Yesterday, the blogosphere was buzzing over the latest story to give the race-baiting Matt Drudge a furious erection. A black man in a sketchy neighborhood in Pittsburgh robbed Ashley Todd, 20, an out-of-town Southern white woman– who also happened to be a McCain volunteer– at knifepoint. According to Todd, the man then became enraged when he noticed the McCain bumper sticker on her car. He then beat her and scratched the letter “B” into her face with a knife. The Drudge Report had this story blaring from the top of the page all day, probably hoping to bait the media into an extended discussion of race, crime, and out of control Obama supporters. So could this turn into Obama’s Willie Horton moment?
I actually lived in Pittsburgh up until three years ago, so I have a guess as to how this story might play out both nationally and locally. First of all, on the national front, of course Fox News is going to take the bait. In fact, they already have. This is a screenshot of their front page at this very moment:
The lede of Fox News’s story is that there are “unanswered questions” surrounding this woman’s version of what happened. This is just an excuse for them to drag it out and discuss a story that otherwise has no legs over several days. “Why is the ‘B’ on her face drawn backwards? Why are the scratches so light? Why did she refuse medical treatment on the scene? Why are there other inconsistencies in her story? Was the attack truly politically motivated? What exactly did the man say?”Tomorrow, we’ll find out a little more from the police, then we’ll discuss that, then we’ll get an interview with the woman and discuss that. 11 days before the election day, this story will probably replace Bill Ayers as the most pressing issue of our time– at least on Fox News. Keep in mind though, that I’ve seen a few comments from liberals questioning the woman’s story as well. You’re doing your side no favors. Just offer your sincere well wishes to the woman and move on. If there really are inconsistencies in her story, or if she’s just plain making it up, then leave it for the police to figure it out. This really isn’t the time for citizen journalism.
The thing is though, this story really has nothing to do with politics or race. It’s about an out-of-town lady who walked into the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time and ran into a crazy person. In Pittsburgh, you can just as easily get assaulted for having a Cleveland Browns bumper sticker on your car. Also, my sense is that if crime was a major issue in this election, the way it was in 1988, this story could have really caught fire nationally– even among the legitimate newsrooms. As it is, crime really hasn’t sparked any discussion at all in this election, other than in a Giuliani campaign that found little interest from actual voters.
Which brings me to how this story might play out locally. It matters because Pittsburgh happens to be in Pennsylvania, which happens to be a must-win state for John McCain and a really-kind-of-need-this-one state for Barack Obama. If Obama can come anywhere close to splitting the vote in Pittsburgh, his margins in Philadelphia will carry him over the top. If he gets pummeled in Western Pennsylvania, it’s gonna be close. Too close. This story is Pennsylvania’s October surprise.
In Pittsburgh, here’s how this thing could play out and really spiral out of control. First of all, I wrote back in the primaries about how Pittsburgh is one of the more segregated cities in America and how that feeds into a simmering racial tension. Of course, any report in Pittsburgh of a black man assaulting a white woman has a good chance of making the local news. A story getting this kind of national attention will lead the news, maybe for days.
And then the inevitable happens. Some local radio shock jock (talk radio is big in Pittsburgh) will make a racially insensitive commentary on the subject, something like, “See! If Obama wins this election, black people in this country are going to start feeling like they can do whatever they want!” And that will lead to a furious black community calling in to dispute, and a white community that’s split over the merits of the argument, but will feel decidedly uncomfortable with all the black anger– no matter how legitimate– on their radio. Then people will start calling for the shock jock to be fired, and that will set off another round of discussion, this time about a white man losing his job because of black people.
So while this story might fizzle out nationally, it could have some serious legs in Western Pennsylvania. If a talk radio war breaks out over the next week or so, if it spills over into the local news or the water coolers, if you get a lot of angry black folks and a lot of uneasy white folks in Pittsburgh, it will not bode well for Democrats. That is of course, unless the Steelers lose Sunday. Then this whole thing is on page A-29.
