CNN settles lawsuit brought by student they maligned

January 8, 2020 • 12:30 pm

You may remember that on January 28 of last year, a group of boys from the all male Covington Catholic High School in Park, Hills, Kentucky, met on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to get their buses home after a class trip to attend an anti-abortion rally. (They’re Catholics, Jake!) Some of them were wearing MAGA hats, showing that they supported Trump. On the steps they encountered people from two demonstrating groups,  Indigenous Peoples March, and the March for Life. There was also a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites that were, according to Wikipedia, “shouting scripture and taunting passers-by” with racist epithets.

There ensued a confrontation that was characterized by the media as a group of Trumpista, white, entitled males dissing Native Americans and attacking the African-Americans. And that’s the way the encounter was portrayed in the press. Such an encounter was made for the liberal media, who, as you may recall, excoriated the boys. Native people and blacks against rich white boys supporting Trump and criticizing abortion!

Well, I’m not going to excuse the MAGA hats, and I’m pro-choice, but the media stereotype turned out to be exaggerated. What happened was far more complicated, and I’ll just give Wikipedia’s summary:

As the 15- and 16-year-old students began to arrive, the Hebrew Israelites began to taunt them directly, and shouted racially combative insults and slurs at them. As more Covington students arrived, and in response to these taunts, the students performed school spirit sports chants, including their version of a Māori haka. One of the Native Americans who was there for the March said that he felt “the students were mocking the dance.”

According to a January 23 New York Times article, Indigenous Peoples March participants said they had interpreted the “loud chanting” and the size of the group, as well as their MAGA apparel, as “aggressive and disruptive to their demonstration” which had just concluded. Nathan Phillips, a member of the Omaha tribe who had participated in the March, listened to the chants for what he said was about ten minutes. He said he thought that there was a confrontation between the students and the street preachers that he believed had reached a “boiling point”. He later said that he had intended to defuse what he perceived as escalating tension between the students and the preachers. In his early press interviews, Phillips accused the Covington students of hate and racism. According to The Detroit Free Press, Phillips said, “They were in the process of attacking these four black individuals…. These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that.” According to CNN’s Sara Sidner, two minutes after one of the students took off his shirt to lead the haka, the “drum beat of Phillips and another Native American drummer [was audible] in the video”. They sang the AIM Song, a Native American intertribal song.

Phillips and a second Native American, both with ceremonial drums, walked towards the students grouped along the stairs. Sidner said that while some of the students danced to Phillips’ drum beat and chanted along with him for a while, they were not “enjoying each other’s company”. Soon, Phillips, was “encircled” by about 30 students, “many of them white and wearing apparel bearing the slogan of President Trump”, red baseball hats with the phrase “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). Phillips continued to beat his ceremonial drum and sing for nearly two minutes as a boy wearing the red MAGA hat chose not to retreat with what some viewed as a smirk on his face. The student later explained that he smiled because he wanted Phillips to know “that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation.” Within minutes of this encounter, an adult chaperone called the students to their buses which had arrived. The students quickly departed the area without further incident.

In the following days more videos came out, and it became clear that the media’s characterization of the incident, particularly from CNN and the Washington Post, was grossly inaccurate. But by then the whole nation was demonizing the boys at Covington Catholic, and they even received death threats. Some of the media corrected themselves, but I didn’t follow what happened later with the outlets who got sued (see below).

One of the students, Nicholas Sandmann (the boy pictured face to face with a drum-beating Native American) sued CNN, as well as the Washington Post and NBC Universal, and won, as there has been a settlement of undisclosed amount with CNN. (The triple suit was for $800 million, with the CNN moiety $245 million). The other two lawsuits are still in progress. The grounds for the suits were that the media “falsely accused Sandmann and the other students of ‘engaging in racist conduct’ without properly investigating the incident.”

Here’s the picture that brought all the opprobrium down on Sandmann. It was interpreted as showing him smirking and dissing a Native American. His claim is that he was trying to be amiable and defuse the tension.

