11/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Hate Rally That Wasn't

The late great journalist Murray Kempton once wrote that everything is known about the Mafia except whether it exists. I feel the same way about the great wave of racism and rage detected at McCain-Palin rallies by bloggers and pundits from E. J. Dionne to Frank Rich. The passion of their denunciation of Republican rednecks is admirable. However the evidence of all this racism and rage is slender, almost non-existent.

My friend E. J. wrote: "Are we witnessing the reemergence of the far right as a power in American politics? Has John McCain, inadvertently perhaps, become the midwife of a new movement built around fear, xenophobia, racism and anger?" Maybe I can help out here with answers to these questions. The answers are "No" and "No."The founder of the current wave of far-out Republican rage is Dana Millbank of the Washington Post. Covering a Sarah Palin speech in Clearwater, Florida, Millbank informed us that "Palin's routine attacks on the media have begun to spill into ugliness."

He offered two examples of this ugliness: someone shouted "Kill him!" referring to the 60s bomber Bill Ayers, and a man shouted a racial slur at a network sound man (apparently the N-word), adding "sit down, boy."

These two shouts were clearly over the line. But do two extremist shouts from a crowd of 4,500 people establish the rally as a far-right hate fest? Not really. Florida reporters at the Palin speech did not detect a wave of racism and rage. Their coverage was routine, discovering no incipient fascism. William March of the Tampa Tribune, who was there, told me: "They booed Obama and the press, but that just makes it a normal Republican rally."

Two odd things happened at the hands of bloggers and pundits. The "Kill him!" line, directed toward Ayers was presented as a threat to assassinate Obama. And the single racist remark cited by Millbank became one of many racist remarks at the rally. A New York Times editorial made this same mistake, turning one racial comment into many. So did Daily Kos bloggers and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell: "Whenever a crowd gets whipped up to a point that they turn ugly and start hurling racists insults, it is common sense that the candidate move so rein it in." Agreed. But there was one racist insult reported by one reporter. Nothing more. And we don't know whether Palin heard it. William March said he didn't hear it.

A Daily Kos blogger, filled with dread of the far right, wrote "There is a time to start feeling fear." He continued: "The event sounds like a precursor to a lynching."

A Huffington Post piece by one Jeffrey Feldman asked, "Is Palin Trying to Incite Violence against Obama?" 'Two subheads in this piece were worse: "McCain Camps Talk 'Character Assassination,'Supporters shout for real assassination" and "McCain Campaign Amplifies Violent Rhetoric. GOP Crowd Threaten Obama's life." Nothing like this happened. No crowd threatened Obama, or called for his assassination. Millbank's article, the only primary source for "ugliness" at Palin's speech did not report this, probably because these incendiary events occurred only in the minds of some liberal writers, not in the real world.

By the time the outrage on the left reached Frank Rich's Sunday column, the narrative line about two-person abusive crowd was set in cement. At Rich's hand, the one racial remark in Clearwater became "the uninhibited slinging of racial epithets." The one shout of "Kill Him!" aimed at Ayers after Palin's description of his bombing career became "raucous and insistent cried of "terrorist' and "Kill Him!" All untrue. This is a classic example of awful journalism. Adam Clymer, the former New York Times reporter and Congressman John Lewis both issued statements alleging that the Palin crowd in Clearwater reminded them of George Wallace. Lewis, who also accused McCain, pointed out that Wallace never killed anyone; he just set the stage for the Birmingham bomb that killed three black children.

All this grows out of the widespread assumption on the left that many conservatives and Republicans aren't fellow Americans who simply disagree with liberals. No, they are dangerous racists and violent crazies waiting for someone to set them off. If evidence for his can't be found in the outside world, someone will make it up in the newsroom.