Dana Milbank of the Washington Post often writes with a good deal of attitude, and his Tuesday column was no exception. In his report on Sarah Palin’s campaign speech in Clearwater, Florida, laced with mocking Palinisms (“darn right,” “betcha”), he wrote that “the self-identified pit bull has been unleashed, if not unhinged.” The “unhinging,” in Milbank’s assessment, came when Palin charged that Obama still has some explaining to do about his relationship with 1960s Weatherman bomber William Ayers.
Milbank also wrote that Palin blamed Katie Couric for her “less-than-successful” CBS interview. Other newspapers reported a more light-hearted Palin response to the dismal interview. The Tampa Tribune, for example, reported that she said: “I shoulda told them I was just trying to keep Tina Fey in business.”
But Milbank’s report triggered Democratic rage across the Internet with his charge that “Palin’s routine attacks on the media have begun to spill into ugliness.” Some in the Clearwater crowd, he wrote, shouted abuse at reporters. Someone yelled “Kill him,” apparently a reference to Ayers; and one person shouted an epithet at a network sound man (apparently the N-word, though Milbank didn’t say) and told him, “Sit down, boy.”
Two shouting extremists in a crowd of 4,500 are two too many, of course. The question is whether these outliers offer sufficient evidence for a clearly hostile reporter to demonstrate that Palin’s rallies have gotten ugly. Florida reporters did not see the event that way. The St. Petersburg Times ran a benign story on the Palin speech. William March of the Tampa Tribune told me, “They booed Obama and the press, but that just makes it a normal Republican rally.” March admitted that he was standing further from the speaker’s stand than national press reporters, and therefore heard less, but he maintains that the rally was no hate-fest.
An early web version of Milbank’s column was headlined, “In Fla., Palin Goes for the Rough Stuff as Audience Boos Obama.” Rough stuff? There’s no evidence that Palin did anything more than challenge Obama on Ayers. In the short TV clip available at the Huffington Post, the crowd booed in response to Palin’s litany of Obama’s liberal votes in the Senate. This is pretty standard campaign behavior.
Milbank’s lone racist at the rally soon became a group (or a mob) of people shouting racial epithets. A New York Times editorial Tuesday (“The Politics of Attack”) misquoted Milbank’s Post column, claiming that one person shouted “Kill him” and “others shouted epithets at an African-American member of a TV crew.” Many blogs followed suit: “Crowd at Palin Rally Hurled Racial Epithets at African American on News Crew,” read the headline at Pensito Review. This was too much for Bob Somerby, the left-leaning blogger at the Daily Howler. Calling Milbank “a highly unreliable chronicler,” Somerby taunted the Times for multiplying racists at the rally: “It’s the power of pluralization!...One example becomes much more powerful when we stick an ‘s’ on the end. In this case, one epithet-shouter turns into a group. How many people were shouting those epithets? The editors let you imagine.”
At the Huffington Post, the “Kill him” shout directed at Ayers was interpreted as an assassination threat against Obama. Another Huffington piece asked, “Is Palin Trying to Incite Violence Against Obama?” As the misreporting gathered steam on the Internet, writers became ever angrier. “The event sounds like the precursor to a lynching,” wrote a Daily Kos blogger. Another opined: “There is a time to start feeling fear.” Former New York Times reporter Adam Clymer compared Palin events with George Wallace speeches, though he gracefully conceded that “lots of journalists have worked in situations more menacing than covering Sarah Palin.”
This was a disastrous outing for the Post, the Times, and bloggers determined to view Palin appearances as brownshirt rallies. If the atmosphere is so hate-filled and racist at these events, why does the evidence come down to one shouter at one rally?