The Folly of the March for Life Fiasco: How Not to Write on a Contentious Topic
And this is one of the most critical lessons of that moment on the Mall: we were being played, the left and the right.— John Diaz, San Francisco Chronicle, January 2019
The fiasco at the 2019 March for Life -- and concurrent demonstrations in the National Mall -- was bound to have a consequence. As soon as a viral, one-minute video hit Twitter in late January, the tale of two opposing groups confronting one another became political fodder. Pundits and political writers were more than happy to dissect and formulate a narrative to their liking.
The results were predictable; poorly written rants disguised as articles -- and/or podcasts -- swamped the Internet. In its wake, confusion ensued as the real story of the incident got muddled under the weight of political posturing.
One article stood out as an example of this literary melee. It had all the hallmarks of an ideologically motivated article -- plus more! Accompanied with a flare of snarkiness, goofy metaphors, cringe-worthy similes and bizarre symbolism, the writer took sides before the definitive dust on the matter was settled. He singled out CNN for its coverage (as the title suggested). On top of that he wrote an article that took the Gish Gallop argument to extremes.
The writer (who had an affinity for misusing the words “pithy” and “confabulation”) took an extreme right wing position; whittled down this compelling and complex event; and transformed it into a basic “us-versus-them” story that was peppered with retreaded right wing talking points and cliche.
In addition, he did what many writers that share his political beliefs do. He cherry-picked the facts, embellished a few, and created something that generated harm to truth in reporting. Simply put, it became a glaring reminder of why writers must overlook their own confirmation bias on such a contentious topic.
A Brief and Twisted Background
As it stands, much of the events were sketchy and most of the news (mainstream, liberal, and conservative news outlets) varied. Still, there were some facets that were similar or could be verified by video.
In general, the events that occurred can be listed in the following manner:
Several demonstrations occurred at the same time and place in Washington DC. Some groups were opposed to one another.
A small group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites heckled at a group of Covington Catholic High School students wearing the distinctive Make America Great Again caps (MAGA) and March for Life anti-abortion shirts.
Just as things got heated between the two groups, another one led by a drum-pounding Native American elder named Nathan Phillips stepped in between the two in an attempt (in his word) to diffuse the situation.
Nathan stood face-to-face with a student, who appeared to have a smirk. While this happened, chants of "Build the Wall" were heard along with the persistent drum beat. In addition, some students did the tomahawk chop -- a move that can be viewed as racist.
Videos of the events went viral on Twitter, Facebook, and other venues.
Media outlets took sides.
The first video to emerge showed Nathan Phillips doing his chant while Nicholas Sandmann -- the smirking boy -- looked on. Many viewers described Nicholas expression as “gloating”. It was a powerful image. It represented the chaos of the event, and, seemingly, personified the great divide that exist in this country between ideologies, as well as socioeconomic backgrounds.
In any event, the boy was chastised by the public. This included celebrities after they saw the story and video reported in newspapers, cable news networks and Internet news outlets.
The next day, more videos surfaced that seemingly appeared to show that Nick wasn’t trying to accost Phillips. In addition, a combination of pundits from Fox News and a PR firm hired by the Kentucky-based school and Nick’s parents started to shift the narrative to present Nick and his classmates as victims. Many news outlets recanted their stories (including CNN) and several celebrities deleted their posts -- some even apologized.
An example of confabulation? It’s possible. Being intentionally covert? Highly doubtful.
Then, as things started to settle down, more videos emerged. These revealed:
The Black Hebrew Israelites spouting obscenities at passerby -- especially the students.
Boys identified as Covington students verbally harassed females in the Mall sometime before the (now) infamous confrontation.
High school students -- one from another school -- yelled “It’s not rape if you enjoy it.”
The students did the tomahawk chop and made war whoop chants during the confrontation between the two groups.
More chants: some accounts claimed the students were chanting “Build the wall” while another group claimed they were chanting their school song (one video indicated that the chaperone gave the students the right to do this).
A video from 2013 emerged that showed Covington students dressed in black -- with some members in black-face -- at a basketball game in which players on the opposing team were African-American.
And when the story couldn’t get any more confusing, reporters from two conservative news sites dug up information countering Mr. Phillips’ claim of being a Vietnam War veteran. According to Snopes.com the news outlet were disreputable; however, the information provided by other sites that looked into it after these two initial reports, seemed to indicate that a mistake in the transcripts of several interviews -- as well as Mr. Phillip’s own words -- may have caused the conflicting information. An example of confabulation? It’s possible. Being intentionally covert? Highly doubtful.
It was proven that he served in the military during the latter years of the Vietnam War; however, it was unclear if he did a tour of duty there. In the past he had stated he was a Vietnam-era veteran, which meant he served in the military but was stationed somewhere else. Still, according to the fact-checking site, this revelation was listed as unproven due to a lack of definitive information.
Then again, this final piece about Phillips may not be as important as many on the right wanted it to be. The confrontation was based on the video, not Phillips's questionable past.
And how does the article from the this “pithy” writer fit into all this?
Starting with the Godwin Rule
The article is more of a critique of CNN and the “liberal media”. Thus, the focus was to lambast rather than to inform. It may explain why a glaring example of the Godwin Rule was incorporated into his prose.
Godwin Rule states that the authors of heated Internet arguments or essays have a tendency to label the opposition as being in league with the Nazis. Often, this happens at or near the end of the article or forum thread in a chat room. In addition, writers use it when they are either losing an argument or don’t have a strong argument to begin with.
