A Crisis of Trust in News Media Institutions: What the Covington Episode Can Teach Us

A Crisis of Trust in News Media Institutions: What the Covington Episode Can Teach Us

We must equip ourselves with the resources required to exercise the collective self-government that is a guiding ideal of the American political identity.

Written by Preston Stovall
Postdoctoral Researcher in Philosophy
University of Hradec Králové

Like many people, my trust in the integrity of news media has plummeted since the last U.S. presidential election cycle.  Whereas I used to think a sufficiently large swath of news sources would contain enough common content at their intersection as to be informative, I now find myself suspicious of so much across any given source that there’s no room left for them to agree.  

The episode at the Lincoln Memorial on January 18th between the Covington Catholic School students, the Black Hebrew Israelites, and the group of native Americans led by Nathan Phillips exemplifies that problem.  In terms of the substance of what was supposed to have happened, nearly everything widely circulated for the first day subsequently proved to be contradicted by some other widely circulated story.  Here is Caitlin Flanagan writing for The Atlantic last week, in a damning exposé that uses a two-hour recording of one of the Black Israelites as a basis for examining just what happened at that event:

By Saturday, the story had become so hot, and the appetite for it so deep, that some news outlets felt compelled to do some actual reporting. This was when the weekend began to take a long, bad turn for respected news outlets and righteous celebrities. Journalists began to discover that the viral video was not, in fact, the Zapruder film of 2019, and that there were other videos—lots and lots of them—that showed the event from multiple perspectives and that explained more clearly what had happened. At first the journalists and their editors tried to patch the revelations onto the existing story, in hopes that the whole thing would somehow hold together. CNN, apparently by now aware that the event had taken place within a complicating larger picture, tried to use the new information to support its own biased interpretation, sorrowfully reporting that early in the afternoon the boys had clashed with “four African American young men preaching about the Bible and oppression.” But the wild, uncontrollable internet kept pumping videos into the ether that allowed people to see for themselves what had happened.

Her piece is a forceful indictment of the behaviors that led to that conflict, on all sides, and a thorough rebuke of organizations like CNN and The New York Times.

* * *

A confrontation like this, in the place at the time on the occasion and with the people in question, can only develop in one of two ways at this point – depending on one’s political allegiances, this story was either going to be told as a case of more-or-less explicit white privilege being exhibited and called out, or as a case of ‘reverse racism’ targeting young white men.  This shouldn’t be too surprising given the way identity has shaped public discourse in the U.S. over the last few decades. And of course there are those who see all politics as identity politics, where ‘identity’ is cast along racial, gendered, or other lines of non-voluntary association. For one possessed by that conviction, to cease playing the identity-politicking game is to give up the game to one’s opponents, who are playing it at any rate.  

But though the trappings of identity may be used by some to divide ‘us’ from ‘them’, identity can also be a basis for unification.  And we err if we suppose our fellow citizens can be best understood through the identities we see as our political enemies. For as fellow citizens there is a we that unites us.  It is that political identity that animates so much of what is laudable about the United States – it can be an identity that animates our interactions with one another as well.

Human life is thoroughly social, and our sociality is an incredibly complex phenomenon. Watching the full exchange among the actors at the Lincoln Memorial two weeks ago, the viewer is gripped by the mercurial character of the encounter. The episode is filled with nuance, false starts, and emotional and intellectual charges and retreats. As a whole it is permeated by lost opportunity punctuated with moments of sincere interchange among heartfelt and politically divergent Americans over what the United States is or ought to be.  And it takes place in the shadow of the statue of Abraham Lincoln. There are far more ‘both…and…’s than there are ‘either…or…’s for creatures like us.

In the days after the event Phillips said he approached the Covington boys and began to walk through them in an effort to calm the tensions between the students and the Israelites.  I don’t think there is any question he was partly successful. There is a period of nearly one minute, beginning at the 1:13:35 mark of this video, where that end was consciously achieved in an evident harmony among the cadence of the drums, the chanting of the crowd, and the response of the Black Israelites.  But it quickly evaporates.

We need to be looking for ways to keep those kinds of moments alive, and one might hope these confrontations would be ameliorating of our problems, perhaps leading to dialogue and the shaping of common cause within otherwise disparate groups of people.      

* * *

It does not speak well of Americans that we are living in a time when an interaction like this can only go in one of two directions, and where partisans of each side are clamoring to impose their sense of direction on the event.  It is integral to the health of the Republic that we find a way of building and sustaining avenues of dialogue and collective political action across boundaries like this. That cannot happen in a polity where the news media does not have the trust of the public.  And because all institutional action is mediated by the actions of individual people, a public without trust in its institutions is a public without trust among individuals.

The situation seems only to have worsened in the years since Trump’s election.  Distrust in news organizations appears to be stuck in a dysmorphic positive feedback loop fueled by changing distributions of advertising revenue, increasing reliance on video technology, the threat of selective editing, growing political polarization, the decentralization of content filtration, and the rise of an almost instantaneously globally connected online culture.  

These tendencies have led to an ecosystem of media consumption that feeds on and is fed by the baser elements of our social hindbrains.  I suspect that an interruption of this feedback cycle, to be lasting, will require collective intervention at a number of points. We clearly need both journalists who follow good practices in their profession and citizens who are able to critically evaluate what they are presented with, and so I will close on these two suggestions.  

Journalism schools, as institutions that oversee one of the bedrock professions of modern society, need to evaluate their role in an age where many journalists are either not formally trained or, where they presumably have had formal education in journalism (e.g. at The New York Times), are working under the pressure of accelerated news cycles.  There is some indication that these issues are getting more attention, both in the popular sphere and in academic publications, and one hopes this will translate to journalism schools taking a more proactive stance toward ethics in journalism in the 21st century.

We should likewise be providing children and young adults with the empathic socialization and critical reasoning skills that are needed to navigate the sort of world we’re creating for them.  In other places I’ve argued for the value of philosophical instruction in American secondary education.   American educators should also be giving more attention to high school courses like U.S. Political Thought and Radicalism in Worthington, Ohio.  That class, taught since the 1970s, provides senior students with the opportunity to speak with and listen to political extremists from across the spectrum.  The course is not for the faint of heart – past speakers have included Bill Ayers and Richard Spencer.

Whatever else we do, we should be pursuing methods of education that will equip American citizens with the social and intellectual resources required to exercise the collective self-government that is a guiding ideal of the American political identity.

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