who to blame.