In “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye notes that you should “believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear.” Skepticism can be healthy, especially when it comes to critically thinking about those ideas or values held as “common sense” or “received wisdom.” Other times, however, skepticism can be dangerous, especially when it comes to things that contradict our own biases. The United States has already witnessed in recent memory President Donald Trump dismissing reality when it contradicts his interests, attacking “fake news” and promoting “alternative facts.” This brand of “post-truth politics” has intensified to the point that even clearly obvious conclusions drawn from empirical evidence—such as the crowd size at Trump’s 2017 inauguration—may be “interpreted” differently, although what interpretation you draw from that event largely coincides with your own political beliefs and personal prejudices.
Just this year alone, two videos have made shockwaves in U.S. politics. The first came in January, when footage was posted online showing white teenagers from Covington Catholic high school in Kentucky wearing pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” mocking Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder and activist, outside the Lincoln Memorial. The image of one particular teenager, Nick Sandmann, sneering with utmost confidence in the face of Phillips, was poised to become as iconic as others in U.S. history. There was outage on social media, as this incident seemed to embody everything dangerous and immoral about the state-sanctioned racism promoted by Trump and his Republican allies. Here was evidence that white children in this country were feeling emboldened to illustrate their bigotry and hated by chanting at and herding around a solitary old man. That Phillips is Native American also invoked the decades of cruelty and deceit employed by the U.S. government in the forced relocation and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples stretching back to the earliest days of our history.
A counter-narrative soon formed. Right-wingers began claiming that the video was “edited” to make the teenagers look bad, that “context” was needed to understand what happened. The argument was that the teenagers were abused by Black Israelites, a religious group known for being provocative, and so the teenagers were simply standing up for themselves. This does not justify, however, why Sandmann and others leering at and harassing Phillips, who is independent of the Black Israelites. Sandmann’s family hired a PR firm and went on a media tour, claiming that he was “praying” while smirking at Phillips in a confrontational matter. Of course, Sandmann made himself out to be the victim when, just days before, he was widely acknowledged as an aggressor.
The mainstream media subsequently fell over itself rushing to claim Sandmann was indeed the real victim and to throw Phillips under the bus. This, they claimed, was an error of rushing to judgment, of not knowing all the facts before conclusions were made. Unlike Trump’s 2017 inauguration, where the crowd sizes were obviously small, the case of Phillips and the MAGA hat-wearing teenagers boiled down to something that had to be interpreted: the motivations of Sandmann and the other teenagers. Since some people were arguing that the motivation of the teenagers was not to target Phillips but to “defend” themselves from the words of the Black Israelites, the media backed down. It did not matter that the teenagers did Tomahawk chops at Phillips, that they yelled at him, or treated him with contempt and condescension, despite him being completely separate from the Black Israelites. It is pretty obvious that the kids from Covington Catholic saw and treated Phillips with the same disdain they had for the Black Israelites, the sort of arrogant disdain that only those in power can illustrate to the powerless.
More recently, a video has surface of Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein of California showing some disdain of her own, in this instance to a group of grade-school students who came to her office to ask she support the Green New Deal. Organized by the Sunrise Movement, the students noted how their generation stands to deal with the worst effects of global warming, and that the Green New Deal represented bold and dramatic action to address the issue. With smugness to rival Sandmann, Feinstein lectured the students on the length of her service, her legislative achievements, dismissing their activism. Again, the initial social media reaction was anger: Here was a group of children choosing to be civically engaged, to act on an issue important to them, and instead their engagement was treated as a nuisance by a careerist politician uninterested in anyone unable to donate to her campaigns or influence her vote. Just as the video of Sandmann and Phillips was emblematic of contemporary racism in the U.S., Feinstein talking down to a group of activist students manifested the irresponsiveness and ego prevalent among Democratic establishment elites to grassroot calls to adopt more left-wing policies.
This time, it was centrists and moderates who claimed that the video was “edited,” that additional “context” was needed. Sure enough, it was revealed that the Sunrise Movement had indeed edited down the video—because they had to conform to Twitter requirements on video length. They uploaded and shared the full video on Facebook, but this fact was ignored. The “alternative fact” was that Sunrise Movement was a dangerous group trying to make Democrats look bad in pursuit of their own personal agenda, which would have the end result of helping Trump and the Republicans win in upcoming elections. (It does not seem to matter to these people that the Green New Deal is itself a Democratic proposal, and so far, the only credible one that actually offers solutions to climate change and the disastrous consequences it will have on the world.)
The full unedited video does not all change Feinstein’s demeanor toward the children; it is undeniable that rather than employing tact or admitting her role in failing to address climate change, she became defensive and angry at being questioned on the issue. Some have pointed to her offering an internship to the kids as a point in her favor; of course, to those of us who are not naïve, she was briefly dangling a carrot in addition to the verbal stick she was using in blithely waving them off. It is also rather telling that Feinstein (or her communications team) went to Twitter to do damage control by saying the students were heard “loud and clear,” although this was obviously not Feinstein’s language (bodily and in words) when she actually met and talked with the students.
In both cases, the appeal to “more context” and making it an issue of interpretation forced the media to retreat, to go from presenting something as obviously one way to a more neutral “it’s complicated,” or in some cases to another full-throated “we were wrong to rush to judgment.” For the media, the need to appear fair and balanced as well as not to alienate political insiders who give them access drives them to call their own news “fake” and then patiently wait for it to disappear from the news cycle. For them, the surge in clicks and viewers when the story first broke and the goodwill they earn in protecting the powerful more than makes up for the damage done to their credibility.
In each incident the footage came not from journalists themselves, but from activists or regular people on the ground. Cell phone cameras mean that elites cannot control where and when cameras are pointed, so when video gets out that is damaging, a common PR ploy is to doubt the veracity of the footage and the people responsible for it. Then comes the appeal to “facts” that aren’t clear or to ulterior motives and hidden agendas. The more powerful the people under attack, the more concentrated the counter-narrative becomes, until at last the masses are doubting what they saw with their own eyes.
More videos like these will emerge in the extremely near future. This is certain because the contempt in the two videos—whether it be racist hatred from smug white people, or careerist conceit toward “non-experts”—is indeed widespread in our society. Just because PR tactics have down watered these videos and their powerful messages does not mean that the underlying sickness is not there; it just means that the symptoms are being covered up. An increasing number of U.S. citizens are waking up to the rot within our culture and the corruption within the establishment, and the suave maneuverings of spin doctors and communications directors cannot hold the masquerade forever.