By Michael C. Moynihan
When you look at this photo of a Texas-flag bedecked illiterate calling the president a "niggar" at a Tea Party rally, Rep. John Lewis's claim that he was mau-maued by racist health care protesters doesn't seem incredible. But after watching Keith Olbermann's spluttering on MSNBC last night ("If racism is not the whole of the Tea Party, it is in its heart"), reading columns by The New York Times bores Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman about the Klan-like atmosphere in Washington (observed through RSS feeds on the Upper West Side), and noting the uncritical recitation of the charges from certain media outlets, I went in search of the inevitable YouTube video of the attack on Lewis.
The headline on McClatchy's dispatch eshewed the word "claim," instead declaring that "Tea party protesters scream 'nigger' at black congressman," citing Lewis as its source. Readers of the Sydney Morning Herald were told that black congressmen had to "run [a] gauntlet of racist slurs" on their way to the House. The AP accused protesters of shouting "racial epithets aimed at black members of Congress." And so on.
Again, to crib from President Obama, let me be clear: It wouldn't surprise me if an angry troglodyte shouted a racial insult at Lewis. Indeed, multiple witnesses confirm that Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was called a "homo" by a Tea Partier, though Politico reports that he was quickly admonished by those standing nearby.
The problem, though, is that in a sea of video cameras no one caught the offending taunt. Some footage of protesters confronting Lewis can be viewed here and here. All this is rather strange considering Rep. Andre Carson's (D-Ind.) claim that the offending slur was shouted "at least 15 times." Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) heard "a chorus" of racism and claims he was spat upon. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) one-upped Cleaver, claiming to "have heard things today that I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to get off the back of the bus."
Perhaps it is my instinct to distrust politicians (an instinct the media typically avails themselves of—except in situations like these), and especially politicians trying to push through health care legislation, but these claims seem suspicious. It would be useful if those covering the story asked if the shouts were from just one jackass or it constituted a "chorus?" Was it really as bad as the desegregation battles of 1960's South Carolina? If someone did shout a racial slur at Lewis—and again, this seems entirely possible, though no one has corroborated it and the paucity of video evidence is curious—it is certainly deserving of strong condemnation, though hardly proves Olbermann's assertion that racism is at "the heart" of the Tea Party movement.