On January 18, 2019, a misleading viral video briefly transformed a Catholic high school teenager into the smirking face of racial aggression in Donald Trump's America—an erroneous judgment that quickly collapsed upon scrutiny. Today, that teenager, Nick Sandmann, was a featured speaker at the 2020 Republican National Convention.
"While the media portrayed me as an aggressor with a relentless smirk on my face, in reality the video confirms I was standing with my hands behind my back with an awkward smile that hid two thoughts: Don't further agitate the man banging a drum in my face, and never do anything to embarrass your family, your school, or your community," said Sandmann in his remarks.
Sandmann's summary of his ordeal was accurate. After attending a pro-life rally in Washington D.C., Sandmann's class decided to visit the Lincoln Memorial, where they encountered a group of provocateurs called the Black Hebrew Israelites. This group antagonized the boys for over an hour, but despite incessant taunts and insults from the black nationalists, neither Sandmann nor anyone else in his group took the bait. They were then approached by Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist, and his entourage. A video of this encounter made it appear like the Covington kids targeted Phillips for racial harassment, and that Sandmann specifically had chosen to face down the man and block his path. Phillips himself encouraged this false interpretation; in reality, the students were mostly just confused about why Phillips had decided to march through their midst while chanting and drumming. Sandmann didn't do anything wrong at all.
"I learned what happened to me had a name," said Sandmann, reflecting on his experience. "It was called being canceled. As in annulled. As in revoked. As in made void. Canceling is what's happening to people around this country who refuse to be silenced by the far left. Many are being fired, humiliated, or even threatened, and often the media is a willing participant."
Indeed, Sandmann is perhaps the most infamous victim of the media's penchant for rushing to judgment—particularly with respect to social media incidents that play to progressive journalists' political biases. Many well-known reporters, celebrities, and politicians tweeted obscene and hateful condemnations of Sandmann without knowing all the facts:
Reza Aslan, a scholar and television pundit on CNN, tweeted that Sandmann had a "punchable" face. His CNN colleague Bakari Sellers agreed. BuzzFeed's Anne Petersen tweeted that Sandmann's face reminded her of Brett Kavanaugh's—and this wasn't intended as a compliment. Vulture writer Erik Abriss tweeted that he wanted the kids and their parents to die. Kathy Griffin said the high schoolers ought to be doxxed. As a USA Today retrospective noted, "comedian Patton Oswalt called the students in the video 'bland, frightened, forgettable kids who'll grow up to be bland, frightened, forgotten adult wastes.'…Writer Michael Green, referring to Sandmann's apparent smirking at the Native American man, wrote: 'A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him'…Huffington Post reporter Christopher Mathias explicitly compared the students to violent segregationists.
And while many mainstream outlets—including CNN and The Washington Post—ultimately conceded that they got the story wrong, several ideological publications stubbornly kept to their initial judgments.
Sandmann concluded his speech with an appeal for fairer media coverage and then donned his MAGA hat once again. It should surprise no one that someone in Sandmann's position would be pushed more firmly into Trump's orbit: That's what happens when the mainstream media positions itself as the opposition tribe, and then judges everyone outside that tribe as obviously and irredeemably racist on the thinnest of pretexts.