I’ll put up two articles detailing that, one from the New York Times and the other from the National Review. Click on the screenshots to read them.


From the National Review, summarizing the suit:

“CNN brought down the full force of its corporate power, influence, and wealth on Nicholas by falsely attacking, vilifying, and bullying him despite the fact that he was a minor child,” reads the suit, which was filed in March 2019.

. . . The lawsuit filed by Sandmann’s attorneys in the Eastern District of Kentucky claimed that 53 statements included in CNN’s coverage of the incident were defamatory. One such statement, included in a CNN opinion piece, accused the students of acting with “racist disrespect” towards Phillips. Meanwhile, Bakari Sellers, a CNN contributor, publicly mused about assaulting the 16-year-old Sandmann, and HBO host Bill Maher called him a “little prick.”

Now the students may not be people you want to hang around with, but disliking someone’s politics is one thing, but defaming them prematurely is another. The lesson is clear: the liberal media, eager to embrace a story that fit their narrative perfectly, moved too fast, and defamed students like Sandmann prematurely. Had they done a bit more investigating, and reserved judgment before getting more facts, they wouldn’t have had to settle. By settling, CNN has admitted that it was wrong, for it would have fought the case in court otherwise. Some of this, I suspect, has to do with the media’s hatred of Trump and the fact that some of the boys seemed to be Trump supporters.

Sandmann will always carry the stigma of the defamation with him, but maybe he’s crying all the way to the bank.

h/t: cesar

35 thoughts on “CNN settles lawsuit brought by student they maligned

  1. “The triple suit was for $800 million, with the CNN moiety $245 million”

    The sheer size of American lawsuits is rather astonishing to us on this side of the pond. Even a hundredth of that amount would be comparable to a life-time’s earnings.

    1. As I understand it, the amounts in the initial judgements get cut down significantly afterwards. Perhaps the lawyers on here can explain how that works (or tell me I’m wrong). Still, the amounts do seem ridiculous even after they’ve been reduced.

      1. I’m an attorney.

        First, with regard to the astronomical numbers, they are merely meaningless, made up figure designed to grab media attention and to convey a sense of extreme outrage to the jury that might ultimately hear the case.

        Second, in those cases where a jury actually hears the case and comes back with an astronomical award of damages, you are correct that the amount of the award is frequently reduced by the appellate courts on the grounds that it was not supported by the evidence, or because there are statutory caps that apply in certain cases. Indeed, there are certain areas of the country that are known for having a pool of potential jurors who are prone to astronomical awards, and plaintiff’s attorneys actively look for ways to get their cases into those areas.

        The CNN case involved a “settlement,” which is a voluntary — and in this case, confidential — negotiated resolution of the case by the parties themselves. It is not something that can be appealed and it is not subject to reduction by an appellate court. I frequently see statements in the media that someone was “awarded” a “settlement,” but settlements and awards are two different things. Juries “award” damages; the parties themselves negotiate “settlements.”

        1. Are the numbers astronomical because attorneys get a percentage of the result?

          I think that happens but it seems unfair as it doesn’t directly reflect the amount of work done.

          That is one reason the judgements might be reviewed as ther may be collusion.

  2. Whether or not there is validity in a lawsuit, it’s often in the best interests of prominent businesses and people to settle rather than to keep it in the news longer.

    1. Exactly. They could spend a ton of money defending themselves and lose in the court of public opinion. Or they could give up and the story goes away.

  3. In the photo of Sandmann “smirking and dissing a Native American”, Sandmann’s eyes seem not to be looking at the the gentleman in the foreground at all, but at something/someone on the gentleman’s right.

    1. If you watch the video, it is clear that Sandmann was confrontational towards the older man. His friends were cheering him on. I did some research after I first saw the video on the day it happened, and I have no doubt that this teenager intended to intimidate this man. Settling a lawsuit does not equal admission of liability and almost always recites the opposite. The amount of the settlement is confidential, so it could be nominal.

      1. Ann, Wasn’t it Phillips who walked up to the Sandmann while drumming away in the kid’s face? And yes, there are very clear videos showing who walked up to whom.

