How the media centers whiteness: "Today," Nicholas Sandmann and "the others"

Savannah Guthrie's interview with the Covington Catholic teen shows an ongoing flaw in how the news covers race

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 23, 2019 5:53PM (EST)

Savannah Guthrie interviews Nick Sandmann (NBC)
Savannah Guthrie interviews Nick Sandmann (NBC)

Kudos to NBC’s Savannah Guthrie for clarifying the core context of heated conversation regarding what happened over the weekend outside the Lincoln Memorial crystal clear: See, this is about white people and “others.”

How are innocent children expected to react to “others”?

In turn, what responsibility do adult “others” have to making sure young men like 16-year-old Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann feel safe, regardless of what they’re doing and where they're doing it?

Shouldn’t we all understand and take into account that, when confronted by five black cult members hurling racist vulgarities at them, a group of young white men at least four times as large in number, many wearing red MAGA hats, has a right to take a stand against any and all people of color in their orbit with, as Sandman describes is, a “peaceful response of school spirit”?

This may not have been the paradigm Guthrie intended to take in her sit down with Sandmann that aired on Wednesday's episode of NBC’s “Today,” but it was present in her line of questioning.

Following a voiceover describing the high school junior as “the face of this Lincoln Memorial confrontation,” Guthrie launched into the usual queries. “What’s it like to be at the center of this storm?”

And, “What’s this been like for you and for your family?”

Shuffled within this line of questioning, though, are queries that have a bit of historical and cultural weight to them.

“Did you feel threatened at all?. . . There were more of you than them, but you felt like, they were stronger?”

Then comes the moment that made me audibly groan: “Have you looked at that video and thought about how it felt from the others’ perspective? In other words, there were a lot of you, a handful of the others. Do you think they might have felt threatened by a bunch of young men kind of beating their chests?”

See? It’s all about confusion over what to do with those “others.”

Critiques about the mainstream media’s handling over the viral video that showed Sandmann standing stock still and grinning in the face of 64-year-old Omaha tribal elder Nathan Phillips as he sings and plays a traditional drum have vacillated from condemnatory, initially, to apologetic, eventually. Outlets that criticized ugly behavior on the part of Sandmann and his Kentucky high school classmates hours after the video went wide backtracked when footage taken from other angles emerged, showing several perspectives of what happened.

Thus what was first thought to be a demonstration of smug white privilege , embodied by gleefully smiling young white man standing in way of a Native American elder, soon became something more complicated.

Combative invective spewed by a handful of Hebrew Israelites, directed at everyone who wasn’t them, appeared to instigate the students, who were waiting for their buses after participating in an anti-abortion March for Life rally.

Yet as Guthrie questioned Sandmann, she kept using the term “others” in reference to anyone present who wasn't a Covington kid. To the casual viewer, that might not mean much. One suspects Guthrie was simply attempting to handle a difficult line of questioning to a minor as gently as possible.

But in a conversation about members of three groups from disparate cultural backgrounds coming into conflict, including one that's been consistently attacked and exploited by dominant powers and frequently dismissed by the media, referring to the two who aren’t white as “others” has thorny connotations.

The concept of “other,” in this context, has long been explored in phenomenology. Within the last three decades it’s also been defined as viewing or treating people who are differ from a dominant group as alien.

That sounds a lot like what happened, on a very basic level, at the Lincoln Memorial last Friday. It also played out in Guthrie’s treatment of the story. The indigenous people present on the Mall that day acted with a very different intent than the Hebrew Israelites, the kind of group any resident of a large city would walk by and ignore as they go about their business.

But in that interview eventually everyone who wasn’t among the Covington contingent became “othered” in order to place the distress of Sandmann and the young men screaming and performing tomahawk chops at Native American demonstrators at the center of the story as the main misunderstood and aggrieved party.

Phillips says he and companions in his group placed themselves between the Hebrew Israelites and the kids in order to prevent what appeared to be an escalating situation from transforming into something worse. He did so after, according to Sandmann, the young men responded to the antagonistic fringe group with what the student calls a positive, peaceful response of school spirit.

“Others” recognize the teens’ reaction as an intimidating chant — appropriate for high school sporting matches, maybe not so much when facing down people you've never met who are participating in the Indigenous Peoples March taking place on the Mall.

When part of that response also appears to be an appropriation of a haka, a Maori war dance, the argument over it being peaceful and positive becomes less convincing. That is, unless it is presented before a sympathetic interviewer who doesn’t even point out that their “school spirit” effort is usually employed to intimidate opposing teams at sporting events. Nor does she even mention the term “haka.”

Instead she asks, “Do you think it was a good idea to start chanting back at the protesters?”

“In hindsight, I wish we had just found another spot to wait for our buses, but at the time, being positive seemed better than letting them slander us with all these things. So I wish we could have walked away,” he said.

Later, Guthrie brings up Sandmann's choice to wear his Make America Great Again hat in the context of the fallout the image has produced, not in the context of what that hat might symbolize to, you know, “others.”

