Milking a story for all it's worth, media uncritically report crumbling allegation that Democrats threw Oreos at Steele

Since Maryland's lieutenant governor, Republican Michael S. Steele, announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate on October 25, numerous media have reported as fact allegations 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 Steele -- then a candidate for lieutenant governor. The accounts have referenced the incident as a racial slur of Steele, an African-American; in such a context, Oreos represent, as the website of Washington, D.C., radio station WTOP noted, a “slur for being black on the outside and white on the inside.”

But as The Baltimore Sun reported November 13, eyewitnesses at the debate -- held at Morgan State University's Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center in Baltimore -- dispute the allegations of cookie-throwing, and accounts of the purported incident offered at different times by Ehrlich, Steele, and Paul S. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, contradict each other. Moreover, the Sun noted that initial news accounts of the debate made no mention of Oreo cookies at all. The first mention of cookies surfaced five days later, when the Sun reported Schurick's charge that Oreos were passed out -- not thrown -- by Democrats at the debate.

A Media Matters for America review of media coverage of the alleged Oreo-throwing incident has revealed little evidence to substantiate the claims originally advanced by Ehrlich, Steele, and Schurick. Reporting on the issue has varied greatly, giving wildly different accounts of the story, but a brief history of the Oreo-throwing legend demonstrates how this baseless allegation made the transition from partisan talking point to a “fact” reported in the media.

Following Steele's recent announcement of his candidacy, the allegation has resurfaced in numerous media outlets, including The Washington Times, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Sun-Times, that have asserted the allegation as fact. For instance, a November 2 article in The Washington Times listed “pelting [Steele] with Oreo cookies” among the “racially tinged attacks” directed at the candidate by his opponents. Similarly, on November 6, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell wrote, “Steele has been subjected to the worst racial slurs imaginable. At one debate, a group of black people pelted the stage with Oreos.” Media Matters' review found the following examples:

  • The Washington Times editorial page: 10/31/05, 11/4/05, 11/15/05.
  • The Washington Times: 11/2/05.
  • Fox News' Sean Hannity (on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes): 11/4/05, 11/16/05.
  • National Review editor Rich Lowry (on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes): 11/2/05.
  • Scripps Howard syndicated columnist and National Review Online (NRO) contributing editor Deroy Murdock: 11/3/05.
  • Washington Post metro columnist Marc Fisher, in an online chat: 11/3/05.
  • Washington Times metropolitan columnist Tom Knott: 11/3/05.
  • The American Spectator: 11/4/05.
  • Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell: 11/6/05.
  • The National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service editor in chief George Curry, on National Public Radio's (NPR) News & Notes with Ed Gordon: 11/9/05.
  • The Investor's Business Daily editorial page, 11/10/05.
  • MSNBC's Tucker Carlson, on The Situation with Tucker Carlson: 11/14/05.
  • NPR's Ed Gordon, on News & Notes with Ed Gordon: 11/15/05.

The origins of the Oreo story

The Baltimore Sun reported November 13 that "[n]ewspaper articles and television news reports" from the night of the gubernatorial debate made no mention of the alleged Oreo cookie incident, and “representatives of the news departments at television stations WBAL, WJZ and WMAR and Maryland Public Television said they have no video of the incident.”

In fact, the first reporting of anything resembling the purported cookie-throwing incident came five days after the debate, on October 1, 2002, when the Sun itself reported that “Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick said Democrats in the audience ... distributed Oreo cookies” at the gubernatorial debate. The report made no mention of anyone throwing cookies at Steele.

Two weeks later, The Weekly Standard's Jeffrey Goldberg reported as fact Schurick's allegation that Oreo cookies were passed out at the debate. In an October 14, 2002, article in the Standard's “scrapbook” section, Goldberg wrote that “supporters of Townsend passed around Oreo cookies” at the debate. Syndicated columnist George F. Will was next to pick up on the Oreo story, writing on October 21, 2002, that "[s]ome of the audience had distributed Oreo cookies to insult Ehrlich's running mate." Additionally, on October 31, 2002, The Washington Post reported that, according to Ehrlich, Townsend supporters “mocked” Steele by bringing Oreo cookies to the gubernatorial debate.

The first allegations of cookie-throwing surfaced on October 21, 2002, when the Associated Press and The Baltimore Sun both reported that on October 20, 2002, Ehrlich told an audience assembled at a Jewish day school that “Townsend supporters at the debate threw Oreo cookies” at Steele. The Salisbury, Maryland, Daily Times reported October 22, 2002, that “the Ehrlich campaign” claimed “protesters at the debate threw Oreo cookies at Steele.” The Washington Times reported Ehrlich's claims on October 29, 2002.

London's Daily Telegraph was first to report Ehrlich's accusations as fact, claiming on November 2, 2002, that Steele “was bombarded with Oreo cookies” at the gubernatorial debate.

