At issue is the question of whether Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who is black, was pelted by, mocked with, or otherwise in the presence of Oreo cookies, which are white on the inside, at a raucous Baltimore debate between then-gubernatorial candidates Robert Ehrlich and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
Steele is now running for the U.S. Senate. The Oreo story acquired fresh political currency last month when an Internet blogger posted a doctored photograph of Steele as a minstrel caricature, prompting Republicans to promote as a campaign talking-point various incidents in which the black conservative has been the victim of perceived racial slights.
After UMBC political science professor and liberal commentator Thomas Schaller expressed doubts earlier this month about the veracity of the Oreo-slinging incident, Ehrlich decried what he described as “dangerous” attempts at historical “revisionism.” During a Nov. 12 appearance on WBAL (1090 AM) radio, the governor insisted that Oreos were indeed thrown and urged listeners: “Just go ask people who were there.”
Sun reporter Andy Green was already doing just that. In a story published the next day, Green quoted several nonpartisan sources who were at the event and who disputed the governor’s account and that of his spokesman, Paul Schurick, who is quoted in the story as saying, “It was raining Oreos. They were thick in the air like locusts. I was there.”
“That’s insane,” says former Sun reporter Sarah Koenig, who covered Ehrlich in the 2002 campaign, and who says she didn’t see any Oreos that night. “The air was not thick with anything except political bullshit.”
In the mini media furor that has followed Green’s article, Steele himself revised Schurick’s Oreo story, telling WTOP-AM radio in Washington that he never saw a “barrage of cookies,” and only recalled seeing “one or two” cookies roll up to his feet. Ehrlich told the Associated Press that he didn’t personally see the cookies being thrown.
So what actually happened? “The answer seems to be,” the Sun’s Green says, “that it is not possible to get a definitive answer one way or another.”
And yet for three years, many reporters, columnists, editorial pages, and pundits have produced definitive-sounding reports of the Oreo story, despite there being no published news report that has independently confirmed that Oreo cookies were even present at the debate.
A LexisNexis search shows that only people directly connected to the Republican Party have ever been quoted attesting to the accuracy of any version of the Oreo story.
That hasn’t stopped The Washington Times, The Washington Post, The Sun, the (London) Daily Telegraph, the Associated Press, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, and this paper, among others, from reporting as fact, without transparent sourcing or attribution, some version of the incident over the years.
Of the two newspapers that have most frequently discussed the event, the Sun’s reporting has been largely circumspect, typically reporting the incident as a claim made by Republicans. The Washington Times, by contrast, has more freely propagated the most incendiary version of the incident, repeatedly reporting as a given fact that Steele was “pelted” by cookies at the debate.
“This is why we as journalists have such a hard time getting the public to trust us and [getting] people to talk to us,” says WTOP investigative reporter Mark Segraves, who last week broadcast a story harshly critical of Times reporter S.A. Miller’s articles on the subject.
Miller was at the debate in 2002 but acknowledges he didn’t see any Oreos. In neither of his two stories about Steele being “pelted” with Oreos does Miller cite his sources. “I heard it that night,” he tells City Paper. “I can’t remember where I heard it. It was repeated by people on the Ehrlich campaign.” Miller defends his reporting on the grounds that he has “no reason to doubt that it happened. It fits right in with everything else I know happened that night.”
Miller’s first “pelting” account was published Nov. 2 of this year, two days after an unsigned Times editorial also criticized “Steele-bashers” who “threw Oreo cookies” at the lieutenant governor.
The Times reports appear to have been influential. Days later, the verb “pelt” appeared in attribution-free accounts of the event by syndicated Union-Tribune columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr., the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mary Mitchell, the Times’ Tom Knott, and in editorials in Investor’s Business Daily, The Augusta Chronicle, and again in the Times.
“I think it entered the lexicon and people remember: Oh yeah, the debate where people threw the Oreo cookies at Steele,” says Post reporter Laurie Montgomery, who was at the 2002 debate and says she didn’t see any Oreos there. “It’s very sloppy, but it happens sometimes.” She adds, “I hope I didn’t do it.”
