Correcting the Record on Nick Frankovich

A particularly salty Twitter brawl broke out last Thursday night over a video clip from Jonah Goldberg’s appearance last week at UW-Madison, during which a student became the target of some SwampCon indignation by bringing up a high-profile National Review embarrassment which the magazine and its brethren would very much rather conservatives politely forget about: Nick Frankovich’s knee-jerk smear of the Covington boys.

For those who need a refresher, the Covington boys were Catholic high school kids who attended the March for Life in January, some of whom were wearing MAGA hats while harmlessly waiting for their bus afterward. During the wait, they were approached and harassed by Native American activist Nathan Phillips and some creeps from the Black Hebrew Israelites group. Video of the incident quickly spread, as did a narrative that it depicted a bunch of white pro-Trump teens harassing an elderly minority gentleman.

It was a lie from the start, and within days a bunch of people tripped over themselves to walk back their “rush to judgment.” Among the offenders was National Review deputy managing editor Nicholas Frankovich, who wrote a post containing the following claims:

“Bullying” is a worn-out word and doesn’t convey the full extent of the evil on display here…

Read the accounts again or, if you’d rather not, watch the video. The human capacity for sadism is too great…

…boy who makes himself the co-star of the video by stepping forward and getting in Phillips’s face…

Decide for yourself who is more pleasing to Christ, Phillips or his mockers. As for the putatively Catholic students from Covington, they might as well have just spit on the cross and got it over with.

The next day, after a consensus settled that the kids were innocent, Frankovich wrote an “apology” post. Here’s the entire statement:

Early Sunday morning, I posted a “strongly worded” (Rich Lowry’s description) condemnation of the conduct, seen far and wide on video, of a group of high-school students at the conclusion of the March for Life on Friday afternoon. I was preachy and rhetorically excessive, and I regret it. The overheated post I wrote has been taken down. Let this apology stand in its stead, both here on the Corner and in the memory of readers who justifiably objected to my high-handedness.

We’ll dig into all of this soon. Here’s the video of this week’s exchange revisiting it:

STUDENT: As I’m sure you know, in January of this year, while attending the March for Life event, a group of students from Covington Catholic High School were involved in an incident with Native American activist Nathan Phillips. It would later come out that Phillips provoked the confrontation by approaching the students, but it was too late. The damage had been done. The left-wing media attacked the kids as racist and left-wing film producer Jack Morrissey tweeted his desire to see the kids thrown into wood-chippers.

All of this is to be expected from the left wing, but much to my surprise, the right wing’s initial reaction was also the same, to attack the students. Your colleague at the time, Nicholas Frankovich, wrote an article titled, quote, “The Covington Students Might as Well Have Just Spit on the Cross,” in which they [sic] condemned the students as, quote, “evil.”

My question for you is, instead of tacitly defending this piece on Twitter, why didn’t you stand up for innocent young American patriots?

Goldberg’s response begins:

[sighs] So you’re one of the kids I’m talking about. [Audience laughter, moans] That’s fine, I’ll answer the question but I think it’s moronically loaded and idiotic and bad-faith, but I’ll answer it, I’ll answer it, [inaudible].

Give Jonah credit for this much, at least: he lets the audience know up front that he’s an ass.

I don’t think I knew about the Nick Frankovich piece until, I don’t know, twelve hours after or something like that, he made a mistake, as did an enormous number of other people. If you actually read the rest of National Review, a lot of people like you and friends of yours have this desire to turn one mistake that one of, a really decent guy made in a blog post late at night, into representative of what all of National Review stands for. And that’s bad-faith garbage if you read all of the other things that people at National Review wrote about that story. It’s just flatly untrue.

And so what you’re doing is what, it’s a version of what my friend David French calls “nut-picking.” You are picking one example and holding it up as a Medusa’s head, and saying, ‘this condemns the entire Right.’ And it’s logically garbage. Moreover, he apologized for it, you are bringing it up as if it’s this incredibly important moment in American culture and the American Right, when it is utterly trivial [inaudible]. Most conservatives freaked out about the Covington thing, you don’t have to be part of some new subversive sort group of young conservatives, alleged conservatives, and take this up as your banner to prove your authenticity over the establishment Right, when everybody from Fox News to National Review lost their minds about that thing.

Goldberg’s rhetorical sloppiness (condemning National Review “condemns the entire Right”?) requires a bit of parsing, but by “everybody…lost their minds about that thing” he apparently means that we all agree now about the Covington story, so there’s nothing to argue about. But the issue is not whether the Covington facts are in dispute now; it’s that the role of conservatives like Frankovich in smearing the students has not been adequately addressed.

“Mistake” makes it sound like Frankovich merely believed erroneous early reports or drew defensible inferences from incomplete information (we’ll be generous and stipulate that that was theoretically possible). But the video he linked in his article and used as the source of his claims doesn’t support them at all.

It shows a bunch of kids mostly standing in place, laughing and cheering, at points keeping time with the drumming of Phillips and his colleagues. It is not at all obvious that any “mockery” is taking place, let alone anything that could be semi-plausibly interpreted as “bullying,” “evils,” or “sadism.” The video even contains a a clear clue against the idea that the kids are any sort of aggressor, as partway through several of them display visible confusion about the situation, asking “what’s happening” and “I don’t know what’s going on.”

It’s an unusual scene, to be sure, but a scene to which the natural reaction is curiosity as to what’s really happening, not hallucination of things that aren’t.

