Politics & Policy

What the Reporters Saw (and Didn’t See)

Was there really racial harassment at a tea-party rally?

You’d think that the short stretch of grass and asphalt between the Capitol and the Longworth Office Building were Dealey Plaza, given all the conspiracy theorizing that has emerged in the wake of what may or may not have been an isolated incident of racial harassment on the eve of the Obamacare vote.

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 20, three members of the Congressional Black Caucus claim they were accosted by tea-party protestors while attempting to enter the Capitol. Reps. Andre Carson (D., Ind.) and John Lewis (D., Ga.) say they were called “n***er” repeatedly, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D., Mo.) says he was spat upon.

Quite naturally, the mainstream media pounced on this story of Lewis, a bona-fide civil-rights hero, enduring a “chorus of epithets” at the hands of a seething tea-party mob, and reported it as if it were gospel.

But the incident wasn’t observed fact, it was media hearsay. And in the weeks since the story broke it, has not been backed up by a single piece of documentary evidence. This is why BigGovernment.com’s Andrew Breitbart, who has a standing offer of $100,000 to the man who can produce definitive evidence that the slurs happened, probably won’t have to pay up anytime soon.

I have talked (mostly on background) to a number of reporters who were on the Hill that day and covered the incident for both straight-news outlets and opinion publications. Though their stories and perspectives were all a bit different, they agreed on the basics: Unlike the homophobic comments directed at Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.), which were heard by multiple reporters, no one in the media actually observed the racist taunts; rather, they pieced their stories together from press releases and statements issued by the involved congressmen and their staffers.

While the reporters I talked to all found this a bit troubling, they nevertheless believed that what they heard from Lewis and Carson passed the smell test.

One veteran Washington correspondent said that though she wished there were video evidence, nothing she was told by the parties involved activated her journalist’s sixth sense — “that funny feeling” that she was being lied to.

She pointed to the charged impromptu press conference held just minutes after the incident by Carson, who almost never talks to the Washington press, as evidence that the emotions were genuine.

“I’ve still sat with myself and asked myself, Is it possible that Carson made this thing up . . . ? I mean, there are people in Congress who are always trying to figure out a way to talk to reporters. But Lewis is not a seeker of attention, and Carson doesn’t talk at all on the record. I might have felt differently if it had been two other members,” she said.

Rather, she added, “Carson’s reaction right after it was characteristic of how someone would react if they were really [ticked] off.”

Another reporter said that, in fielding questions from his editors and other news publications in the wake of the incident, he took a critical look back at his own reporting.

“I’m always aware reporting what you’ve heard rather than reporting directly from a source is a big mistake,” he said. “I’m not going to say that, because a member of Congress said it, it must be right.”

But he too said his reporting turned up nothing that would contradict the congressmen’s words.

“I certainly have analyzed myself and questioned myself to make sure I didn’t assume these guys were totally truthful,” he said.

A third journalist said that he had reported only what he heard from Cleaver and Lewis, and omitted second- and third-hand accounts of the incident received from other Democratic members of Congress, in an effort to minimize hearsay.

Of course, it is hardly surprising that these reporters would defend their work, and while our conversations were refreshingly candid, they did little to dispel the questions surrounding the story. None had plausible theories as to why Lewis and Co. chose to break the lines of an excitable protest rather than stick to the subsurface tunnels by which members of Congress often travel between Capitol Hill buildings. And none could explain why, just a day after the allegations surfaced, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a contingent of Democratic leaders chose to break those lines again — sporting a giant gavel and coprophagic grins — despite the “hate” they believed to permeate the crowds.

Most critically, none could account for how, at a gathering that surely featured hundreds of audio recorders, there isn’t a single sound clip that corroborates their stories.

Breitbart and others in the conservative blogosphere have thus felt justified in calling the story an Alinskyite “hoax” and a Democratic “smear.” Of course, negatives are notoriously difficult to prove, and there is something inherently problematic about claiming that a lack of video evidence is proof that an event did not occur; but we increasingly live in a world in which, if it isn’t on YouTube, then it didn’t happen.

That would suggest that at least three sitting members of the House of Representatives conspired to spread lies about Americans’ exercising their rights to peaceably assemble — something I still find hard to swallow. Not only do I hesitate to impugn the motives of someone like Lewis, but I also believe that, though politicians are congenital liars, they are usually also selective and defensive ones, who omit and misrepresent far more than they fabricate and conspire.

So perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. The old saying has it that “nobody lies like an eyewitness.” So perhaps, in the din of the protest, Lewis, Carson, and Cleaver, who were expecting to hear the worst from the tea-partiers, heard just that — and reporters too readily took their word for it.

– Daniel Foster is news editor of NRO.

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