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Conservatives beat the press on health care debate 'slurs'

In the battle over the March 20 story alleging that racial slurs were hurled at Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), I'm ready to call this round for conservatives.

Two stories -- one in the AP, and a column by the ombudsman here at The Post -- give credence to the argument, made by Andrew Breitbart, FreedomWorks, and others, that the slurs reported that day never happened.

The AP story, which re-reports the details that have inspired skepticism among conservatives, actually debunks the idea that video currently available on the Internet proves no one yelled a slur at any of the black members of Congress. But the fact that the articles had to be written at all is a substantial new media victory for the right. Instead of relying on the words of the members of Congress, reporters have been told that the available video, which does not capture the moment the congressmen told reporters about, is proof enough that they never should have run with the story.

I think the key evidence in this pushback has been a little-appreciated transcript and audio clip from Kerry Picket, a Washington Times reporter who was on the scene when Carson informed reporters of the details of the assault. In conservative circles, this has been taken as proof that Carson fed the story to the press and that reporters didn't do diligence to check.

But why did the media run with it? For one, reporters actually witnessed sexual slurs being yelled at Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) outside the halls of Congress. And while I didn't witness the incident Lewis and Carson have talked about it, my reporting around the rallies on Saturday and Sunday took me to displays that didn't reflect well on the tea parties.

On Saturday, I was with a batch of tea party activists who'd gathered outside the Capitol, believing that President Obama had arrived there. One protester glared up at the dome, yelling "Bring out your boy Obama!" over and over again. Another protester yelled "We took care of one Hussein, we're gonna take care of another one!" That same protester engaged another protester in a conversation about how "they" had ruined the city of Detroit, and that "we have one of them in the White House right now."

And on Sunday, Rev. Jesse Jackson walked out in full view of protesters, inspiring a wave of boos and obscenities -- none of them (that I heard) racial, none that made the crowd look good. I taped this but didn't mention it in my stories on the protests. Organizers were concerned with some of the behavior that the media was witnessing, and reporters saw enough that the accounts of Carson et al. -- the kind of after-the-fact retellings that inform a lot of stories -- didn't come off as "smears."

I'm trying to find out what happened to Rep. Jesse Jackson's (D-Ill.) video, which several conservatives have asked for. It's not clear how much of the incidents he filmed, or what he captured. Whether or not he picked up these incidents, I think we've seen a paradigm shift, and that the March 20 story will be remembered by conservatives as evidence of how the media accepts attacks on conservatives without due diligence.

By David Weigel  |  April 13, 2010; 12:46 PM ET
Categories:  Health Care , Race  
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