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February 23, 2020

1/16/2020 7:30:00 AM
CNN settles defamation lawsuit with Kentucky high school student
Complaint: Network painted Sandmann as the face of a hate mob of racists

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

CNN has settled a lawsuit with a Kentucky high school student who had sued the cable giant for defamation, alleging that CNN engaged in a "vicious attack" on the student which falsely accused him and his Covington, Kentucky, classmates 􏰄􏰄of instigating a threatening confrontation with Native Americans who were in the middle of prayer following an Indigenous Peoples March at the National Mall a year ago.

According to the lawsuit, filed by attorneys L. Lin Wood and Todd V. McMurtry, CNN also falsely accused Nick Sandmann and his classmates of instigating a threatening confrontation with several African American men known as the Black Hebrew Israelites.

The terms of CNN's settlement with Sandmann were not immediately disclosed, though Sandmann confirmed the settlement on Twitter: "Yes. We settled with CNN."

Sandmann had sued the cable company in federal court for $275 million. He still has lawsuits pending against NBC Universal and The Washington Post.

Specifically, according to Sandmann's complaint, CNN falsely asserted Sandmann and his classmates were in a "racis􏰂(􏰄t)"􏰃 􏰁"mob men􏰄tality" and 􏰁"looked like 􏰄they􏰇 􏰅were going 􏰄to l􏰇ynch" Black Hebrew Israelites 􏰅who 􏰅were merely􏰇 􏰁"preaching about􏰆􏰄 t􏰄he Bible nearb􏰇􏰃y" "􏰁becaus􏰆􏰂e t􏰄hey􏰇 didn't􏰀􏰄 like 􏰄the color of 􏰄their s􏰂kin"􏰃 and "􏰁􏰄their religious views," and 􏰄that􏰄 Sandmann􏰂 and his􏰂 classmates 􏰂􏰂􏰄then "surrou􏰆nded􏰃" one of 􏰄the Nat􏰄i􏰈ve Americans, 64-year-old Nathan Phillips, creat􏰄ing "􏰁a reall􏰇y dangero􏰆􏰂us 􏰂situation 􏰄" 􏰄􏰃during which Sandmann 􏰁"blocked (Phillips'􏰂) e􏰂scape"􏰃 􏰅when Phillips􏰂 􏰄tried 􏰁􏰄"to leav􏰈e"􏰃 the mob, causing Phillips t􏰄o 􏰁"fear for his safety and the safety of those with him,"􏰃 􏰅while Sandmann􏰂 and his􏰂 cla􏰂􏰂ssma􏰄tes􏰂 "􏰁harassed 􏰂􏰂and taunted" 􏰄him.

"In short, the false and defamatory gist of CNN's􏰀􏰂 collective reporting conveyed to its viewers and readers that Nicholas was the face of an unruly hate mob of hundreds of white racist high school students who physically assaulted, harassed, and taunted two different minority groups engaged in peaceful demonstrations, preaching, song, and prayer," the complaint asserted.

In reality, the lawsuit claimed, the CNN accusations were totally and unequivocally false, and CNN would have known them to be untrue had it undertaken any reasonable efforts to verify their accuracy before publication. In all, the lawsuit alleged, CNN􏰀􏰂's coverage 􏰂incl􏰆uded at􏰄 least four defamatory television broadcasts and nine defamatory online articles.

On Jan. 18, 2019, the day in question, Sandmann, who with his classmates was attending a March for Life rally in Washington, D.C., was recorded standing very close to Phillips, smiling and wearing a red Make America Great Again hat. That edited video - which to some appeared to show Sandmann as the aggressor - went viral, prompting media coverage based on the clip.

However, a more complete video emerged showing that Phillips had actually approached the Covington students and had started drumming in their faces.

In a statement released shorty after the day of the incident, Sandmann vigorously defended himself, his family, and his classmates, and said the media and social media attacks he was enduring could not be allowed to stand.

"I am being called every name in the book, including a racist, and I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination of my family's name," Sandmann said in the statement. "My parents were not on the trip, and I strive to represent my family in a respectful way in all public settings."

Sandmann said he had received physical and death threats via social media, as well as hateful insults.

"One person threatened to harm me at school, and one person claims to live in my neighborhood," he said. "My parents are receiving death and professional threats because of the social media mob that has formed over this issue."

Sandmann said he was mortified so many people had come to believe something that did not happen, especially that students from his school were chanting or acting in a racist fashion toward African Americans or Native Americans.

"I did not do that, do not have hateful feelings in my heart, and did not witness any of my classmates doing that," he said.

Sandmann urged everyone who was passing judgement based on a few seconds of video to watch the longer video clips that were on the Internet, as they told a much different story. A separate investigation by the Diocese of Covington, conducted by a third-party investigative firm, Greater Cincinna􏰄ti Investigations, Inc., exonerated the students.

How it started

In his statement, Sandmann recounted how the incident started.

When the students arrived that day at the Lincoln Memorial, he remembered, they noticed four African American protestors who were also on the steps of the memorial. The group began to hurl derogatory insults at the school group, Sandmann stated.

"The protestors said hateful things," he said. "They called us 'racists,' 'bigots,' 'white crackers,' 'faggots,' and 'incest kids.' They also taunted an African American student from my school by telling him that we would 'harvest his organs.'"

Because they were being taunted in public, Sandmann said, a student asked one of the teacher chaperones for permission to begin school spirit chants to counter the hateful insults, chants Sandmann said were commonly used at school sporting events.