UPDATE: John McCain himself called the woman to offer his well wishes. It’s a nice gesture; she did after all volunteer for his campaign. But he’ll have to be careful not to be seen pushing this story. Leave that for Drudge and Fox News. Oh, and with Pennsylvania turning into something of a last stand for McCain, you can bet his staff there will be doing everything they can to throw fuel on this fire.
UPDATE #2: Wow! OCTOBER SURPRISE!
Pittsburgh Police is now reporting that Ashley Todd has confessed to making up the story. And just like that, all the politics of this swings in the exact opposite direction. Now the story is no longer about out of control (and don’t forget, black!) Obama supporters, it’s about one more example– the most egregious example so far– of the absolute insanity on the McCain side. I think the local chatter that will surround this story for the next week pushes Pennsylvania firmly into the Obama camp, even moreso than it was already. Western Pennsylvania may be racially… um, tense, but nobody on either side wants to be associated with stuff like this.
Make no mistake, Ashley Todd’s story is the worst instance of race-baiting since the Duke lacrosse “victim.” A lot of the details of this story looked fishy to me from the jump: The “B” scratched lightly– and backwards– in her face; the fact that she posted pictures of herself immediately to her MySpace page (what victim of a brutal assault like that goes straight to MySpace that same night?); her suspiciously non-swollen “black eye”; the appearance in her story by the famous “unidentified black male” (even The Sopranos did an episode about that guy); the suspect political quotes by her supposed attacker (“You are going to be a Barack supporter!”); and then there was this quote on Todd’s Myspace page:
Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her cloths [sic] off, but its [sic] better if you do.
Maybe I should have been more openly skeptical, but blame an overabundance of caution on my part for not wanting to attack the story of a potential assault victim, especially a woman, until all the facts were in. But, yeah, Ashley Todd is a complete nutcase. Throw her in jail. Lying about a hate crime should be a hate crime.
The other person to blame here is Matt Drudge, who took an apparent local mugging and successfully (to his now regret) turned it into a national political firestorm. There’s no reason– other than race-baiting– as to why this story should have been headlining the Drudge Report all day yesterday, and there’s no reason why it should have been splashed across the front page of the Fox News website. And trust me, Fox was ready to push this thing for all it was worth. Ashley Todd’s mugger was about to become the new Willie Horton.
Here’s John Moody, the Executive VP of Fox News, talking about the all-consuming importance of this story (aka why we must report on this night and day until November 4):
If Ms. Todd’s allegations are proven accurate, some voters may revisit their support for Senator Obama, not because they are racists (with due respect to Rep. John Murtha), but because they suddenly feel they do not know enough about the Democratic nominee.
What connection at all does this mugger have to Barack Obama? How does a random act of violence in Pittsburgh say anything about his candidacy? Two words: Race. Baiting. But unfortunately– for Fox News– Mr. Moody then continued in a moment of perhaps unintentional candor:
If the incident turns out to be a hoax, Senator McCain’s quest for the presidency is over, forever linked to race-baiting.
Actually, it’s Drudge and Fox News who are forever linked to race-baiting. I disagree completely that this incident reflects in any way on John McCain. He’s just as innocent here as Obama. It’s one thing for McCain and Palin to work their supporters up into a jingoistic frenzy about terrorists and patriotism, and then have a number of those supporters get out of control. It’s another thing for a crazy person, Ashley Todd, to take it upon herself to “help” the campaign by faking an armed robbery. I can’t blame McCain one bit for this; I don’t even blame them for calling her last night to offer well wishes. It was the right thing to do.
But I do agree with Moody that McCain’s quest for the presidency is now over. It was over three weeks ago. But the blowback from this October surprise proves that McCain is cursed. Even when he catches what seems to be a break, perhaps a little light at the end of the tunnel, it turns out to be a train barreling down the tracks to run him over. He can’t win. Western Pennsylvania is now out of reach, which means Pennsylvania is out of reach.
And Ashley Todd, the idealistic young volunteer who was just trying to do her part, will forever be known as the woman who mugged and assaulted John McCain’s campaign.