Yesterday, a horrible incident took place in Pittsburgh: a young woman was robbed; and then, after the assailant noticed that her car had a McCain sticker, he returned to brutalize her, including scratching a backwards 'B' in her cheek with a knife. Although horrible by itself, what makes this story even more shocking is the way right-wing media has tried to twist the coverage with rhetoric suggesting that this ATM mugging was actually a pre-meditated act of political violence aimed at the McCain campaign.
At 4:03pm, today, a WTAE-TV Pittsburgh reported that a 20-year old woman was robbed at an ATM machine, and then subsequently had the letter 'B' scratched into her cheek with a knife--supposedly in response to her assailant seeing a 'McCain' campaign sticker on her car. This is how WTAE reported the story:
Woman Attacked At ATM, Assailant Carves Letter Into Her Face
Woman Robbed, Attacked With Knife At Bloomfield ATM
POSTED: 4:03 pm EDT October 23, 2008
UPDATED: 4:30 pm EDT October 23, 2008
PITTSBURGH -- A 20-year-old woman who was robbed at an ATM in Bloomfield was also maimed by her attacker, police said.
Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Diane Richard tells Channel 4 Action News that the victim was robbed at knifepoint on Wednesday night outside of a Citizens Bank near Liberty Avenue and Pearl Street just before 9 p.m.
Richard said the robber took $60 from the woman, then became angry when he saw a McCain bumper sticker on the victim's car. The attacker then punched and kicked the victim, before using the knife to scratch the letter "B" into her face, Richard said.
Richard said the woman refused medical treatment after the assault, which happened outside the view of the bank's surveillance cameras.
The robber is described as a dark-skinned black man, 6 feet 4 inches tall, 200 pounds with a medium build, short black hair and brown eyes. The man was wearing dark colored jeans, a black undershirt and black shoes. (link)
The crime was horrendous. Anyone who mugs another person, whether it is for $0.60 or $60, is a criminal who deserves punishment. And to beat someone up--and then scratch a 'B' in their face--supposedly in response to seeing a McCain campaign sticker on a person's car--that is an act that demands immediate criminal prosecution. The young woman attacked deserves a speedy recovery and quick restitution of her property and dignity by the courts.
The problem with this crime, however, is not just that it happened, but the way that Matt Drudge has obviously tried to spin it into a political watershed for the 2008 Presidential campaign by rewriting the headline and carefully omitting several crucial elements. The end result is that a mugging punctuated by an odd act of violence has been transformed at the hands of a right-wing media figure to appear like a targeted act of violence against the McCain campaign.
Not long after the original WTAE story, Drudge added the following incendiary headline on The Drudge Report:
SHOCK: MCCAIN VOLUNTEER ATTACKED AND MUTILATED IN PITTSBURGH...
'B' CARVED INTO 20-YEAR OLD WOMAN'S FACE... DEVELOPING...
Note two things that Drudge has strategically left out of this headline: (1) the actual details of the crime (e.g., an ATM robbery, followed by an assault) and (2) the fact that the robber brutalized the young woman after the initial crime had been completed, when the criminal noticed the bumber sticker on her car. The omissions are crucia because they repackage a story of theft and assault into a story of political violence.
What Drudge has done, in other words, is reframe a report about a mugging to make it seem like the beginning of targeted political violence against the McCain campaign. Hence, it seems from his headline that there are criminals in the U.S. currently out looking for McCain volunteers with the goal of brutally assaulting them--that someone was looking for McCain volunteers to attack, found one, and beat her.
Now, Matt Drudge's blog is one of the most visited websites on the internet and is well-known for its Republican Party leanings, it's deep connection to right-wing media outlets, and the phenomenal speed with which it can disseminate a story--whether that story is true or false. It is important, therefore, to consider the grave danger carried Drudge's spinning of this story.
Given Drudge's choice of words, one could imagine the Drudge headline as the basis for right-wing media and the Republican base to conclude that political violence has begun against the McCain campaign--despite this being a false and misleading representation of the events.
Even worse, the immense site traffic at The Drudge Report enjoys, combined with Drudge's implication that this horrible mugging incident in Pittsburgh was in fact targeted political violence against Republicans, could result in widespread panic amongst by McCain supporters mislead by Drudge's manipulative reporting into thinking that they were the target of some kind of organized assault.
If either of those things were to happen, the Drudge headline of the WTAE story could quickly tip the the Presidential election into a dangerous place by heightening the 'us vs. them' tensions already set in motion by the McCain-Palin campaign rhetoric.
Finally, since Pennsylvania is a 'swing' stage--a state that is still too-close-to-call in the Presidential election polls--it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Drudge's deceptive re-framing of this mugging story could result in heightened tensions on the ground, and possibly contribute to outbursts of violence by people who believe they are under 'attack,' as a result of Drudge's rhetoric.
However Drudge's headline is interpreted, it has the potential to provide an excuse for actual political violence under the guise of self-defense.
Just to give an idea of how incendiary this story could become, since I began writing this post, the Obama-Biden campaign has already issued the following statement:
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the young woman for her to make a speedy recovery, and we hope that the person who perpetrated this crime is swiftly apprehended and brought to justice."
Their response shows the necessary and swift intolerance that any crime of this nature deserves. Whether or not The Drudge Report will succeed with its dangerous ploy to recast this crime as the beginning of political violence against Republicans remains to be seen. But at the very least, we can expect Drudge's spin to be the lead on every right-wing media outlet at least to the weekend.
How mainstream media handles it is another story. Will news producers at CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, and CBS refute Drudge's irresponsible flirtation with rhetoric that has the potential to spark widespread panic? Let's hope so.
***UPDATE (Fri Oct 24, 1:48pm EST): Pittsburgh's CBS affiliate KDKA is just now reporting that the 20 year-old woman in question has recanted her story:
A Pittsburgh police commander says a volunteer for the McCain campaign who reported being robbed and attacked near a bank ATM in Bloomfield has confessed to making up the story. Police say charges will be filed. More details to follow.
I am relieved, in the end, that this young woman was not the victim of a robbery or assault. However, the false accusation of political violence--tinged with racial profiling--raises serious ethical and criminal consequences for this young person. Needless to say, the way right-wing media attempted to transform this story remains an object lesson for this election season and beyond. -- JF
© 2008 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop