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CNN Settles Lawsuit With Covington Catholic Student Nick Sandmann

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CNN has reached a settlement agreement with Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School student who was wrongly portrayed in the media as having racially harassed toward a Native American man on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2019.

The incident was caught on video and widely circulated. The media’s collective condemnation of Sandmann and his classmates was deafening, but subsequent video footage showed that the Native American man, Nathan Phillips, had misrepresented the situation in his public statements to news outlets. Reason was among the first to criticize the media’s rush to judgment.

Sandmann has sued CNN, The Washington Post, and NBC Universal for $800 million, and his lawyers have promised that additional suits are forthcoming. They had asked for $250 million from CNN: The amount of the settlement was not disclosed.

Sandmann’s lawyers stressed that the massive amount of money they are asking for is intended to deter future media misbehavior. Indeed, it would be a good thing if more journalists refrained from tweeting knee-jerk reactions to news developments they don’t fully understand, and were slightly more reluctant to escalate small moments involving non-notable people into major national firestorms.

That said, the lawsuits raise free speech concerns. As Reason‘s Jacob Sullum has observed, there’s a difference between unfair press coverage and libel. The media undoubtedly treated the Covington kids unfairly, but the main culprit here was not CNN or The Washington Post, but Phillips. He was the one who provided bad information to the press. If journalists have to fear massive libel lawsuits for reporting bad information supplied to them by sources they had no reason to distrust, it might make them wary of covering important stories. If successful, Sandmann’s suits could have a chilling effect on necessary and consequential journalism.

In any case, the Covington incident was a debacle for the media, and showed that the tendency of social media to inspire quick reactions is the Achilles’ heel of journalism in the digital age.


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