For those of you living under a rock, let’s briefly go over what happened last week in Washington, D.C. After a pair of marches there, a group of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky were approached by a small number of Black Hebrew Israelites who proceeded to shout racial epithets and homophobic slurs at them. To defuse this, a group of Native American marchers led by veteran Nathan Phillips stood between the Covington students and the Israelites, playing their drums and chanting.

By now, video footage of the entire incident is widely available online, but before it was, one moment was seized upon by the press — a moment during which a Covington student, Nick Sandmann, appeared to be smirking at Phillips. The incident, like countless other political confrontations across the United States, would have probably been ignored if that one moment had not gone viral. Media outlets of all stripes, presented with the picture of a Native American drummer surrounded by white men in red “Make America Great Again” hats, were quick to condemn Sandmann, and, following their example, hundreds of celebrities did the same.

On some level, this is understandable. At that moment, frankly, Sandmann’s expression looked nasty. We’re all so accustomed by now to men in MAGA hats being obnoxious  that we’re practically conditioned to see this as another part of that pattern. When the contents of the video became public knowledge, though, a more complete picture of the situation emerged — one that directly contradicted the narrative of the snippet that drew frenzied media outrage.

I watched that section of the video several times, and I recommend you all do the same. What it shows is very different than what was, and continues to be, reported. The Covington students were not harassing the Black Israelites. Rather, the reverse was true. They did not mob Phillips; instead, he and his fellow marchers walked slowly and calmly into their midst. Sandmann was not blocking  Phillips’ retreat, as he initially stated. His “smirk” is a brief moment that has been taken out of context. If the video is moved forward or backward five or ten seconds beyond the controversial moment, it shows that he was not leering, but smiling uncomfortably. The early reports that other students were chanting “build that wall!” and other racist slogans at the Native Americans were simply false. In short, as far as the video shows, Sandmann and his friends did nothing clearly wrong. In fact, considering the tense situation they were put in, their behavior could easily be described as exemplary. Continuing to insist otherwise is either dishonesty or willful ignorance.

The fact that national outrage was stoked over a misleading photograph is unquestionably the media’s fault, but to criticize the various news agencies for erroneous initial reporting is to miss the point of this whole story. The internet has made getting the “scoop” more difficult than ever before, and in the rush to break news, media outlets will make mistakes every now and then. To err is human, and this is a particularly understandable error; lord knows that I would have drawn the same conclusions they did from the photo alone. In fact, this controversy would have probably died down quickly if media outlets had simply corrected the story.

To their credit, many of the more responsible sites — and more responsible public figures — did this. Some, however, have doubled down on their initial reporting, continuing to insist that the Covington teens were the ones at fault, even as the evidence mounts to the contrary. Never mind what your ears tell you — just look at that creepy fascist smile! And those racist boys were mocking Mr. Phillips by clapping to the drumbeat! And their families hired a PR firm! And on, and on and on. Much of what was reported is true, but it’s fundamentally a distraction. To vindicate their earlier remarks, outlets that got the story wrong the first time have proceeded to madly search for evidence that Sandmann and his friends fit our profile of what a MAGA hat-wearer is supposed to look like. 

This is not what a responsible journalist is supposed to do, and this kind of reporting has real-world consequences for those in its crosshairs. Since the initial story broke, the Covington students and their families have been subjected to an endless barrage of hate. Their mugshots have circulated widely on the Internet, where they have been doxxed, harassed and sent death threats. Both their school and their church were temporarily shut down over bomb concerns, and before the video came out, Covington Catholic High School publicly contemplated expelling Sandmann and his friends. Even my most liberal friends will admit that all this is a pretty steep price to pay for wearing a red baseball cap. Yes, the MAGA hat is extremely problematic, and there are many overt racists who wear it, but, in the video at least, Sandmann is not one of them.

Despite all this, I’m certain that months from now many progressives will continue to insist that Sandmann’s smile was somehow fascism on display. Some of them probably go to Brandeis, and what remains of this op-ed is directed at them.

There’s a recurring meme among far-right internet dwellers: the idea that most progressives are “non-player characters,” soulless gray androids programmed to mindlessly regurgitate left-wing talking points. The memes usually depict an NPC being presented with a fact that doesn’t fit their worldview and “crashing” by getting angry and calling people names rather than attempting to refute it. The meme is amusing, in part because those who created it arguably fit the bill. It takes a lot of cognitive dissonance to continue to believe that Donald Trump has the best interests of America at heart, to say the least.

Obviously, I wouldn’t dream of calling anyone at Brandeis an NPC. But in the sense that an NPC is a liberal who fails to think critically, they exist, as they do in any political movement. What ought to differentiate you from them is the ability to reject an idea, even if it aligns with your ideological framework, because it is either morally repugnant or obviously false. You can oppose the Bush administration without believing that it was responsible for 9/11. You can hope that a Democrat wins in 2020 without also hoping for a recession to help her poll numbers. And you can hate the MAGA hat and everything it stands for, but it shouldn’t blind you to the fact that the students wearing it simply did not do what the media has accused them of doing.

Please don’t continue to insist that the Covington teens were acting in a racist manner, because they weren’t. If you did before the full story came out, and this topic comes up again, bite the bullet and admit to the error. That’s a hell of a lot more than Trump is ever going to do.