Former Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann has reached another settlement with a major news organization over the widespread false reporting of his encounter with a Native American activist in front of the Lincoln Memorial on January 18, 2019. Sandmann previously settled with the Washington Post and CNN. He has now settled his $275 million defamation lawsuit against NBC. Unfortunately, such damages have become the cost of doing business for many in the media in the age of advocacy journalism where the narrative is more important than the news. Having a MAGA-hatted, racist, pro-life high school student abusing an elderly Native American was a fact too good to check — even when it required as little as watching the unedited videotapes.
The slogan “Our Pride is Showing” took on a more menacing meaning over years of protracted litigation (and the denial of motions to dismiss). In the end, there was more pride than professionalism displayed by NBC in its airing of the false reports and then the refusal to accept responsibility for the damage caused by its erroneous reporting.
Sandmann tweeted that “the terms are confidential” but confirmed the settlement.
Despite the existence of videotape showing him merely standing in front of the activist, the media reported that Sandmann was the aggressor. It was also reported that the students “performed a ‘Build the wall’ chant,” a claim contradicted by an independent investigation.
His counsel detailed roughly “fifteen defamatory television broadcasts, six defamatory online articles, and many tweets falsely accusing Nicholas and his Covington Catholic High School (‘CovCath’) classmates of racist acts.” According to the complaint, MSNBC continued to repeat the false representations as late as January 27th — after most media organizations corrected its coverage.
Although NBCUniversal acknowledged on January 19 that there was video indicating that it was Phillips who approached Nicholas – not the other way around as other members of the mainstream media were reporting – as late as January 27, MSNBC was still falsely broadcasting that Phillips was not the aggressor and that video evidence supported Phillips’ claims.
Although it was undisputedly clear by January 20 (at the very latest) that Nicholas had done nothing more than stand still while Phillips approached him and beat a drum in his face, as late as January 23 and 24, NBCUniversal was broadcasting and publishing stories indicating that Nicholas had taken actions for which he should apologize and for which Phillips had purportedly forgiven him.
More specifically, NBCUniversal painted the false picture that Nicholas and his CovCath classmates were “a big mob” that had “surrounded these black kids,” the Black Hebrew Israelites, with the two groups “throwing back and forth racial taunts,” and that “it needed one little spark and that mob would have descended on those 4 guys and ripped them apart,” and that Nicholas and his classmates then “targeted” and “surrounded” Phillips, causing Phillips to be “scared” when he was “harassed” and “taunted” by Nicholas and his classmates, who committed a “hate crime.”
Many in the media went into a virtual state of ecstasy in describing the group of high schoolers as a virtual meeting of the American Bund where brown shirted (or, in this case, MAGA hatted) teens trapped an elderly Native American under the looming gaze of Abraham Lincoln. It was enough to put MSNBC hosts into hyperventilation as they breathlessly recounted the attack.
Indeed, despite the clear record supporting Sandmann, many have continued to hound him including an ACLU lawyer who opposed his being accepted into college and a professor promising to follow his moves on campus.
Likewise, some continued to attack Sandmann and even compared him to George Zimmerman. We previously discussed one segment involving “Above the Law” writer Joe Patrice in his interview with The Nation’s Elie Mystal, In the interview, Mystal, the Executive Editor of “Above the Law”, attacked this 16 year old boy as a racist. Patrice agreed with Mystal’s objections to Sandmann wearing his “racist [MAGA] hat.” They also objected to Sandmann doing interviews trying to defend himself with Mystal deriding how this “17-year-old kid makes the George Zimmerman defense for why he was allowed to deny access to a person of color.”
Putting aside the fact that Sandmann was not denying “access to a person of color,” Mystal and Patrice were comparing this high school student to a man who was accused of murdering an unarmed African American kid and even assailing his effort to clear his name as the media continued to label him a racist. It was typical of much of today’s rage-filled commentary. These two writers had no qualms in attacking some kid as a racist in the national media while abusing him for trying to defend his reputation. It was the popular thing to do in piling on Sandmann. He was merely a vehicle for the release of rage without the burden of reason or research.
Many writers who joined the mob attacking Sandmann have never apologized. They just moved on to the next target to be declared a racist in a summary media judgment.
Indeed, Mystal continued to slam Sandmann in postings on “Above the Law.” In one such posting, Mystal wrote in part:
Fresh on the heels of Clarence Thomas wishing he could rewrite the First Amendment to make it easier to sue people, we’re getting a glimpse of what that dystopian future would look like. A team of lawyers have filed a $250 million defamation suit against the Washington Post, on behalf of Nick Sandmann and his family.
The suit alleges many bad things happened to Sandmann after his encounter with Nathan Phillips in front to the Lincoln Memorial. It does not allege that there was no encounter in front of Lincoln Memorial, or that the encounter was captured on video. Seeing as a truth is a defense to any defamation claim, it would be surprising for the lawsuit to survive a motion to dismiss.
Obviously, for a third time, a major news organization was not able to use a motion to dismiss to dispense with the lawsuit … and any journalistic responsibility for its own reporting.
Of course, the settlement will change nothing. We have discussed the false reporting in controversies ranging from the Lafayette Park protests to the Russian collusion scandal to cases like the Rittenhouse trial. However, where stories on Lafayette Park or the Russian collusion scandal falsely accused public officials who understand that they are targets for reckless reporting, these stories falsely accused a teenage boy and his fellow high schoolers on a school trip of being racists in national media stories. That should be appalling to anyone with a modicum of decency, let alone integrity and humanity.
Damages, however, have never been shown to instill integrity or humanity in those who lack such qualities. However, it does show that, despite years of punishing litigation and hostile coverage, Nickolas Sandmann was able to recover something for the media flash mob coverage of his high school trip.