        You may want to see Phillips’s background and past deeds. His behavior that day was not an anomaly.

        1. I looked at several of the videos and that is what I recall too. The kid was standing there and he did not move as everyone crowded around him. I can’t say that he is smirking. I could easily say this is just a dumb kid who got caught up in a situation and does not know how to react. Go to places where teenagers gather and you will see many boys with a similar expression.

        2. You are correct. The activist strolled up the kids, who were dicking around and being juvenile, but nothing outrageous. And certainly nothing as serious as the homophobic and antisemitic Black Hebrew group.

          It was the narrative that the kids rushed over to the activist that was busted open by video evidence.

          Yet, the eejits at ‘Friendly Atheist’ couldn’t admit they jumped to the wrong conclusion, and doubled down. I exposed quite a few of them, and they got real mad. Shame.

      2. I am pretty sure that is a case of projection. I watched the whole video a bunch of times as well. What I saw was kids sort of horsing around, and getting screamed at by the Black Israelites. The native folks were drawn to the confrontation, and Mr. Phillips walked right into the crowd of kids, drumming and singing right in their faces. Where you see malice, I see kids who are uncomfortable and not sure what is happening. I tried to imagine what I would have done at that age and in that situation. The two main choices seem to be to move away from Mr. Phillips, or just stand there. The kid was backed up to the steps, and probably did not want to be rude and turn his back on Mr. Phillips.
        There is no good reason to believe that the kids knew who Mr. Phillips was, or why he was there. He might well have appeared to be a busker of some sort. So the kid just stood there and smiled uncomfortably. Some of the kids clapped along with the drumming. Sandmann himself just stood there, except at one point where he gave a “cut it out” gesture to one of his classmates who was in a loud but friendly conversation with one of the native activists. Sandmann eventually just walked away to the left of Mr. Phillips.
        Because he was wearing a red hat, which they sell near the mall, people made a bunch of assumptions about what he might have been thinking as he stood there. They falsely accused him of being the one who approached Phillips, blocking him from leaving, and even menacing him. You yourself see his actions as “confrontational”

        Although in the video Sandmann’s face is a little higher than Phillip’s, Sandmann was on a higher step. He is on the small side for kids his age, and not very menacing.

        So out of the whole interaction, which included adults shouting obscenities at children and the native activists, adults getting right in the faces of 15 and 16 year old kids waiting for a bus while drumming and singing, The conclusion was that the kid who stood there silently, smiling uncomfortably is not only the villain there, but is such a monster that adults need to take to national and social media to denounce him. Many felt that his actions warranted death threats for him and his family. I remember at the time, some people advocated for a campaign to have Sandmann’s father fired from his job, and to contact any university that Sandmann might apply to in order to destroy him.

        CNN and the other major news outlets might have chosen to watch the whole video, do some interviews, and practice journalism. Instead they chose to dox and try to destroy a random kid, primarily because of his hat.

        Some people, even here, believe that any support of the current administration is evidence of monstrous evil. I cannot even start to address that attitude. We cannot even deduce Sandmann’s personal view on abortion from this, as it was a school trip. Not all people who attend religious schools follow the designated religion. Most kids attend because their parents enroll them. I went to a Church of England school at that age, even though we are not Christians.

        1. Quite so. I followed the news from the UK and concluded that the rush to judgement, or the rush to beat other ‘news’ providers, often does far more damage to society than any imagined false outrage. Whatever the religious, political, or philosophical stance of those involved.

      3. All the extra videos I saw indicated the complete opposite.

        The guy with the drum walked right up to him deliberately, baning away with that god awful noise.

        The kid did well.

      4. Ann, respectfully, I think you misremember. I think if someone marches up to you, chanting and drumming, you can choose to “stand your ground” or walk away. The boy was not the aggressor.

  4. … they even received death threats.

    The fuck is wrong with people, they make “death threats”? Seems every time there’s a dispute of any kind, anywhere along the political or cultural spectra, the “death threats” start flying. Any asshole makes death threats pisses me off so bad I swear I could just … just … give ’em a piece of my mind, is what.

