So, the kid who went viral in that Lincoln Memorial confrontation is suing the Washington Post.
That might sound strange coming from a journalist. But what is happening to people like Nicholas Sandmann, the kid with the smirk on his face and the MAGA hat on his head, isn’t journalism.
It’s a pack of wolves tearing at raw meat. It’s playing with someone’s life and reputation for clicks and hits. It’s appealing to the rawest emotions of political hate or otherwise prurient interests of the public.
A Jersey guy named Thomas Tramaglini knows the feeling.
He was the Kenilworth school superintendent who was universally shamed when he was caught defecating under the bleachers of an athletic field at Holmdel High School. New Jersey’s two most widespread news dotcoms could not have enough fun with it. The stories kept coming. Check that. It was essentially the same story with different headlines.
More fun, more click bait, no matter what the news value or who it destroyed. I saw it with my own two eyes. The editor in charge of the coverage in my old workplace couldn’t contain his merriment over Mr. Tramaglini’s predicament.
He actually used the words, “Let’s have some fun with it.” That I heard with my own two ears. And at that moment I felt more disgusted by my profession than ever before.
I’d repeat the grade school nicknames the press gave Mr. Tramaglini, a respected administrator and mentor, but this is not a juvenile column and I am not a silly man.
News should be a serious business, even in the internet age of social-media shaming and snarkiness. Check that again. Especially in the internet age of social-media shaming. We need more grown-up media responsibility these days, not less. The news business should be even more cautious and sensitive to the life consequences of people like young Sandmann and Mr. Tramaglini.
This is not asking for government intervention, but more media self-policing and restraint. Losing a few multimillion lawsuits might make that happen.
Both of these incidents turn the concept of “public figure” on its head, because in these times of omnipresent cell phone recorders, we are all essentially subject to public scrutiny or humiliation.
Anyone out in public, by today’s standards, is fair game.
Mr. Tramaglini is a public employee, but his transgression had absolutely nothing to do with his job. In the pre-click-bait days of social media, it would have been brief item on the police blotter, if anything.
Nicholas Sandmann, likewise, is not a public figure. He is not an elected official, movie star or famous athlete and he did not meet the definition of a person “who thrust themselves to the forefront of particular controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.”
He was a kid on a school trip waiting for a bus. He did not “thrust” himself into a controversy. The controversy was thrust at him.
By now, everyone knows the seek-and-destroy vitriol by both sides in this case.
Some media labeled the kid a smug, privileged white kid who was both ignorant and disrespectful of the Native American elder who was banging the drum in his face. This side saw his grin as arrogant, snide and mocking. I didn’t see that. I saw a nervous kid unsure how to act. Count his eye blinks. This was not a steel-willed hardened activist. This was an awkward teenager.
When more facts came out, Nicholas Sandmann went from poster boy for all that is wrong in Donald Trump’s xenophobic America to the poster boy for all that is wrong with the media in Donald Trump’s fake news America.
Missing in these dueling, polarized narratives is a vast middle ground point that should concern us all.
At any moment, a few seconds of uncharacteristic or dumb behavior, can make any one of us the butt of internet scorn or ridicule. And there is nothing you can do to stop it.
It will be interesting to see how the Lincoln Memorial incident impacts Sandmann’s life. He is 16, and looks even younger when not wearing the MAGA hat. College and career await him. Decisions will be made about him based on where the decision-makers fall politically. The kid cannot escape that.
For Mr. Tramaglini, the result is already in. His life was ruined over an indiscretion that amounted to nothing more than a $500 municipal fine. He was fired from his job. His children have been ridiculed. Online commenters, anonymous cowards that they are, used him as a punching bag, saying the most vile things about a man they really know nothing about.
That’s the public for you.
Professional reporters and editors should know better. Some vetting of the person in the crosshairs should be done before the rush to judgment. Some newsroom conversations about consequences and responsibility should be had before the blood hits the water. And in those conversations, media people should look honestly at their own motives. And if those conversations aren’t had, then it is just mindless. And spineless.