The MAGA Teen’s Today Show Interview Was an Embarrassment

It took less than five days to fully launder the story of a group of high school students jeering at a Native American protester, and to turn them into the victims of the story. Naturally, they had help from Fox News, where two students were invited on so they could explain away, you know, blackface. Meanwhile, the opinion section of The New York Times also covered for them, declaring that Twitter makes it impossible to know what happened, despite hours of video evidence to the contrary. And the Native American man in question, Nathan Phillips, is well on his way to being painted as the bad guy.

But it's not just the usual bad faith or overly hand-wringing suspects. The family of the teen in the original viral clip, Nick Sandmann, quickly hired a PR firm and issued a statement claiming that he was clearly trying to de-escalate a tense situation, and now prominent media outlets are running with that.

Which brings us to Wednesday morning, as Sandmann appeared on the Today show for a softball interview with Savannah Guthrie. The interview was little more than a recap of the controversy, but with Sandmann providing commentary that he wasn't at fault, his school doesn't tolerate racism, and he didn't mean anything offensive. To his credit, Sandmann didn't use the boilerplate "I'm sorry if I offended anyone" non-apology—he simply didn't apologize.

"My position is that I was not disrespectful." That line sums up why and how most reporters are fully unequipped to talk about racism in 2019, because of the misconception that intent is what matters. "Racist," as reporter Nikole Hannah Jones says, is considered an insult instead of an adjective, a moral judgment on someone's character and not a description of their actions. Since we can't know what someone's intent really was, and since we don't want to appear judgmental by labeling their actions, we can't determine if what they did was racist or not. It's a process that prioritizes how white people feel about being called racist over the actual malignancy of racism.

And this only works if you consider the videos in a vacuum with no other context: That means ignoring Trump encouraging violence at rallies, ignoring Trump supporters committing racist violence, ignoring the fact that white supremacist violence is on the rise, and ignoring the tomahawk chop of the Covington teens and completely divorcing it from anything offensive to Native Americans.

The full interview is above, and Nathan Phillips is scheduled to appear on Today on Thursday.