Caught with its hand in the cookie jar: The New York Times repeated half-baked Oreo allegation

››› ››› JOE BROWN

A New York Times Magazine article by Michael Sokolove reported the dubious allegation that at a 2002 Maryland gubernatorial debate, Democratic supporters of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend threw Oreo cookies at Michael Steele, then a candidate for lieutenant governor. The article referenced the alleged Oreo incident as a racial slur of Steele, an African-American Republican now running for U.S. Senate. But Sokolove did not inform readers that Steele has offered contradictory accounts of what occurred at the debate, nor did Sokolove inform readers that The Baltimore Sun has investigated the Oreo allegations extensively, finding little evidence to substantiate the various allegations of cookie-throwing.

A March 26 New York Times Magazine article by Michael Sokolove reported the dubious allegation -- previously addressed by Media Matters for America here and here -- that at the September 26, 2002, Maryland gubernatorial debate between Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Democratic supporters of Townsend threw Oreo cookies at Michael Steele, then a candidate for lieutenant governor. Sokolove and others have referenced the alleged Oreo incident as a racial slur of Steele, an African-American Republican now running for U.S. Senate. "[T]he Oreo, black on the outside, white on the inside," Sokolove wrote, was "intended to slur someone who has betrayed his race."

Sokolove reported Steele's assertion that "[f]olks started throwing Oreo cookies at me'' as he watched the debate, as well as his assertion that although "he did not see the Oreos in the air ... when he got up, [he] noticed them at his feet when he stepped on one and heard a crunching sound." But while Sokolove noted that others have disputed the story, he did not inform readers that Steele has offered contradictory accounts of what occurred at the debate, with his newest description of the purported incident conflicting with his earlier claims. Further, Sokolove reported that that "Democrats have charged Steele with inflating the episode to score political points, and some have privately hinted that maybe it never happened at all." But he failed to inform readers that The Baltimore Sun has investigated the Oreo allegations extensively, finding little evidence -- apart from the claims of Steele and his Republican allies -- to substantiate the various allegations of cookie-throwing. Moreover, Sokolove referenced "[n]ews accounts [that] told of the cookies being 'hurled' and Steele being 'pelted,' " but failed to inform readers that The Washington Times reporter who apparently originated the allegation that Steele was "pelted" with Oreos has reportedly backed away from this story.

Initial news reports of event made no mention of Oreos

As Media Matters previously noted, the Oreo cookie allegations remain unproven and are disputed by eyewitnesses to the debate at which the incident is alleged to have taken place. Initial news reports from the debate -- including statements by Steele himself -- made no mention of Oreo cookies. Additionally, eyewitnesses at the debate claim that the alleged Oreo incident never took place. Sokolove asserted that "Democrats" have questioned whether the incident took place as alleged by Steele. In fact, it is not only Democrats who have raised questions. The Baltimore Sun has reported numerous eyewitness statements casting doubt on accounts of the alleged cookie-throwing proffered by Steele and his allies. For instance, the Sun reported on November 13, 2005, that a staff member from Morgan State University -- which hosted the debate -- stated, "It didn't happen here," adding, "I was in on the cleanup, and we found no cookies or anything else abnormal. There were no Oreo cookies thrown." Additionally, the Sun reported on November 18, 2005, that "Corrogan R. Vaughn, a Republican candidate for Senate in 2002 who intends to run against Steele ... said he was volunteering for the Ehrlich campaign at the debate and saw no cookies thrown." The Sun reported:

[Vaughn] said he saw people rolling Oreos along a street outside of the fine arts center, but that Steele and Ehrlich were not outside at the time. "Why wasn't someone apprehended, arrested or detained" by police or executive protection if cookies were thrown, Vaughn asked.

Steele's evolving accounts of alleged incident

As Media Matters noted, the story of the alleged Oreo incident has evolved over time, originating well after the debate as a partisan talking point advanced by Steele's Republican allies and gradually gaining traction in the media. Moreover, Steele himself has offered contradictory accounts of what occurred at the 2002 gubernatorial debate. In addition to the account Steele offered in Sokolove's New York Times article, he has advanced several other versions of the story. His initial descriptions of the debate included no mention of Oreo cookies, but his later descriptions alternately included a single cookie rolling to his feet during the debate, multiple cookies tossed in his direction and rolling up next to his shoe as he left the debate, "one or two" cookies appearing at his feet at the debate, or cookies "tossed" in his direction at some unspecified time while he was at the debate.