The writer evoked the Godwin Rule in the first paragraph. Predictably, he compared the “left-wing” brand of the media to the Joseph Goebbels Nazi propaganda apparatus. While he didn’t mention the confrontation in the first paragraph, he gave a clear indication which direction he was going to take in discussing it.
For the record, he was correct in stating that the press in Germany had been targeted by the Nazis; however, either he didn’t realize it -- or chose to ignore it -- the press the Nazi targeted were left leaning publications in Berlin that used to create buffoonish caricatures of Hitler before he came to power (then again, that's another topic for another article).
The first paragraph had another feature; he compared the liberal media to "a prostitute who requires no payment for service rendered.” I guess the writer thought this reference was funny or clever. Not really. It was just another example of the mockery he was hoping to dispense toward his chosen enemy.
In fact, this tasteless simile has done more to discredit his article than anything else. Accompanied with his reference to the “leftist” pejorative, he crossed the line between healthy and meaningful critique to childish name calling.
At that moment, the argument he presented lost any sense of seriousness (Apparently, those with similar sentiments thought it was witty and posted it in the comment section. Go figure).
Cherry-Picking and Errors in a Nutshell
The second paragraph addressed the events in brief. However, it was far from being objective. The writer was very selective in his interpretation and his intention were clear. Still, the numerous mistakes he made were glaring.
For starters, he misnamed the event. Instead of calling it March for Life, he referred to it as March to Life. This was a minor mistake, or so it seemed. He made this mistake several times, possibly never bothering to double check it. Such continued errors often are signs that the writer was not meticulous enough in creating a fact-based article.
Secondly, he made his subjectivity apparent by his choice of words and descriptions of the students. He wrote that the students were “mulling about waiting for a bus, chatting and what not...” in an attempt to portray them as sweet, innocent children just minding their own business.
He continued by writing “...a Native American man wandered into the student’s group and began beating his drum.” In the writer’s interpretation, Phillips was depicted as a lone invader, violating the students’ personal spaces. There was no mention that Phillips was actually part a Native American group that took part in another demonstration called the Indigenous People’s March.
The poetic license continued; he described Nicholas Sandmann glowingly by writing he “stood politely smiling at the drum beater.” Suddenly, the smirking teen became a protagonist in the embellished tale the writer was creating.
He included the media with its nefarious plot to take the videos and edit it in a way to portray the students as being disrespectful. There was no sourcing on this claim. Oddly enough, if he had done some research, the writer may have discovered that the initial video was taken by someone with the Twitter handle of @2020fight (that account has been suspended as of this writing).
There are no indications that the person was employed for a major media outlet. The video went viral. This alone attracted attention;especially from those in the media that routinely scan social media for trends.
Then again, getting down to the truth was never a priority
The writer’s penchant for missing information was glaring. Somehow he missed clues that would’ve supported or opposed his view on the matter. The things missing were:
The name of the Native American Group or any other group;
the Presence of the instigating group, the Black Hebrew Israelites (even Sandmann mentioned their verbal feud);
Twitter, not the news media, was the first to break the news;
the school and Sandmann’s parents hired a PR firm after the accusations;
and no mentions about the role the chaperones played, which included not taking the students out of harm’s way or to deescalate the situation.
In fairness, very few outlets reported on the chaperones (one exception came from a friend who happens to have his own radio show and is a frequent guest commentator for CNN).
Still, this could have been an opportunity to explore this. Then again, getting down to the truth was never a priority.
The Conclusion Becomes a Selling Point
The writer posted a video from conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. In truth, it doesn’t do much to bolster the writer’s argument. As expected Shapiro backed Nicholas, placed blame elsewhere and whined for 12 minutes.
The high point (or low) of the video was when he seemingly confused Phillips’s age and the war he served. He stated repeatedly that Phillips was in his 70s (actually in his mid 60s) and served in World War II...which meant he served as an infant based on that information.
Following the video were the final two paragraphs, the writer brought up Nathan Phillips’s military record and basically stated that he “unequivocally lied” about his military service. He stated this without offering definitive evidence -- with the exception of the Shapiro podcast -- to back this claim. And, by the way, Shapiro didn’t have anything to back his claims, either.
Finally, the writer closed the article with a plea: “Stop watching CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC news outlet.” He believed these media outlets played the public for fools. His choice? He told the readers to tune in to Fox News, claiming it was the “best shot we got when it comes to accuracy and truth telling.”
It was an interesting ending to his article. On forum threads for the writing content site that published his article, he repeatedly claimed he didn’t watch Cable; especially when somebody accused him of getting his information from Fox.
There’s no doubt the writer aimed to make his ideological side look like victors in this matter. Unfortunately, he took liberties with the truth in order to confirm his political beliefs.
A story like this required better research, writing, and pragmatism. Too many writers, including this particular one, rushed to judgement, just to make sure their voices were heard loud and clear.
But, it wasn't clear. This was a hastily written article with too many holes and not enough verifiable evidence. In addition, it came off as dishonest and mean-spirited. Most importantly, it did little to support his position and most likely affirmed a universal belief that political division in the era of Trump hampered objectivity.
It is a sad commentary of the state of polarization in the nation.— John Diaz, San Francisco Chronicles, 2019
The supposed unedited compilation of the Incident (warning: many people had differing reactions to it)
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Dean Traylor