The most egregious line is Frankovich’s reference to the “boy who makes himself the co-star of the video by stepping forward and getting in Phillips’s face,” Nick Sandmann, for one simple reason: Sandmann is standing in place when Phillips approaches him and gets in his face. Frankovich’s own source shows the opposite of what he claimed it showed, and it’s not a particularly close call. And throughout the face-off, Sandmann looks nothing like some confrontational punk; he starts out with a grin, and clearly becomes more uncomfortable as Phillips continues to beat a drum inches from his face.

“Rush to judgment” and “mistake” don’t begin to explain the glaring discrepancies between Frankovich’s characterization and his own linked source, but that’s not even the worst part. No, that would be the fact that his subsequent mea culpa post is a classic example of the non-apology.

In it, Frankovich expresses regret for being “preachy,” “rhetorically excessive,” “overheated,” and “high-handed.” But no matter how many times you reread it, you will not find any of the following:

  • An acknowledgement that he unjustly harmed the Covington boys. Frankovich’s “apology” isn’t even addressed to a specific wronged party, and could easily be read as merely apologizing to NR readers for upsetting them.
  • An admission that his claims were not just poorly expressed, but untrue. In fact, his wording (“the conduct, seen far and wide on video, of a group of high-school students at the conclusion of the March for Life on Friday afternoon”) makes it sound as if there isn’t even a factual question about his original screed.
  • An explanation for how he came to so spectacularly misrepresent the video’s contents, or for why he felt justified subjecting pro-life teenagers to such venom.

Despite missing every element of an authentic apology, Frankovich’s follow-up was good enough for National Review, which preposterously claimed in its official editorial on the debacle that “Nick was operating off the best version of events he had on Saturday night.” It was a lie, but a lie the NR team decided was sufficient to close the case.

In the real world, however, how such a smear got published at a top conservative website remained a very real, very troubling question. If one wants to give Frankovich’s motives the benefit of the doubt, the only possible explanations are (a) he didn’t actually watch the video and cribbed the details entirely from the mainstream media, in which case his recklessness remains unaddressed; or (b) he isn’t competent enough to to watch videos and accurately convey their contents, which is kind of a problem for anyone in an editorial position.

If you don’t believe Frankovich is a lazy moron, however (which I don’t), questioning his motives and biases is unavoidable. Goldberg blames it all on social media for ginning up a “race to be wrong first” (yes, really), but in light of everything the Right has been through since Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination, there’s another more logical explanation for why “conservatives” like Frankovich talked about kids in Trump hats the exact same way the MSM did: because they share the MSM’s prejudices against wearers of Trump hats.

The theory is certainly consistent with Frankovich’s past writings—the former #NeverTrumper tried to rationalize conservatives and even pro-life Catholics voting for Hillary Clinton, and suggested that Trump’s election might be divine punishment—and would explain why he couldn’t bring himself to admit the Covington kids weren’t the monsters he painted them as. They still wore that horrible man’s hats, didn’t they?

But don’t you dare bring it up to Jonah! After he answers, a student asks which “subversive group of young alleged conservatives” Goldberg was referencing. Goldberg replies:

I don’t know the name of it, the kid who like, whatever, runs it, all I know is that every time one of these groups, where someone comes with one of these detailed questions, reading from their iPhone, tends to be part of it. And it’s part of a game.

Think about that: the mere fact that a student takes the time to prepare a detailed question and reads it (as opposed to what, memorizing it or rambling/stammering at the mic?) makes a question suspect? Aren’t preparation and coherence what you want at these things, instead of wasting everybody’s time with incoherent nonsense?

And because Jonah apparently decided he didn’t make quite a big enough ass of himself during the Q&A, he also fit some more invective on the subject into his Nov. 20 newsletter, calling the “whiny” student a “pasty troll” with a “really stupid” question, and even suggesting he was part of the “alt-right”—solely because he disputed whether a group endorsed by Michelle Malkin warrants the label (The Dispatch’s Nov. 18 morning update also calls the kid an “alt-right protester”).

We need to note here that this exchange coincides with another controversy surrounding Malkin’s defense of “new Right leader” and loathsome worm Nick Fuentes (I have already said Malkin should disavow him and repeatedly criticized her for not doing so).

However, while it is now (sadly) fair to accuse Malkin of coddling elements of the alt-right, at the time of the Goldberg Q&A the uproar over her comments had not fully blown up Twitter and Malkin had not yet doubled down so hysterically about Fuentes himself. So it’s entirely possible that the kid was merely referring to Malkin’s defenses of students who’ve questioned Young America’s Foundation and Turning Point USA speakers about immigration, and wasn’t aware of the Fuentes stuff at all.

One might reasonably expect a longtime center-right pundit (particularly one who just launched a media venture that purports to “describe the opposing points of view with honesty and charity,” and whose own definition of the group in question was vague enough to encompass anyone reading a question off an iPhone) to exercise a modicum of patience and nuance on this stuff, to attempt to understand where a young critic was coming from and clarify whatever confusion he might have. These are confusing times full of blurred battle lines, dozens of righty factions, and countless lunatics and grifters looking to smuggle themselves into the mainstream by latching onto valid grievances and causes.

It’s way too easy for young people to get lost in all this noise. They need serious, mature conservatives to help them navigate it all, to separate the conservative factions from the cranks, to learn how to pursue their conservative values and legitimate question while recognizing which players are just bigoted clowns who have infiltrated and are exploiting rightful anti-establishment discontent for their own ends.

Or, if you’re a thin-skinned, tribalistic hack who sees large swaths of the movement’s base as a peasant class that should sit down, shut up, and defer to the nobility and genius of your fellow travelers, you can just call that kid a bunch of names, write him off as a bigot, and call it a day. What could go wrong?