I don’t often contemplate the role of physics in daily life, but in thinking about last week’s now-infamous encounter between Native American activist Nathan Phillips, a group of teenagers from Covington Catholic High School and a small cadre of Black Hebrew Israelites, I keep landing on Newton’s Third Law.
That’s the one about every action having an equal and opposite reaction, and sometimes not the one you intend.
When “reporting” on the encounter began, it was inconceivable one would argue against the original telling of events, that a group of privileged white Trump supporters — Roman Catholic, to boot, and in Washington, D.C., for the pro-life march — menaced a Native American elder and Vietnam veteran who was peacefully beating his drum on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
For the first few glorious hours it was so. Pundits, writers and even Catholic scholars on the right rushed to condemn the apparent provocateurs, and seemed to concede for an incandescent moment the progressive left’s prevailing narrative about whiteness, maleness and religion in the era of Trump.
It had all the trappings of the greatest intersectional confrontation in memory. There was religion, race — indigenous people, black people, white boys — and toxic masculinity, homophobia and abortion, all played out beneath the penetrating gaze of Old Abe. The cherry on top was the trifecta of social movements celebrated that weekend: the March for Life, the Women’s March, and the Indigenous People’s March. Did I mention it was Martin Luther King Jr. weekend?
Exposing the ills of society is the lifeblood of journalism. But the deliciousness of that moment should have been the first indicator that something wasn’t right.
Indeed, when in the future people use the phrase, “If it seems too good to be true...” they will be speaking about this exact moment.
Because, as quickly as it all began, the narrative fell spectacularly to pieces, forcing major dailies to substantively modify their stories, scale back their headlines and issue embarrassing corrections.
Many in the social media mob that had come with pitchforks and wood chippers for the Covington boys issued apologies and deleted tweets. Ultimately, people on the right returned with a condemnation of the political left, the media and anyone who rushed to judgment on the Covington boys.
The phenomenon was so striking, it prompted MSNBC’s Chris Hayes to tweet: “I haven’t seen the broad conservative coalition as fired up about a story since Kavanaugh.”
Indeed. Because, just as with the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, many in the media and on the political left seemed too blinded by their own biases to acknowledge what should be second nature to journalists and thought leaders: there was another perspective, and it warranted airing before judgments were made, before articles went to print.
If I am to take my own advice and avoid rushing to judgment, I won’t assume every member of the media who misreported the story did so out of bias. Yes, American newsrooms are guilty of ideological clustering, which leans left. But I’d still like to believe that many journalists feel their professional duty to expose the ills of society supersedes their biases, and try to act accordingly
The problem is, the “ills” they are exposing are sometimes not ills but complex misunderstandings, and the targets for exposure overwhelmingly are people and causes associated with the political right.
The best of intentions don’t make it easier to overcome our deeply held assumptions. Our political environment makes it even harder. And when the damage is done, there’s no undoing it.
With the Covington controversy, journalists were attempting to expose racism and hatred — hopefully because they want to end it. But their actions have resulted in something they never intended. They’ve sown hatred. They’ve cried wolf, they’ve exposed their own biases, and in the process they’ve made hating people you disagree with much easier.
It’s just as Newton says: an equal and opposite reaction.