Acton Institute Powerblog

Twitter and Covington Catholic: A modern day, media created thriller

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In a creepy scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, Melanie (Tippi Hendren) is waiting outside a school to pick up a student. Behind her, crows begin amassing on the playground equipment. When she finally turns and sees them, she’s completely unnerved – and eventually, as she helps the children evacuate the school, the birds attack.

Fifty-plus years onward, there’s a new ornithological thriller but it’s not playing at your local theatre. Just log on to Twitter and watch the media (and celebrities and “influencers” and everyday Joes) swoop onto stories and retweet them out without a dig into the facts or any semblance of pursuit for the truth.

The latest outrage sweeping the nation: the apparent stand-off between MAGA-hat wearing students from Covington Catholic High School and a Native American activist (not to mention the Black Hebrew Israelites). What started for those students as a trip to the March for Life, ended in public shaming, death threats, and even calls for them to be forever condemned, with no mercy, by no less than an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and producer.

While there are so many angles to approach this story from, it starts with a media whose credibility has plummeted. Interestingly, even with eventual media retractions as more of the story and actual video footage emerged, many people continue to double down on the story as originally reported. Political polarization is so profound, people can’t even agree on what they see in the uncut, full video.

For a deeper dive into issues around media credibility, we’ve pulled an excellent video from our archive. In September 2017, Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at The Federalist spoke at the Acton Lecture Series. A longtime journalist, Mollie’s reporting has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post among others. Check out a clip below. For the full lecture along with audience Q&A, watch here.

Video transcript:

[00:00:02.16] – Mollie Hemingway

Back in July on Independence Day, CNN tweeted out quotes from various Founding Fathers or important people in American history about freedom of the press and related topics. And one of them—and this was widely seen as a way to criticize the current president—so one of the quotes they tweeted from Abraham Lincoln read “let the people know the facts and the country will be free.”

It turned out that the quote was not accurate. The real quote was “let them know the truth and the country is safe.” And the context was about how Lincoln felt that people had been misled about the importance of preserving the Union, but if they knew the importance of preserving the Union that they would continue to fight as opposed to give up the fight.

So the fake quote refers to facts, and the real quote refers to truth. I think it’s a perfect conflation or error that speaks to modern journalism’s problems. Facts are easy to manipulate, and truth is much more difficult to attain.

I think for many Americans there is a growing realization that the media have completely abdicated their responsibility, and shown themselves hostile to the values and ideas that many Americans hold. And they’re not good even with facts, much less truth.

So much of the population no longer believes the media should be treated deferentially and given the power to shape, much less control public opinion. It’s actually not a great situation because you need a strong media to have a functioning civil society, so you can hold government officials accountable, so that you can have ways that people can talk with each other across divides, and that there can be trust when facing serious dangers. And that’s not what we have now.

Trust in the media has hit historic lows, and you could say that every year for the last several years. Gallup reported in September 2016 that Americans’ trust and confidence in any way for the media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly had dropped to its lowest level in polling history, with only 32 percent saying they had any trust in the media.

That was down 8 points over the previous year, and among Republicans the situation was even worse, with only 14 percent of them having confidence. This was before the election, and since the election I’m not sure if they’ve handled things to really change this trajectory.

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Sara Aldworth

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