"They are all positive in nature and sound like what you would hear at any high school," he said. "Our chaperone gave us permission to use our school chants. We would not have done that without obtaining permission from the adults in charge of our group."

At no time did he hear any student chant anything other than the school spirit chants - not "build that wall," as some alleged them to do, or anything hateful or racist, Sandmann said.

"Assertions to the contrary are simply false," he said. "Our chants were loud because we wanted to drown out the hateful comments that were being shouted at us by the protestors."

After a few minutes of chanting, some Native American protestors, whom Sandmann said he had not previously noticed, approached the group with drums. They were accompanied by at least one person with a camera.

"The protestor everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him," he said. "I did not see anyone try to block his path. He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face."

Sandmann said he never interacted with the protestor.

"I did not speak to him," he said. "I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. ... I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation."

The lawsuit

That protestor was Phillips.

And, in fact, the lawsuit stated, it was Sandmann and his classmates who were being bullied, attacked, and confronted with racist and homophobic slurs and threats of violence by the Black Hebrew Israelites before being unexpectedly confronted by Phillips, who proceeded to target Sandmann while chanting and beating a drum inches from his face.

The selective recording of the face-off was used by the mainstream media to denigrate Sandmann and to promote Phillips, the lawsuit alleged.

"Following the January 18 incident, Phillips became a 􏰃mainst􏰂􏰀ream media darling,􏰄 engaging in a publicity tour during which he manufactured out of whole cloth varying and conflicting descriptions of the events prior to, during, and after the January 18 incident in a superficial attempt to garner public sympathy and advance his own political agenda," the lawsuit stated.

And, in some media interviews, the lawsuit continued, Phillips lied about the students' chants, saying Sandmann and his classmates were chanting "build that wall, build that wall."

CNN was one of several media outlets that ignored Phillips's􏰂􏰈 obvious􏰅􏰂 bias􏰂 and provided him with a worldwide platform to spread lies without any effort whatsoever to verify the accuracy of the inflammatory accusations, the lawsuit alleged.

"With respect to the January 18 incident, CNN was more than an echo chamber for partisan political views," the complaint stated. "CNN was a worldwide megaphone for an unmoderated and uninformed social media mob which had begun viciously attacking and physically threatening Nicholas in the hours preceding CNN's􏰈􏰂 initial reporting."

CNN rushed to take advantage of the viral social media mob to further its anti-Trump agenda and increase the billion-dollar bottom lines of its conglomerate corporate owners by generating eyeballs, clicks, and resulting advertising revenue from its sensationalized broadcasts and online reporting, the lawsuit charged, gaining its second highest 􏰁average prime-t􏰀ime 􏰁viewership in history that January.

And it did so without following standard journalistic protocols, the lawsuit alleged.

"CNN elevated false, heinous accusations of racist conduct against Nicholas from social media to its worldwide news platform without adhering to well-established journalistic standards and ethics, including its failure to take the required steps to ensure accuracy, fairness, completeness, fact-checking, neutrality, and heightened sensitivity when dealing with a minor," the lawsuit stated.

The coverage

The lawsuit laid out the support for its claims of defamation in painstaking detail.

For example, the lawsuit points out that on the evening of Jan. 18, 2019, Kaya Taitano, a participant in the Indigenous Peoples March, posted online a selectively edited 59-second video depicting only a small portion of the interaction between Sandmann and Phillips, and later that night, she posted a 3-minute, 44-second v􏰁ideo.

That same night, a fake Twitter account known as 2020fight Video, with approximately 41,000 followers, tweeted a 1-minute, 1-second clip from the Taitano videos. That video was reported as having been viewed at least 2.5 million times, retweeted 14,000 times, and liked 27,000 times before the account was suspended by Twitter, the lawsuit asserts.

Screenshots available online of the 2020fight video show it was viewed at least 10.6 million times, the lawsuit stated.

"Any reasonable, objective, and unbiased journalist would have readily known that the 2020fight video was little more that a snapshot of the January 18 incident and that accurate and fair reporting on it required investigation into the events which occurred before and after those depicted in the short video clip posted on Twitter," the lawsuit contended.

Indeed, the lawsuit continued, with no investigation whatsoever into the 2020fight account or the full events in context, CNN rushed to actively, negligently, and recklessly participate in the 2020fight video going viral when CNN􏰈􏰂 reporter Sara Sidner posted a tweet that reposted the 2020fight video.

"Sidner actively contributed to CNN􏰈􏰂 reporting on the January 18 incident, including by conducting an interview of Phillips mere hours after her retweet," the lawsuit stated.

What's more, the lawsuit continued, CNN analyst Bakari Sellers had already piled on during the social media frenzy by first retweeting the 2020fight video and then advocating for violence against Sandmann by tweeting: 􏰃"He is􏰂 a deplorable. Some ppl (􏰂sic) can al􏰂so be p􏰅unched in t􏰀he face."􏰄

The bottom line was, the lawsuit alleged, CNN did not conduct a proper investigation before publishing its false and defamatory statements of and concerning Sandmann.

"A plethora of relevant video was also available online but ignored by CNN and the social media mob as CNN continued its false reporting over its 􏰃􏰇'wire'􏰄 and promoted the republication of the false accusations by news outlets across the country and the world," the lawsuit stated.

The network also ignored an investigation by the Diocese of Covington that exonerated the students, the lawsuit alleged, as well as statements by Sandmann himself and other students and chaperones.

"The GCI Report is entirely consistent with all video evidence as well as statements issued by Nicholas and other CovCath students and chaperones," the lawsuit stated.

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at

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