William Douglas, an African-American reporter for the liberal McClatchy Newspapers, seems to have broken the story at 4:51 PM on Saturday, March 20, just hours after the alleged incident took place. Douglas did so with the seriously inflammatory headline, "Tea party protesters scream 'nigger' at black congressman."
At 7:21 PM that same evening, Douglas upped the ante with a headline that moved from inflammatory to incendiary: "Tea party protesters call Georgia's John Lewis 'nigger.'"
As Douglas reminds his audience in the lead of the second posting, "civil rights icon" Lewis, now a Georgia congressman, "was nearly beaten to death during an Alabama march in the 1960s." The focus on Lewis encouraged the Washington Post's Colby King to opine a few days later that "[t]he angry faces at Tea Party rallies are eerily familiar. They resemble faces of protesters lining the street at the University of Alabama in 1956."
King's take perfectly mirrored the Democratic talking points. If the immediate strategy was to discredit the Tea party movement as racist and split the movement's base from the Republican Party, then it was working splendidly.
By Sunday morning, March 21, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) was publicly denouncing the actions on the Capitol steps as "reprehensible." What Boehner did not know at the time is that he had been himself victimized in one of the most appallingly successful media scams in recent years.
If it were not for those damn ubiquitous video cameras, House Democrats and their media allies would have gotten away with it entirely. Instead, they must content themselves with a victory only among those who rely for the news on an increasingly myopic major media.
To discover what did happen, I have reviewed video from at least four different sources, talked to several eyewitnesses, and analyzed the early media reports from the scene.
Bottom line: the Douglas story would seem to meet the standards for libel. It is provably false, preposterously reckless, quite possibly malicious, and has caused real damage to publicly identified Tea Party leaders.
Here is what happened. Rather than use the tunnel from the Cannon Office Building to the Capitol, a contingent from the Black Caucus chose to walk through a crowd of protesters. In none of the videos shot that day, including those by the members of the Caucus themselves, has anyone identified a single audible racial slur.
What the videos show are protesters booing the black congressmen as lustily as they did their white counterparts. The one thing they do scream is the racially neutral "Kill the bill." The caucus members pass without incident until they reach the Capitol steps. There, an inattentive Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), flanked by a police officer, walks right in front of a man who has been screaming "kill the bill" through cupped hands for at least the last ten seconds.
Cleaver appears to get caught in the vocal spray. Once the videos emerged, Cleaver would tell the Washington Post that the man "allowed saliva to hit my face." In the immediate aftermath of the incident, however, a visibly angry Cleaver -- he poked his finger in the man's face after being sprayed -- spread a much darker story.
As Douglas reported in his 4:21 posting, Cleaver's office claimed in a statement "that [Cleaver] had also been spat upon and that Capitol Police had arrested his assailant." The Cleaver statement continued, "The man who spat on the congressman was arrested, but the congressman has chosen not to press charges."
Yael T. Abouhalkah, the editorial page columnist in Cleaver's hometown Kansas City Star, a McClatchy paper, captured the party line nicely with the claim that "some Tea Party supporter spat on Cleaver Saturday on Capitol Hill because the U.S. congressman is black." The video evidence belies all this nonsense.
About a minute after the incident, Cleaver returns to the scene of the crime with a Capitol Police officer. The "assailant" is still standing there shouting, unaware that he has committed anything like a crime. Heck, until a year or so ago, he had been led to believe that dissent was patriotic, not racist. More embarrassingly, Cleaver fails to recognize the man even though he is standing right in front of him, and the man is making no effort to hide. There is no arrest, no detention as Cleaver's office would later claim, no noble decision to not press charges.
"There were no elements of a crime, and the individual wasn't able to be positively identified," a spokeswoman for the Capitol Police would tell FoxNews.com. "[Cleaver] was unable to positively identify." More troubling, in Douglas's report, it was only Cleaver who was said to hear the word "nigger." Even in the later posting, "Tea party protesters call Georgia's John Lewis 'nigger,'" Lewis himself does not make this claim.
"They were shouting, sort of harassing," Lewis told Douglas. What they shouted, Douglas reports, is "kill the bill, kill the bill." House majority whip James CIyburn, who walked with the contingent, heard no racist remarks, either. "I experienced some of [the anger]," Clyburn told Keith Olbermann on March 22. "I didn`t hear the slurs."
Douglas cites only Cleaver as the person who "distinctly heard 'nigger.'" It is Douglas himself who inflates that one one word into multiple "protestors" who "scream" it at Lewis. There is no story without that word, and given the lack of video evidence and Cleaver's willingness to dissemble on the alleged arrest, there is no reason to believe him.
Nor is there any reason to believe Congressional Black Caucus member Andre Carson (D-IN), one of only two Muslims in Congress and a member of the progressive caucus. If Cleaver actually thought that he heard the slur in question, and he may have, then Carson told a story too outsized to be anything but willful propaganda.
According to Brian Beutler in the Talking Points Memo posted at 5:41 PM on that Saturday, March 20, Carson had "a particularly jarring encounter with a large crowd of protesters screaming 'kill the bill' ... and punctuating their chants with the word 'nigger.'"
Although Carson claims to have been standing next to Lewis, Lewis again provides no confirmation. He is quoted only as saying, "People have been just downright mean." Regardless, it is Lewis who is the subject of Beutler's headline, "Tea Partiers Call Lewis ‘N****r.'" (For the record, Beutler, a recent Berkeley grad, has written for the American Prospect, The Nation, Mother Jones, and The Guardian.)
Carson claims that the incident occurred when the group was walking from the Capitol. The Cleaver incident allegedly occurred while the group was walking to the Capitol. The lack of any audio or video evidence of at least two incidents of a "large crowd" of protesters shouting racial slurs should have killed this story before it left the gate. Even without the contrary video evidence, Carson's charge is so at odds with the reality of America circa 2010 that it undermines the credibility of any media person who reported it with a straight face.
One of my correspondents, who was on the Capitol steps when the caucus members entered and exited, makes a sage observation: "And if what these congressmen said was true, wouldn't it be logical to think that there would have been many more Capitol Police officers escorting these gentlemen back into the Cannon building when they returned?" Videos show that there were only two police officers, and they were walking behind the congressmen when they left the Capitol.
Still, this was more than enough for the factually indifferent Olbermann to conclude, "If racism is not the whole of the Tea Party, it is in its heart." To drive this point home, do not be surprised if some provocateurs on the left contrive an even more dramatic smear before November 2010.