If a picture is worth a thousand words, what happens when the picture shows only part of the story or, worse, shows the wrong picture?

In the past 10 days, we have seen pictures that generated way more than 1,000 words apiece yet remain unclear. People often saw in the pictures what they wanted to see. They brought their prejudices to the screen and, voila! the screen upheld their prejudices.

One example is the fumble-not-a-fumble in the New England-Kansas City football game last Sunday. The other is a three-way face-off at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. I have watched more than an hour of videos of the events, each from as many angles as videographers could muster.

Those of us trained as journalists recognize at once the error of people who used the pictures to confirm their biases. Journalists try to begin each story with an open mind. We don’t always achieve tabula rasa (absence of preconceived ideas) but we try.

First, football. The Patriots’ Julian Edelman was fielding a punt. The ball hit the ground and seemed to roll up along hand and arm. The official called it a fumble, which a Chief scooped up and ran for a touchdown. Replay officials overruled the field official, said Edelman never touched the ball. That gave the ball to the Patriots. The play was moot since the Chiefs quickly turned an interception into a touchdown.

Meantime, Kansas City fans, not to mention players, felt badly done by. No video that I saw showed clearly that Edelman touched or didn’t touch the ball. Football fields are three-dimensional, and video is two-dimensional. I saw no picture from an angle that showed the depth of three dimensions. That is, no conclusive evidence.

The more important pictures were at the Lincoln Memorial.

On Jan. 18, three groups were visiting. The first was the black Hebrew Israelites. The second was some Catholic high school boys from Kentucky. The third was people on an Indigenous Peoples March.

Piecing together reports after the fact, since we can’t trust what came out on the anti-social media, it appears the Israelites were chanting hatred and idiocy at anyone within earshot. That is what they do. (The Israelites speak of 12 nations, not races, and say white people aren’t among the 12 and so will be servants when Christ returns to earth.)

As the boys from Kentucky began walking toward their buses — they had gone to D.C. on a school trip to demonstrate against abortion — some reportedly veered toward the Israelites. To be sure, that was just what the Israelites wanted their taunting to achieve.

Some indigenous people moved between the Israelites and the boys. Nathan Phillips, a Marine and an Omaha Indian, began playing a drum and singing a hymn of the American Indian Movement. The boys shifted their focus to him from the Israelites. Phillips said his goal was to separate two hostile groups. The first pictures posted on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, the great Satan of the anti-social media, showed a kid of 16, later identified as Nick Sandmann, gazing at Phillips.

The most common description of Sandmann’s look was “smirk.” His “Make America Great Again” cap made that word come easy. It was easy to believe that Sandmann was mocking the indigenous people who had just finished their march. And many concluded just that. As Celeste Headlee, author of the book, “We Need to Talk,” has said, wearing a MAGA hat is always a provocation. People react to it strongly, positively or negatively.

When I looked at photos of Sandmann over several minutes and from several angles, the smirk sometimes shifted to bemusement, to a blank stare, to a forced smile. Behind him, about 100 schoolmates from Covington Catholic, many wearing MAGA hats or Trump shirts, clearly were taunting Phillips. Tomahawk chops, faux “Indian” dancing, etc. They had been taunted by the Israelites, and they taunted in return.

I can’t say that anyone is right. And I can’t say that anyone is wrong. I can say that we should bear in mind these things. The Hebrew Nationalists are a cuckoo cult, much like the Westboro Baptist Church cult in Kansas, whose members attend military funerals shouting that God killed the service members because America embraces homosexuality. Nut jobs are nut jobs, but they have a right to speak publicly. The Israelites baited the kids, and the boys took the bait. I find less fault with the boys than with their chaperones, who had a great teaching opportunity. They blew it. I also find fault with giving a tax exemption to a school that is using its students to stage a political demonstration.

Phillips, at least in his most recent recounting of the story, says he sensed danger as the crowd and the intensity grew, saw a small opening in the crowd and wanted to lead his young charges through the opening to safety. Sandmann says he stepped into Phillips’s path because he feared Phillips, 67, was going to attack his schoolmates.

Neither is helped by the objective facts — this is what reporters try to find, but reporters weren’t the first to post — that Phillips has told differing stories and that Sandmann’s story was written for him by a public relations firm with ties to the right wing. PR people are paid to turn a story to favor whoever is paying them. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

The Hebrew Israelites, who may have sparked the whole thing, come off almost as non-participants. They were not. They were right at the core of it, and their actions deserve scrutiny as intense as the scrutiny we’ve given the indigenous marchers and the Catholics.

There is still opportunity here to learn. Covington Catholic can use this as a civics lesson. The indigenous leaders may next time tell people they see as a threat that they want only to get to safety. I doubt the Israelites can learn anything from it. They may be miffed that they have received so little attention. Attention, after all, is what they seek.

Bob Neal tries to begin each column as tabula rasa. That isn’t easy. For example, he can’t look at the Covington boys and not see a future Brett Kavanaugh in that crowd.


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