A half-baked smear

Ehrlich's allegations of cookie throwing conflict with Schurick's initial account of the purported incident, which included no mention of cookie throwing. But Schurick has since changed his story. The November 13 Sun article reported that Schurick claimed “he saw people passing out packages of the cookies ... before the debate,” and that Democrats “let fly with the cookies” when Steele entered the hall:

“It was raining Oreos,” Schurick said. “They were thick in the air like locusts. I was there. It was very real. It wasn't subtle.”

But Ehrlich and Shurick's current claims about the alleged incident differ greatly from the accounts of eyewitnesses at the debate. In the Sun article, a university staff member disputed Schurick's account:

“It didn't happen here,” said Vander Harris, operations manager of the Murphy Fine Arts Building at Morgan State. “I was in on the cleanup, and we found no cookies or anything else abnormal. There were no Oreo cookies thrown.”

Three other eyewitnesses quoted in the article could not confirm the cookie-throwing reports:

Clint Coleman, a spokesman for Morgan State who was at the event, said he saw lots of unseemly behavior but no Oreos.

“There were a lot of things, disturbances, by this group of outsiders who were bent on disrupting the debate,” Coleman said. “But I never actually saw Oreo cookies being thrown at him.”

As for “raining Oreos,” Coleman said, “I can tell you that did not happen.”

Neil Duke, who moderated the event for the NAACP, said last week that he didn't see any cookies.

“Were there some goofballs sitting in [the] right-hand corner section tossing cookies amongst themselves and acting like sophomores, as the legend has it?” Duke said. “I have no reason to doubt those sources; I just didn't see it.”

Wayne Frazier, president of the Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association said he watched Steele walk into the auditorium that night but saw no Oreos.

“I was there the whole time and did not see any of the so-called Oreo cookie incident,” Frazier said. “It could have happened and I didn't see it, but I was in the auditorium from start to finish.”

Moreover, Steele's initial accounts of the debate made no mention of the Oreo incident. The Sun reported that “Steele was quoted in two articles that appeared in the [September 27, 2002] newspaper talking about the pro-Townsend crowd and what he called race-baiting by her campaign, but he said nothing about cookies.” Yet according to a November 22, 2002, report by the Capital News Service, Steele later “said an Oreo cookie rolled to his feet during the debate.”

The Sun also reported that Ehrlich “said on WBAL radio that his father was hit in the head by one of the cookies,” although “Schurick would not make Robert L. Ehrlich Sr. available for an interview.”

On November 15, the Associated Press reported that Ehrlich has now “said he did not personally see cookies thrown at Steele because he was on stage,” and “said he doesn't know who might have thrown them.” The AP also reported that according to Steele, “Oreo cookies were tossed in his general direction as he left the debate at Morgan State University,” including two that “rolled up” next to his shoe.

Steele's new story differs from Schurick's, which places the cookie-throwing before the debate, and differs from his own earlier account to the Capital News Service, which placed the cookie-throwing during the debate.

According to a November 15 article on WTOP's website, Steele claimed he had seen “one or two” Oreo cookies “at my feet” at the debate. During a November 16 appearance on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, Steele also confirmed to host Sean Hannity that people had thrown Oreo cookies at him, although neither Steele nor Hannity specifically referenced the gubernatorial debate.

The food chain: numerous media repeat the Oreo story

Following the Daily Telegraph story in which Ehrlich's cookie-throwing allegations were first reported as fact, the Oreo story all but died, although several media outlets continued to report as fact Schurick's allegation that Oreo cookies were passed out at the debate, including:

  • The Weekly Standard's website, the Daily Standard: 11/4/02, 11/5/02, 11/6/02.
  • Syndicated columnist Gregory Kane: 11/16/02.
  • Scripps Howard and NRO's Murdock: 1/6/03.

The allegations of cookie-throwing also resurfaced during the 2004 Republican National Convention, where Steele delivered a prominent address on August 31, 2004. That day, the Sun reported that “Steele and Ehrlich still talk about how supporters of former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend tossed Oreo cookies at Steele during the lone gubernatorial debate in 2002.” On September 1, 2004, The Washington Post reported, “During the 2002 gubernatorial race, supporters of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) threw Oreo cookies at Steele.” But soon after, the Oreo cookie story fell once again beneath the media radar, going largely unmentioned until after Steele announced his candidacy for the Senate.

Since then, media coverage of the alleged Oreo-throwing incident has increased, as has the media attention given to other iterations of the Oreo story. On November 3, the Associate Press reported that “Oreos were distributed” at the debate, and The Washington Times reported November 15 that Steele had been “smeared as an ... 'Oreo.' ”

The November 15 WTOP article described a conversation with S.A. Miller, the Washington Times writer who penned the November 2 article on the alleged cookie-throwing, as well as 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.”

Thanks to Thomas F. Schaller, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who contributed information for this article.