Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reporting on slurs hurled at lawmakers

McClatchy Newspapers reporter William Douglas reported recently on the racial epithets and homophobic remarks that protesters had hurled at some Congressional Black Caucus members and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., last weekend ahead of the vote on the landmark health care overhaul legislation.
A number of readers have asked for an explanation on how the story was reported. Here's Douglas' memo to editors on how it came together:

You asked for a memo on the John Lewis and Emanuel Cleaver claims of racial abuse and spit and how I came upon the story. Here it is:
On Saturday March 20, I was on my way from the Senate Press Gallery to the Capitol Visitors Center to camp outside the auditorium where President Obama was addressing House Democrats prior to the lawmakers voting on the health care legislation.
A television producer friend of mine ran up to me and said that she had heard that some black House members were hassled outside by protesters, and that some had used the N-word on John Lewis. After Obama left, I covered a Steny Hoyer-Jim Clyburn news conference about the upcoming health care vote. I then went looking for Lewis and found him heading up the steps from the CVC to the House side of the Capitol.
I chased him down with TV producers from Fox News and, I think, ABC. Lewis didn’t want to go to the cameras, but he answered questions as he walked. He was calm and matter-of-fact as he described what happened to him.
“They were just shouting, sort of harassing,” he began.
I asked him, “Was the N-word used?”

“Oh yeah, yeah, but that’s OK. I’ve faced this before,” he said. “It reminded me of the '60s. A lot of downright hate and anger, and people just being downright mean.”
Lewis and Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., said that people outside the Cannon House Office Building were shouting “Kill the bill, kill the bill,” and then the N-word. Carson said the N-word was used “several times.” Carson later told the AP that he heard the N-word used at least 15 times.
Lewis said that one Republican colleague apologetically said, "John, you’ve seen this before. This is not new to you.’
After Lewis got into an elevator, I encountered Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. Knowing that he represented Kansas City, I asked if he had seen or heard what happened to Lewis. He said he was walking a distance behind Lewis, but he said he heard what he described as a “chorus” of taunts by the crowd aimed at Lewis and he heard the N-word uttered.
What Emanuel didn’t tell me at the time was that he was spat upon and called the N-word. I learned that after his office put out a statement describing what he experienced. The statement also thanked a Capitol Police officer for helping to defuse the situation.
After speaking to Cleaver, I spoke with Congressional Black Caucus Chair Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who told me that she heard other CBC members had been verbally abused by the crowd, but she didn’t have details. I called the Capitol Police and left a message on the voicemail of their press relations person, who didn’t call back. I didn’t include Lee’s comments in our story because she didn’t personally witness any abuse and she couldn’t give me the names of CBC members who allegedly were abused.
When I got back to the McClatchy desk on the Senate side of the Capitol, I called Mark Seibel, the weekend duty editor; told him what I learned; and asked him if he thought the information should go into the main health care story or whether should we do a separate. Mark instantly said a separate story. I told him that I’d try to get something to him quickly. I put about 4-5 graphs together in about 15 minutes that offered more detail, context and quoted the Associated Press story.
Mark backfilled my initial graphs with some B-matter and got the story up on the McClatchy Washington Web site quickly. He also checked with John Walcott about the language, and he and John agreed that the story should include the N-word and any other racist or hate speech that our reporting had confirmed.
I then returned by attention to the main health care story, having to hit the button on it before 5 p.m. But Mark and I went back into the Lewis-Cleaver story when we got the statement from Cleaver’s office and after I heard a tape of a Boston Globe reporter’s interview of Rep. Barney Frank, who gave the hometown reporter an account of the homophobic slurs he said were hurled at him by demonstrators. We quoted Frank, crediting the Globe. I think Seibel and I made the final add to the Lewis-Cleaver story around 9 p.m.