    1. I know. People seem to be so angry. I find taking the time to email someone a lot of effort and being angry enough to treatment them triply so, so it just seems so weird to me that people bother with such vitriol. Perhaps it’s because I’m GenX slacker.

    2. In some places in the world (I won’t mention any names…Islamic countries) death threats are quite often carried out sometimes with the blessing of authorities. Here, at least, there is less actual bloodshed.

    3. When all these incidents are recorded and broadcast to hundreds of millions of people, it’s going to reach one or 2 crazies.

  5. We should remember that the situation was the fault of Nathan Phillips, the American Indian activist involved. He lied to media about the situation, being an Vietnam vet and, I believe, provided the misleading video.

    CNN and the rest of the media failed to do their homework, believed Phillips’s lies and made statements that fit their narrative – progressive, anti-Trump, anti-Christian school.

    However, from what I read, the media was incompetent not libelous. They had valid reasons to believe their statements were accurate.

    1. Yes, your last point is very important. The MSM often has to weigh the value of getting stories in front of people vs doing a thorough investigation. Regardless of what criteria they use, they run some risk of reporting the story incorrectly. This is purely a statistical thing.

      1. “The MSM often has to weigh the value of getting stories in front of people vs doing a thorough investigation. ”

        Yes that’s true and they now understand just what exactly they are risking when they fail to do their jobs. Perhaps in future they won’t be so quick with the character assignation. I doubt it, though.

  6. I remember and followed this incident well because it was a condensed symbol of tribalization. And one of the most interesting points was the fact that there was almost from the start a very clear video showing who did what when and to whom.

    What it showed was that what left, and even some right, media were portraying was the opposite of what happened. The Black Hebrew Israelites group (yes, the same group affiliated with the Kosher Deli murders in NJ a few week ago), for instance, were shouting homophobic words at the boys, to which several of the Covington kids countered with pro-gay responses. Yes, pro-gay.

    What media (overwhelmingly left one) had done was to go full post-modern in their reporting, relativizing ad infinitum by temporalizing about angles from which video was made, lack of clarity, truncated sections, etc.

    What’s fascinating is that less than 2 weeks later the Jussie Smollett fake fracas took place. I don’t need to recap how that was covered by media and Hollywood.

    One of the very best commentaries I read about the Covington fracas was that of Andrew Sullivan:

  7. Slightly off-topic, but the Wikipedia article about the confrontation covers a controversial subject pretty well. I know the online encyclopedia project has its faults, but it deserves a lot of credit, too.

    Even the article about the overnight downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet already probably contains more information in one place than most mainstream news reports. And you can check the sources of the information it contains as well.

  8. By settling, CNN has admitted that it was wrong, for it would have fought the case in court otherwise.

    That’s not the way lawsuits work. Although the settlement terms are confidential, I am as certain as I can be that they include explicit language that CNN is not admitting liability. As for drawing any inferences from the mere fact of a settlement for an unknown amount, CNN’s legal bills would have been enormous, win or lose. Unless and until we know how much money CNN paid, there is no basis to treat it as a practical admission of liability. If CNN paid big bucks, an argument can be made; if not, not.

    1. Yes, we had a case in Australia recently involving a high profile sports star.
      A settlement was reached and his supporters were claiming victory but really it was a pragmatic decision due to the enormity of legal costs, win lose or draw.

      The fact that ‘justice’ can be so out of reach or untenable is an issue the legal profession should address.

  9. This story exposed a lot of nincompoops and anti-skeptic idiots over at “Friendly Atheist”.

    Their narrative that they jumped gone got destroyed early on, and yet, they persisted.

    Says a lot about Hemant’s BTL contributors, these days.

  10. > One of the students, Nicholas Sandmann sued CNN… and won…

    I think it’s inaccurate to categorize this as “won”. There was no court case, so no one actually officially “won”. No one knows the terms of the settlement (although I’d imagine it’s quite favorable for Sandmann), so we really can’t say definitively who actually “won” here.

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