The Washington Post Settles With Nicholas Sandmann . . . But Denies Any Wrongdoing

AP Photo/Bryan Woolston

Nicholas Sandmann was a student at Covington Catholic High School in Covington, Kentucky, on a school trip to our nation’s capital when Indian activist Nathan Phillips approached him after part of a group called the Black Hebrew Israelites started “shouting racial epithets and homophobic slurs” at the students, who were engaged in a pro-life demonstration on the Washington Mall. The Post, along with the rest of the credentialed media, published accounts which made it seem as though the Covington Catholic students started the altercation.

Washington Post settles lawsuit with family of Kentucky teenager

By Paul Farhi | July 24, 2020 | 1:10 PM EDT

The Washington Post has settled a lawsuit brought by the parents of a teenager who alleged that news coverage of the teen’s encounter with a Native American activist on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last year was defamatory.

The Post admitted no wrongdoing in settling with the family of Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington, Ky., high school student who was involved in the episode during a school trip to Washington in January 2019.

Attorneys for the Sandmanns filed to dismiss the suit Friday morning in federal district court in Covington. Neither side disclosed the terms of the settlement, which foreclosed the possibility of a trial.

The family contended in a suit filed last year that The Post defamed Sandmann in seven articles and via tweets promoting the articles. The Post has maintained that its reporting was accurate and fair.

If the Post maintains that its reporting was accurate and fair, why did they settle?

The Sandmanns settled a similar lawsuit against CNN in January. The terms of that agreement were also kept confidential by both sides. The family’s suit against NBC is still pending. They have also filed suits against Gannett, ABC, CBS, the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

It’s great, isn’t it? By settling, the Post, like CNN before it, “foreclosed the possibility of a trial.” Translation: neither organization wanted its dirty laundry aired out in the courtroom, which would have happened in discovery and in testimony in the trial. The Sandmanns’ suit against the Post was for $250 million, the amount Amazon founder Jeff Bezos paid for the Post in 2013. Had the case gone to trial, and the Post lost, Mr Bezos, who has a reported net worth of $189 billion, could have paid the $250 million out of perhaps not pocket change, but a trifle compared to the $36.5 billion it cost him to dump his wife, MacKenzie, for Lauren Sánchez. Of course, it wouldn’t have been Mr Bezos, or the Post, paying out the claim, but their insurance company.

Sandmann was on a trip to Washington with classmates from Covington Catholic High School to march in an antiabortion rally on the Mall. After completing the march, the students were waiting for a bus at the Lincoln Memorial. Phillips was at the Mall for a rally for indigenous people.

Initial news accounts, including The Post’s, relied on eyewitnesses such as Phillips and a limited number of videos posted on social media. Sandmann wasn’t identified in early accounts and didn’t speak publicly about it until several days later.

Covington Catholic and the Covington Diocese initially issued an apology on behalf of the students and condemned their behavior.

Yeah, it seems that everybody was jumping on the bandwagon of too-early reports, which proved to be slanted.

But later videos gave a fuller picture of what happened. They showed that several men, part of a group called the Black Hebrew Israelites, had been shouting racial epithets and homophobic slurs at the waiting Covington students. Some of the students began school sports cheers in response as Phillips approached.

And now the article has made its obligatory statement that yes, the early reporting was wrong. That had to be done to keep from getting sued yet again.

News organizations sometimes settle defamation claims rather than face a trial. Even with a favorable judgment at trial, the costs of defending against such a suit can be substantial.

Not as much as a loss, I should think. This statement is simply the Post’s fig leaf justification for settling, without admitting any wrongdoing, and without having its editors put on the stand, under oath, and having to testify about the editorial decision-taking that went into their reporting.

I have a sub-category on my website, The First Street Journal, 18th Century Technology, underneath my Freedom of the Press heading. Newspapers are, in the end, outdated technology in the internet age, with their printed material being hours out of date when it reaches people’s front porches. But, in a way, having those deadlines and schedules, “scoops” only come once a day, and reporters could, sometimes, take the time to dig deeper. With the internet, the rush to be first is every second of every day.

Thus, when the Post first got the story, there was great pressure to rush it onto their website. As the article noted, information obtained later changed the picture. Of course, that photo of Mr Sandmann in a MAGA hat, well that almost certainly pulled the editors’ chains; he’s just got to be a bad guy, right?

Kind of like the mostly white, mostly well-off lacrosse players at Duke University. Accused of rape by a black woman, they just had to be guilty, and the credentialed media and liberal bloggers — Amanda Marcotte in particular — and a bunch of Duke faculty members just jumped onto the story. It’s worth noting that RedState’s Stacey Matthews, then blogging as Sister Toldjah, didn’t fall for it, and published a series of stories questioning the accusations.

It took a while, but the truth came out: the lacrosse players were innocent, the accuser lied through her scummy teeth, and the District Attorney thought he had a re-election winning case. One would have thought that the experienced editors of The Washington Post, and all of the professors in journalism schools, would have learned the lesson: don’t rush to judgement. Apparently, they did not.
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