She didn’t, but she would be in good company if she had. S.A. Miller is hardly the only—and certainly not the first—journalist to report as fact the presence and trajectory of Oreos at the September 2002 debate:
Oreo-logy (partial time line of articles reporting as fact some variation of the Oreo incident):
Oct. 20, 2002: Washington Post columnist George Will writes, “Some of the audience had distributed Oreo cookies to insult Ehrlich’s running mate, Michael Steele.” Will did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment. His researcher, Seth Meehan, says that Will’s research folder for this column contained the Oct. 1, 2002, Sun article that first reported the story—as a claim made by Ehrlich’s spokesman—that Oreo cookies were “distributed” in the audience. Meehan also notes that Will met with Ehrlich before writing the column.
Nov. 2, 2002: The London Daily Telegraph’s David Rennie reports that Steele was “bombarded with Oreo cookies by activists.” In an e-mail from Brussels, where he is now the paper’s European correspondent, Rennie writes, “I was not at the debate, and as far as I can remember, the detail came from a U.S. paper—my best guess is The Washington Post.” (Other than Will’s column, the only Post account of the incident published before Rennie’s was by reporter Steve Vogel, who attributed to Ehrlich the claim that Oreos were “brought” to the debate.)
Nov. 16, 2002: Sun columnist Gregory Kane reports that Oreo cookies were “passed around by members of the debate audience as an insult to Steele.” Kane tells City Paper he was not at the debate and that he did not rely on published news accounts or the Ehrlich campaign as his sources. “I got it from the black grapevine,” he says, “but I can’t remember which particular grape I got it from.” Asked why he didn’t identify his sources in his column, Kane says, “That’s a darn good question. Probably because it wasn’t any one source that I heard it from.”
Sept. 1, 2004: Washington Post reporters Paul Schwartzman and Matthew Mosk write, “During the 2002 gubernatorial race, supporters of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) threw Oreo cookies at Steele.” Neither Mosk nor Schwartzman were at the debate. Mosk says he reported some quotes appearing in the story, but didn’t write it; Schwartzman, who was a Prince George’s County general assignment reporter last September, says, “I have no recollection of the circumstances surrounding this story. It’s 13 months and many, many stories ago.”
Feb. 16, 2005: Sun columnist Kane again refers to “that Oreo thing at Morgan,” stating, “it was nasty, uncalled for and should never have happened.”
Oct. 31, 2005: A Washington Times editorial criticizes “Steele-bashers” who “threw Oreo cookies at him.” Editorial page editor Deborah Simmons did not return calls seeking comment.
Nov. 2, 2005: Times reporter S.A. Miller writes that racist attacks against Steele have included “pelting him with Oreo cookies during a campaign appearance.”
Nov. 2, 2005: City Paper columnist Russ Smith writes that “some partisans” at the 2002 debate “brought Oreo cookies as props.” Asked why he didn’t cite his sources, Smith says, “I relied on the numerous references in the media about it, so numerous that when I wrote the column I didn’t feel the need to cite sources.”
Nov. 3, 2005: Associated Press reporter Tom Stuckey reports that in 2002 “Oreos were distributed at a debate.” Stuckey was on the 2002 debate panel. He says he was told by AP editors not to discuss his contributions to this story; Baltimore bureau chief Denise Cabrera declined to respond to specific questions or to make Stuckey available for comment.
Nov. 6, 2005: Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell reports that “a group of black people pelted the stage with Oreos,” reporting for the first time the color of the supposed Oreo tossers. Mitchell did not return calls seeking comment.
Nov. 7, 2005: A San Diego Union Tribune editorial asserts, “Democratic supporters pelted Steele with Oreo cookies.” Editorial page editor Robert Kittle did not return a call seeking comment.
Nov. 9, 2005: Nationally syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. writes, “Democratic Party activists . . . pelted Steele with Oreo cookies.” Navarrette did not return calls seeking comment.
Nov. 15, 2005: A Washington Times editorial reasserts that Steele “has been pelted with Oreo cookies.”
Nov. 20, 2005: Columbus Dispatch metro columnist Mike Harden writes, “Steele was pelted by Oreos . . . by students at a historically black Maryland college.” Harden did not return calls for comment.