A media loss, which may be a public win

Jack Crowe:

CNN agreed Tuesday to settle a lawsuit brought by Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann.

Sandmann sought $275 million from CNN over their coverage of the confrontation he and his classmates had with an elderly Native American man while visiting Washington, D.C. on a school trip in January of last year. The amount of the settlement was not made public during a hearing at the federal courthouse in Covington on Tuesday, according to a local Fox affiliate.

“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.

Sandmann and his family still have lawsuits pending against NBC Universal and the Washington Post over their coverage of the incident. The Sandmann family sought a combined $800 million in damages from CNN, the Post, and NBC Universal.

“This case will be tried not one minute earlier or later than when it is ready,” Sandmann’s attorney Lin Wood said of the remaining lawsuits.

Numerous national media outlets painted Sandmann and his classmates as menacing — and in some cases, racist — after an edited video emerged of Sandmann smiling inches away from the face of Nathan Phillips, an elderly Native American man, while attending the March for Life on the National Mall. A more complete video of the encounter, which emerged later, showed that Phillips had approached the Covington Students and began drumming in their faces, prompting them to respond with school chants.

The lawsuit filed by Sandmann’s attorneys in the Eastern District of Kentucky identified 53 statements included in CNN’s coverage of the incident as 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 while HBO host Bill Maher called him a “little prick.”

CNN filed a motion to dismiss the suit in May on the grounds that accusations of racism are not actionable in defamation cases because the allegation can’t be proven true or false. They similarly argued they could not be held liable for uncorroborated claims that Sandmann and his classmates chanted “build the wall” during the encounter.

It is not defamatory to say the Covington students “expressed support for the President or that he echoed a signature slogan of a major political party,” CNN’s motion to dismiss states.

An investigation conducted by an outside firm contracted by the Diocese of Covington found “no evidence that the students performed a ‘Build the wall’ chant” and further found that Phillips’s account of the incident “contain some inconsistencies” that could not be explored because investigators were unable to reach him.

Phillips initially claimed that the boys approached him but later admitted that he walked into their group after a video emerged debunking his initial claim. According to his second account, Phillips was attempting to defuse a confrontation between the students and a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, who can be heard on video shouting racial and homophobic slurs at the boys.

Roger J. Foys, the bishop of Covington, celebrated the report as a vindication of the students.

“Our students were placed in a situation that was at once bizarre and even threatening,” he said in a statement. “Their reaction to the situation was, given the circumstances, expected and one might even say laudatory.”

The settlement most likely won’t include a publicly reported monetary amount (because legally civil lawsuits settlements are a contract between the winner and the loser), nor will, I’m sure, it include an admission of guilt, fault or wrongdoing on CNN’s part. But the fact a settlement exists and is being reported indicates that the monetary amount is more than zero and that either CNN decided it was going to lose, or settled for some amount to make the lawsuit go away.

Maybe, though, it will give national media a reason to rethink, or think over more closely, its news coverage if they start not just getting sued, but losing, and regardless of what mealymouthed lawyers want you to believe, CNN obviously lost. The media is neither perfect nor infallible.


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