“Do you think if you weren’t wearing that hat, this might not have happened or it might have been different?” she asks.

“That’s possible, but I would have to assume what Mr. Phillips was thinking and I’d rather let him speak for why he came up to us.”

Separate conversations can and should be had over what this entire moment indicates about the responsibility the Covington Catholic parents bear to educate their kids about basic rules of interaction with strangers in unfamiliar public spaces, let alone in one popularly thought to be one of our nation’s most hallowed.

There’s also much to be written about what Friday’s interaction tells us about the ways that schools are failing to adequately educate the next generation about our history and, in a bleaker context, how adults are complicit in sowing such seeds of ignorance. If these kids knew anything about Native American culture or history, they might have some inkling that what was being captured on camera was, at the very least, not a good look to show the world.

For the moment, though, let’s mull over NBC’s role in this, along with other media outlets, and how Guthrie’s softball approach demonstrates a few flaws in the media’s coverage of events where race and racism are central to the narrative.

This is a tough story, but one also rich with opportunities to reveal unpleasant truths about class, race and the ways that systemic stratification is being passed along to the next generation. These are the quintessential "nice" young men from good homes, students at a college preparatory institution. The kinds of kids whose mistakes are quickly qualified and smoothed over.  Given enough opportunities to explain themselves and inroads to success, the Nick Sandmanns of the world are allowed to be kids who make mistakes until they are well into their 30s.

One of the main stumbling blocks to addressing these complexities is the media’s rush to center a conscientiously-polished white perspective in order to soothe white nervousness about charges of racism. I would be very surprised if any stories emerge in the coming days and weeks that paint Sandmann or any of his Covington classmates as "no angel."

If that widespread image of Sandmann and Phillips facing each other tells us anything, it is that blunt conversations about race relations desperately need to be had, in public and in a thoughtfully moderated context, on a regular basis.

This was not one of them. This was about making sure the public did not misunderstand a nice and perhaps naïve young man who simply got in over his head and didn’t ask to be the face of this Lincoln Memorial confrontation  — even though another face, that of Phillips, takes up half of the photo, with many other faces behind them.

Guthrie, it must be said, was in a tough position from the start. Negative reaction to the interview erupted from the moment a photo showing her sitting down with Sandmann made the rounds on social media. She’s also interviewing a teenager in front of millions of viewers, and that demands a delicate approach.

But Sandmann's family hired Louisville-based public relations team, RunSwitch PR, to shine up his image. In fact, CNN posted a statement in Sandmann’s name that appears to be the work of  a professional. CNN, however, did not mention that RunSwitch’s crisis management role here (nor did they mention that CNN contributor Scott Jennings, a conservative columnist and commentator, is a partner in the firm).

Therefore NBC and Guthrie knew Sandmann’s answers were likely to be the result of ample coaching and delivered with mechanical precision, containing all the right verbiage to quell any questions about his actions . She also had plenty of opportunities to respond with points that question the veracity of what he was saying, but took advantage of few of them.

In fact, the most honest moment within the conversation came when Guthrie asked Sandmann to explain the meaning of his smirk.

“What do you think that looks like?” she asks him.

“I see it as a smile saying that, this is the best you’re going to get out of me. You get any further reaction of aggression. And I’m willing to stand here as long as you want to hit this drum in my face,” he said.

Instead of pushing back against his stylized replies, the "Today" host let video do the talking, including a clip of his classmates performing a racist tomahawk chop which contradicts what Sandmann insists he witnessed.

Returning to the curiosity about how those non-specific “others” near him may have interpreted his actions, Guthrie asks Sandmann if “they might have felt threatened by a bunch of young men kind of beating their chests."

And he replies politely, “I certainly hope they didn’t feel threatened by us. I would just say that the fact remains that they initiated their comments with us and, I mean, they provoked us into a peaceful response of school spirit.”

Again: which “others”? Which “they”? Guthrie isn’t seen asking Sandmann to clarify that, at least not on camera. Nor does she make an effort to draw a line between Phillips and the indigenous demonstrators standing by him, and the small gathering representing an organization which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a black supremacist group.

Value exists in seeing evidence as opposed to simply hearing or reading one interpretation of a many-sided confrontation, of course. But it has a limited amount of currency when interviewers don’t push back on performative replies, regardless of the age of the person giving them. It fails the audience, and only serves the subject.

When it comes to fraught situations such as this, which side is presented first matters greatly, particularly with regard to a platform as large as “Today.” Sandmann received a warm nine-minute feature on Tuesday. On Thursday's "Today," we’re told, Phillips will have a chance to respond to Sandmann.

Donald Trump, predictably, expressed support for Sandmann and his classmates. Sandmann, for his part, does not apologize for his role in what happened, informing viewers that he hopes to come out of this with a deeper understanding of “others.”  Coupled with that "Today" interview, the results of his encounter further ensure his shot at a  bright future — which is, of course,  the goal of every college preparatory experience. What Sandmann did may not make America great again when all is said and done, but what terrific fodder for an application essay.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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