The description Steele offered in Sokolove's article represents a new iteration of his story. As Sokolove noted, Steele now claims that "[f]olks started throwing Oreo cookies at me," as he watched the debate, adding that "he did not see the Oreos in the air, but when he got up, noticed them at his feet when he stepped on one and heard a crunching sound." This is the first time Steele has mentioned stepping on cookies or hearing them crunch. Additionally, Steele's account to Sokolove differs from an account he gave in the March 2006 edition of Essence magazine. In the Essence interview, Steele claimed that "[t]wo [Oreos] hit my shoes. I looked down, turned to my friend, and said, 'Got milk?' " But this account directly contradicts an earlier statement Steele made to Washington, D.C., radio station WTOP, in which he claimed he was not hit by the cookies.

According to a November 15, 2005, article on WTOP's website, Steele claimed he had seen "one or two" Oreo cookies "at my feet" at the debate. But the same WTOP article quoted Steele saying that other accounts of the alleged incident -- such as The Washington Times' S.A. Miller's November 2, 2005, description of Democrats "pelting" Steele with cookies -- were exaggerated:

On Tuesday, Steele told WTOP that he was never hit with Oreos and said the incident has been exaggerated.

"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," Steele said.

Based on a Media Matters review* of the Nexis database, Miller's November 2, 2005, article appears to be the first mention of Steele's purported "pelting" with cookies. Sokolove referenced "[n]ews accounts [that] told of the cookies being 'hurled' and Steele being 'pelted,' " but he failed to inform readers that Miller has since backed away from his description of Steele's "pelting." As Media Matters noted, the WTOP article described a conversation with Miller, who also wrote other Times articles that made oblique references to Steele and Oreos (11/3/05, 11/7/05, and 11/15/05). According to the article, Miller initially told WTOP he had attended the September 2002 gubernatorial debate and had seen Oreo cookies hit Steele. But WTOP reported that, "[w]hen pressed, Miller said he couldn't swear in court that Steele did get hit with cookies because he didn't actually see it happen." WTOP also reported that "Fran Coombs, managing editor for the Washington Times, told WTOP Miller denies ever speaking to WTOP and said Miller did not attend the Morgan State event."

From the March 26 New York Times Magazine article:

He moved on that day from Fruitland to the even smaller town of Pittsville (and another sewage-treatment plant) and finally to Salisbury State University, and it was at that last stop, in front of an audience of students, that he showed yet another side of himself -- the candidate as a man under siege, attacked for daring to blaze a new trail. ''You know what it's like to be called an Uncle Tom because you're a black Republican?'' he asked. He told them about what occurred in 2002 as he watched Ehrlich debate his Democratic opponent at Morgan State University in Baltimore. ''Folks started throwing Oreo cookies at me'' -- the Oreo, black on the outside, white on the inside, being intended to slur someone who has betrayed his race.

The Oreos incident has been an off-and-on story for several years. An Ehrlich aide claimed that the cookies were ''thick in the air like locusts,'' almost certainly an exaggeration. News accounts told of the cookies being ''hurled'' and Steele being ''pelted.'' Democrats have charged Steele with inflating the episode to score political points, and some have privately hinted that maybe it never happened at all. When I asked Steele about it, he leaned over and spoke slowly and directly into my tape recorder to make his point. ''It happened. I was there. O.K.?'' He said he did not see the Oreos in the air, but when he got up, noticed them at his feet when he stepped on one and heard a crunching sound.

From the March 2006 Essence interview:

ESSENCE: Yet Black folks obviously take their allegiance to the Democratic party seriously. Otherwise there wouldn't be those rumors of Oreo attacks.

M.S.: Let me tell you right now, it happened. Two hit my shoes. I looked down, turned to my friend, and said, "Got milk?" What do you do with ignorance? You either let it consume you or laugh it off and forge ahead, hoping people will see it for what it is.

*Nexis search: (michael steele or michael s. steele) and oreo and pelted

Posted In
Diversity & Discrimination, Race & Ethnicity
Network/Outlet
The New York Times
Stories/Interests
Propaganda/Noise Machine
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