Savannah Guthrie’s Today show interview with Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School teenager at the center of the Lincoln Memorial viral video scandal, was about what you would expect it to be—which is to say, it was just another example of the world parting the waters for a white teenage boy.
Guthrie pointedly noted NBC News had spoken with Nathan Phillips, the Native American man Sandmann squared off with in the video, multiple times previously. Phillips appeared in a brief Tuesday segment on NBC Nightly News previewing her interview with Sandmann. But the network’s defensiveness, as well as Guthrie’s revelation that Phillips is expected to appear on Today on Thursday, underscored the imbalance at the heart of the interview. Thirty seconds of a nightly news segment is not the same as an exclusive morning show interview, and NBC knows it. Would Phillips have been given the chance for his own Today chat had there not been such outcry about the Sandmann interview? I’ll leave that for others to decide.
Much of this morning’s segment was focused on recounting the different narratives about the incident. Surprise surprise, Sandmann couldn’t remember seeing any of his fellow students doing the tomahawk chop, and didn’t hear anyone yelling “build the wall.” (NBC said it couldn’t hear that on the video either, though Phillips has insisted it happened.) The chants he and his fellow students were screaming were just “positive” displays of “school spirit.” He felt threatened by the four members of the Black Israelite cult—or, as he called them, the “African Americans”—who were shouting insults at his much larger cohort.
He was also stunned that anyone could think that this group of almost entirely white boys from a school known for its bigotry, many of whom were wearing MAGA hats, could be racist. (“We’re a Catholic school, and it’s not tolerated,” he said. “They don’t tolerate racism, and none of my classmates are racist people.” OK then.)
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He had “the utmost respect” for Phillips. The infamous expression on his face was just a regular smile.
Guthrie gently asked if he thought things might have gone differently if he wasn’t wearing a MAGA hat. “That’s possible,” he said, “but I’d have to assume what Mr. Phillips was thinking.” She did not press him on why he and his classmates so eagerly wore the hats, though that decision speaks volumes. Politics were for another time. This moment was for feelings.
Then she asked Sandmann if he felt he owed anyone an apology. Answer: no. “I can’t say that I’m sorry for listening to him and standing there,” Sandmann said. One wonders if Phillips would characterize it that way.
Shorn of his MAGA hat, alone with Guthrie, Sandmann appeared younger and softer than he did in the initial video. That, of course, is the point: In America, young white men are allowed to feel the excitement of their own power, to dominate others, to offend and to attack, and then, when people try to hold them to account, to morph back into little boys, to present a picture of wide-eyed vulnerability, to tell us they were actually the ones who were afraid. Other young men do not have such luxuries.