Allegations of spitting and slurs at Capitol protest merit more reporting

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, April 11, 2010

Demonstrators at the Capitol were loud and angry on March 20 as they jeered House Democrats preparing to approve landmark health-care legislation. Before the day ended, The Post and other news organizations had reported a series of incidents so ugly they were denounced by congressional leaders of both parties.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, a black Democrat from Missouri, said a protester spit on him. Rep. Barney Frank, the openly gay Democrat from Massachusetts, was heckled with anti-gay slurs. Two black Democrats, Reps. André Carson of Indiana and John Lewis of Georgia, said protesters subjected them to racial epithets. The episodes were recounted for days in Post stories and columns. Much blame was directed at Tea Party activists.

But many readers, echoing conservative broadcasters and bloggers, insist the reports were exaggerated or that the events simply never took place.

Post reports were "based on no proof at all and without even offering any evidence," District reader Clarice Feldman charged in an e-mail.

Conservative commentator and blogger Andrew Breitbart has accused Lewis and Carson of fabricating claims of racial epithets to "create the impression that the 'tea party' movement is racist." He initially offered $10,000 to the United Negro College Fund for video evidence of the slurs. It's now $100,000. "They didn't expect someone would challenge them on this," Breitbart told me. "What idiot would challenge John Lewis," a civil rights movement icon? "Well, I'm that idiot."

Let's take them in order.

YouTube videos show the spitting incident took place as Cleaver and other black lawmakers passed through a gantlet of rowdy protesters on the steps outside the Cannon House Office Building. Amid booing and chants of "kill the bill," Cleaver is seen reacting as he passes screaming protesters. He turns, points an accusing finger and appears to chastise one, who is shouting nonstop. As he continues up the steps, Cleaver uses his hand to wipe a protester's saliva from his face.

Cleaver was hit with spit, but whether it was deliberate is very much in question. The video suggests he was unintentionally sprayed by the screaming protester. The distinction is significant because it fundamentally changes widespread media characterizations of what occurred. The Post and other news organizations left the impression of a despicable, premeditated assault. With videos of the incident so prevalent on liberal and conservative Web sites, and with the question being so widely raised in the blogosphere and on cable channels, The Post was remiss in not providing clarity by quickly dissecting what happened. (Cleaver's office did not return repeated calls seeking comment for this column.)

The episode involving Barney Frank is more clear-cut. Many readers have told me there is no evidence to support The Post's report that Frank was subjected to anti-gay slurs. They're wrong. An ABC News video recorded the incident inside a House office building. When ABC aired its video, the epithets were bleeped. A review of the unaltered footage, made by ABC at my request, clearly captures a protester shouting, "Barney, you faggot." Case closed.

If there is video or audio evidence of the racial slurs against Lewis and Carson, it has yet to emerge. Breitbart insists they "made it up." If so, they're good actors.

Roxana Tiron, a reporter for the Hill newspaper, said she was talking with a congressional staffer inside a House entrance to the Capitol when a "trembling" and "agitated" Carson said he and Lewis had just been called the N-word by protesters outside. "He literally grabbed me by the arm and . . . said 'You need to come out with me,' " imploring her to step back outside to listen to the taunts. Post reporter Paul Kane was nearby and witnessed Carson's reaction. "It was real. It was raw. It was angry. It was emotional. And he wanted it documented," recalled Kane, who said U.S. Capitol Police prevented them from going outside. Carson later told the Associated Press the protesters had chanted the N-word "15 times." Breitbart told me the "phantom 15 words" is "beyond absurd."

Through spokesman Justin Ohlemiller, Carson stands by his assertion. The spokeswoman for Lewis, Brenda Jones, insists he and his chief of staff heard repeated uses of the N-word. They are declining interviews, she said, because they don't want to "fan the flames of destructive language."

Breitbart's $100,000 challenge may be publicity-seeking theater. But it's part of widespread conservative claims that mainstream media, including The Post, swallowed a huge fabrication. The incidents are weeks old, but it's worth assigning Post reporters to find the truth. After all, a civil rights legend is being called a liar. That aside, there's serious money at stake.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates,

read the Omblog.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity