The media’s coverage of Covington Catholic students’ 2019 trip to D.C. may be the worst journalism scandal in recent memory.
Reporters pounced on a preferred narrative, slamming the high schoolers instead of waiting for more facts to emerge. In the process they let loose the social media mob, forcing students to flee their homes and fear for their safety.
Film critic, professor and director Steve Oldfield wanted to do something about that awful moment. He created “Rush to Judgment,” a comprehensive timeline of the incident, the initial overreaction and the sizable consequences.
HiT reached out to Oldfield and producer Ryan Anderson to learn how a key interview subject got added late in the process and why reporters aren’t keen on covering their film.
HiT: What made you decide to tackle this project, and did you run into any resistance gathering the resources to complete the documentary (above and beyond the normal struggles to fund a film)?
Steve Oldfield: Just a few months before that fateful encounter at the Lincoln Memorial, I had been asked to do a video about Covington Catholic adopting the Harry Potter “House” system to build camaraderie and leadership in their student body. I was so impressed with the school and the students and I had shot all this video inside the school and at a football game.
When I saw the story breaking and read all the horrible things being said about the school online, I knew I had to find out what happened. I decided right away to do a doc that weekend the story broke. I called my producing partner, Ryan Anderson, and we met and came up with the name “Rush to Judgment” within 24 hours of the story going viral.
I also knew that the school wouldn’t be letting any other camera crews anywhere near their campus and that I had a ton of exclusive footage that I owned. As for resistance, I had some good sources within the school and among parents.
Officially, the school wasn’t allowed to comment at all, but I was able to confirm what really happened and it really took months of work getting some of the exclusive interviews.
As for the Sandmanns, we weren’t sure if they would be able to talk because of their lawsuits, so we first edited an entire documentary without them. Then after their first settlement, they agreed to an interview so we then had to go and rework everything to plug them into the story.
Ryan Anderson: I personally never had any ties to Cov Cath, however when I started seeing this story breaking that Saturday morning I thought something doesn’t smell right about this. I started digging into it, searching for other videos with more context. It wasn’t long before I found a vloger pointing to the two-hour Hebrew Israelites video.
[Steve and I] decided to get together for lunch and talk. As for struggles, I watched over 300 hours of YouTube searching for different takes trying my hardest to see it from all sides.
HiT: Many modern documentaries lean into a ‘side’ or perspective. Can you talk about your balancedapproach to the material?
Oldfield: I’m so glad you mentioned that! I majored in journalism at Northwestern and I teach college journalism classes, so I wanted to practice what I preach, making sure we heard from as many different perspectives as we could get. I also wanted to present a diverse group of commentators.
…they didn’t want to admit that the broadcasting business did anything wrong.
Producer Ryan Anderson and I watched hundreds of hours of vloggers from all over the world and we took the best comments and created a conversation. I personally don’t agree with everything the speakers have to say – but they deserve to be heard and viewers can make up their own minds.
Anderson: Keeping this as unbiased as possible was quite a challenge. The good part about Steve and I working together is that we balance each other’s opinions. If he starts leaning too far to one side I can pull him back and vice versa.
HiT: Was it a challenge to earn the Sandmann family’s trust in order to get them talking for the interviews shown in the film?
Oldfield: I think I connected with Ted Sandmann, Nick’s father, right away because I told him I wanted a photograph of Nick not wearing a MAGA hat so that viewers could see him in a different light. When he sent me a photo that included Nick’s younger brothers, I offered to blur their faces, and I think Ted knew I was concerned about their privacy.
Anderson: On top of that, just like most of the others we interviewed, they could tell we are genuinely trying to tell this story truthfully and with only one real agenda, to promote civil discourse and logical thought.
HiT: You spoke to a few journalists who criticized how the media treated this subject. Was it challenging finding those voices? Were others reticent to discuss the media’s role in this story?
Oldfield: Very much so. Coincidentally, a very sharp journalist named Julie Irwin Zimmerman also went to my alma mater, Northwestern, at the same time I was there and she was friends with one of my best friends. She wrote what I considered the definitive piece on the media mayhem for The Atlantic: “I Failed the Covington Catholic Test.”
I had never met her during college but we both knew of each other and she was very supportive and ready to talk.
She was my first big interview.
I also was part of the first class of the Fund For American Studies’ Summer Journalism Program in Washington and their director, Joe Starrs, was on board right away and gave a lot of perspective. Just as it was frustrating how many journalists and news organizations rejected my requests, it’s been frustrating now seeing how many news organizations won’t cover our doc for fear of offending their base and other journalists.
I did an interview with a high-profile journalist at a major news outlet, and his bosses at corporate killed the story because they didn’t want to admit that the broadcasting business did anything wrong.
HiT: Filmmakers have more options than ever before when it comes to distributing their work. Why did you embrace the Vimeo release plan?
Oldfield: We had an agent/distribution rep early on but tragically, he died suddenly and then COVID hit. Over the past year, we’ve watched how major movies and studios are embracing online distribution. Vimeo is really supportive of indie filmmakers, and they seem to have the best rates.
HiT: You’re also a film critic in addition to being a filmmaker … how has that perspective influenced the work you do.
Oldfield: For me, covering the Sundance Film Festival and Toronto [Film Festival] for years as a critic and journalist was my film school. I’ve interviewed many of today’s great doc filmmakers, and they taught me so much.
Not to be a name dropper, but I once asked Robert Redford, “What one quality do all successful filmmakers share?’ His answer was ‘Passion. They just have to tell the story.'”
That’s how I felt about this project. I had to tell the story, and I feel fortunate that I had the connections and perspective to tell it.
HiT: Do you have a follow-up project in the works?
Oldfield: Ryan and I signed with Contemporary Issues Agency to create a college speaking tour. We spoke with St. Louis Community College last fall and are talking with a school in Indiana next month.
We hope to take the show on the road and combine the doc with a panel discussion and Q&A to address issues like civil discourse online and ways journalists can do a better job covering viral videos – and not end up creating the media mayhem and mess that this story became.