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The candidates for governor of Maryland, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Robert Ehrlich, hold a debate in the Murphy Fine Arts Building on the campus of Morgan State University in Baltimore. After the debate, allegations surface that Democratic supporters of Townsend threw Oreo cookies at Michael Steele, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. Steele is African-American; to label an African-American an “Oreo” is to say that he, like an Oreo cookie, is black on the outside and white on the inside. It is considered a significant racial slur. The allegations are published by, among other sources, the conservative Washington Times, largely relying on reporting by S.A. Miller, who writes multiple stories concerning the alleged incident.
First Iteration: Oreos 'Distributed' among Audience Members - The source is Ehrlich’s campaign spokesman Paul Schurick, who tells a Baltimore Sun reporter that he saw Democrats in the audience distributing Oreo cookies. Schurick initially makes no mention of anyone throwing cookies. One day after the event, Steele is quoted by the Sun as talking about the Townsend supporters in the crowd and what he terms “race-baiting” by her campaign, but says nothing about Oreos. On October 14, Weekly Standard columnist Jeffrey Goldberg repeats as fact Schurick’s allegations about Oreos being passed out at the debate. On October 21, syndicated conservative columnist George Will repeats the story, adding that “[s]ome of the audience had distributed Oreo cookies to insult Ehrlich’s running mate.”
Second Iteration: 'Townsend Supporters Threw Oreo Cookies' - The same day as Will’s column appears, the Sun and the Associated Press report that Ehrlich told an audience at a Jewish day school that “Townsend supporters at the debate threw Oreo cookies” at Steele. The next day, the Salisbury, Maryland, Daily Times reports that “the Ehrlich campaign” claimed “protesters at the debate threw Oreo cookies at Steele.” The Washington Times reports Ehrlich’s claims on October 29. The Washington Post reports on October 31 that Townsend supporters “mocked” Steele by bringing Oreo cookies to the gubernatorial debate. On November 2, the London Times reports as fact that Steele “was bombarded with Oreo cookies” at the gubernatorial debate. Miller later tells other reporters that, while in attendance at the debate, he saw Steele get hit with the cookies. On November 22, the Capital News Service will report that Steele later “said an Oreo cookie rolled to his feet during the debate.”
Reporter Retracts Claim - But in November 2005, after Steele announces his candidacy for Maryland’s gubernatorial position (see November 2005), Miller will tell a reporter for WTOP news radio, Mark Segraves, that he could not swear in court that anyone actually threw cookies because he did not, in fact, see it happen, though he had reported several times that he witnessed just such events. Times managing editor Fran Coombs will issue a denial that Miller ever spoke to Segraves or anyone else from WTOP, but will confirm that Miller did not, in fact, attend the debate. Coombs will tell WTOP that the Times stands behind its reporting, regardless of whether Miller’s claims are true or not, and will say that the reported Oreo incident is a diversion from the real story of a double standard on racism in the Democratic Party.
Third Iteration: Steele Just Saw 'One or Two' Oreos at His Feet - Steele will tell Segraves that he was never struck by any thrown cookies. “I’ve never claimed that I was hit, no. The one or two that I saw at my feet were there. I just happened to look down and see them,” he will say. By November 15, the Associated Press will report that Ehrlich says “he did not personally see cookies thrown at Steele because he was on stage,” and “said he doesn’t know who might have thrown them.”
Fourth Iteration: Steele Says Oreos 'Tossed in His General Direction' - Around the same time, the Associated Press will also report that, according to Steele, “Oreo cookies were tossed in his general direction as he left the debate at Morgan State University,” including two that “rolled up” next to his shoe. The stories are dramatically different, and quite contradictory. Steele’s November account differs from Schurick’s account and his own previous statements.
Fifth Iteration: Oreos 'Thick in the Air Like Locusts' - In the Sun’s 2005 report, Schurick is quoted as saying: “It was raining Oreos. They were thick in the air like locusts. I was there. It was very real. It wasn’t subtle.” Sometime in late 2002, Ehrlich will tell a radio audience that his father was struck in the head by a cookie, though, according to the WBAL report at the time, “Schurick would not make Robert L. Ehrlich Sr. available for an interview.”
No Mention in Reporting after Debate, No Video Evidence - In November 2005, the Baltimore Sun will report that no newspaper or television reports mentioned any such incident in their initial reporting of the debate, and although four local television stations recorded the debate, no video of any such incident exists.
Eyewitnesses: Nothing Was Thrown - The Sun will report the operations manager of the Murphy Building at Morgan State, Vander Harris, as saying nothing of the sort occurred: “It didn’t happen here,” he will say. “I was in on the cleanup, and we found no cookies or anything else abnormal. There were no Oreo cookies thrown.” Several attendees at the event will tell the Sun that while some disruptive behavior occurred, no one threw anything at Steele nor anyone else. Morgan State spokesman Clint Coleman will say: “There were a lot of things, disturbances, by this group of outsiders who were bent on disrupting the debate. But I never actually saw Oreo cookies being thrown at him.” As for “raining Oreos,” Coleman will say, “I can tell you that did not happen.” Neil Duke, who moderated the event for the NAACP, will say he never saw any cookies thrown at Steele. “Were there some goofballs sitting in [the] right-hand corner section tossing cookies amongst themselves and acting like sophomores, as the legend has it?” Duke will say. “I have no reason to doubt those sources; I just didn’t see it.” And Wayne Frazier, the president of the Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association, will say he saw Steele walk into the auditorium that evening, but saw no Oreos. “I was there the whole time and did not see any of the so-called Oreo cookie incident,” he will say. “It could have happened and I didn’t see it, but I was in the auditorium from start to finish.” (Segraves 11/15/2005; Media Matters 11/21/2005)
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