A series of viral videos over the past few days proved that there’s always more than one side to every story. But whether they give us the full picture is another question.
One video captured a toddler in Florida who climbs out of a vehicle and walks toward police with her hands up. No one comes to her aid as she toddles down the street barefoot.
Another video showed a smiling teen in a red Make America Great Again hat staring down a Native American elder beating a drum at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Both videos spread through social media, provoking strong reactions based on first appearances. And in both instances, additional videos from a different perspective shed new light on the incidents.
Police body camera footage of the Florida toddler changed the narrative concerning the officers’ actions. But a longer video of the encounter at the Lincoln Memorial appears to have both changed minds and hardened opposing views on who’s to blame.
The difference — as usual — appears to be the context. But rather than focusing on who’s in the wrong, some argue that what matters more is why we keep jumping to conclusions based on a single photo or video clip when we should know better.
A change of perspective on toddler’s raised hands
The first video of the Florida child was shot by people sitting in a car across the street. It opens with the girl leaving the car and ends with someone scooping her up after she stops in front of the officers.
It lasts less than a minute, and at one point the camera pans to an officer who appears to be pointing a gun in the toddler’s direction as voices are heard expressing concern.
The body camera footage shows officers performing an arrest of someone identified by police as the suspect in an armed theft. As the child starts walking, the officer’s tone softens as he calls her over and assures her she’s OK and calls her “sweetie.” He tells her to go to mommy, who is standing nearby and scoops her up.
“I believe incidents like this justify our investment in body-worn cameras, the importance of getting all the facts, and demonstrate the professionalism of your officers,” Tallahassee Police Chief Michael DeLeo said in a video on the department’s Facebook page.
On the other hand, the video from the tense encounter at the Lincoln Memorial on Friday has generated no clear consensus on what happened.
Two videos, but still no clear picture
The first video from the Lincoln Memorial incident to spread through the internet Friday was a close-up of Omaha tribe elder Nathan Phillips beating a drum inches away from the face of a teenager in a red MAGA hat.
The teen later identified himself as Covington Catholic High School junior Nick Sandmann. In the minute-long video, he fixes his eyes on Phillips and smiles broadly. Teens in MAGA hats surround them, clapping and smiling as Phillips chants and beats his drum.
The caption on the original Instagram video — “the amount of disrespect… to this day” — helped frame the narrative that the students were harassing Phillips. Then, a different social media account on Twitter that boosted the video’s reach reinforced the idea with the caption, “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the Indigenous Peoples March.”
That version of the video was viewed at least 2.5 million times and was retweeted at least 14,400 times, according to a cached version of the tweet seen by CNN Business.
Many had their minds made up about the students’ racist intentions when another video surfaced on Sunday showing what happened before and after what the first video depicted. In the new video, another group emerges as instigators who set the scene for the tense encounter.
The group of African-American men identify themselves in the video as members of the fringe group the Hebrew Israelites. Long before Phillips showed up, the men were hurling profane and inflammatory comments at the students, who were in Washington for the annual March for Life rally.
The group also targeted participants in the Indigenous Peoples March and random passersby with racist slurs, including the N-word. But they kept returning to the teens, calling them “crackers” and “incest babies” and beckoning to them so they could talk about their allegiance to President Trump as evidenced by their MAGA gear.
The teens said they were gathering at the steps so they could board their buses back to Kentucky. As the men’s taunts continued, the students decided to respond “to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group,” Sandmann said.
Phillips enters the scene amid the growing clamor with an entourage of drummers. He told CNN he was trying to defuse the situation, and that the student’s energy felt like hate. But Sandmann said he felt intimidated by Phillips. And he smiled because he wanted Phillips to know “that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation.”
To some, the new footage showed that the Hebrew Israelites were the ones who started it, implying they bore responsibility for what followed, along with Phillips for insinuating himself in the situation.
“I don’t know where y’all get these high school kids were in the wrong. They were where they were supposed to be while waiting for their bus. The video shows the black group started harassing them. Particularly the black high school kids in their group. Then the [Native American] group started harassing them. Everyone is blaming the kids. Saying they asked for it because they wore hats in support the President. That’s insane!” a commenter said on CNN’s Facebook page.
To many, however, the damage was already done to the students’ reputations. Actress Patricia Heaton spoke for many when she called on the media to apologize for writing off the the first video on its own, even though such apologies would not be sufficient to address what she described as irrevocable damage to the young men.
“These young people will forever have these smears follow them through their life every time they proffer their resume with the word ‘Covington’ on it. It will also affect anyone who ever has or ever will attend that school. The damage is incalculable,” she said on Twitter.
Did MAGA hats trigger a reaction?
Yet, to others, Sandmann’s beguiling expression and the group’s choice of gear betrayed their true intentions.
“Bottom line, if this kid had any respect for elders he would have walked away and left it at that. His body language and facial expression are pretty clearly taunting and not helpful to the situation at all,” another CNN commenter said.
The MAGA gear revealed more than anyone’s behavior in the video, journalist Issac Bailey wrote.
“The MAGA hat, like the Confederate flag, wouldn’t elicit outraged reactions if it were only a piece of cloth that harkened back to bygone days never to be relived. But it isn’t. It is a signifier for those who believe America was great during some point in the past they dare not name, knowing if they do, it would reveal a time when it was worse for people of color.”
Such arguments were reflected in pithy Twitter statements, such as one from actress Alyssa Milano, suggesting that the MAGA hat has become “the new white hood,” or a symbol of racism like the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan — which naturally led some to wonder if the students’ behavior might have been viewed in a different light were they not wearing MAGA gear.
“While many liberals believe those ubiquitous red baseball caps are a modern-day white hood, the truth is they are not one and the same,” wrote LZ Granderson, a journalist and political analyst.
“Being a politically engaged electorate is not only important, it’s the heartbeat of a healthy democracy. But there is a difference between simply being engaged and being informed. A voter can be as dumb as a doorknob and still be engaged. To be informed takes more than outrage, it takes time. At least more time than the seconds one needs to read a baseball cap.”
One camera can’t show all the angles
To others, what matters just as much is how the public keeps rushing to judgment based on a single video, and what that says about us.
“… Rather than drawing conclusions about who was vicious or righteous — or lamenting the political miasma that makes the question unanswerable — it might be better to stop and look at how film footage constructs rather than reflects the truths of a debate like this one,” Ian Bogost, an author and game designer, wrote in The Atlantic.
“Despite the widespread creation and dissemination of video online, people still seem to believe that cameras depict the world as it really is; the truth comes from finding the right material from the right camera. That idea is mistaken, and it’s bringing forth just as much animosity as the polarization that is thought to produce the conflicts cameras record.”
Instead of focusing on the students’ behavior, he urged viewers to think about how the framing of the camera or the angle affects one’s perception of an event — what if the initial video was shot from behind, and the student’s smile was not captured? Or, what if he was not smiling at all? Or what if his hat was turned around?
“It’s tempting to think that the short video at the Lincoln Memorial shows the truth, and then that the longer video revises or corrects that truth. But the truth on film is more complicated: Video can capture narratives that people take as truths, offering evidence that feels incontrovertible. But the fact that those visceral certainties can so easily be called into question offers a good reason to trust video less, rather than more. Good answers just don’t come this fast and this easily.”
As for the video, Twitter suspended an account on Monday afternoon that helped boost its reach. The account claimed to belong to a California schoolteacher. Its profile photo was not of a schoolteacher, but of a blogger based in Brazil, CNN Business found. Twitter suspended the account soon after CNN Business asked about it.