By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

So what about those death threats?

What is really going on at McCain-Palin rallies? The Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., reports that the Secret Service can find no evidence that anyone shouted “Kill him!” in reference to Barack Obama at a recent Palin event (via Little Green Footballs).

The story was originally reported by a competitor, the Scranton Times-Tribune, which is standing by its reporter, David Singleton:

Mr. Singleton said the remark came from his right, amid booing that followed Mr. Hackett’s mention of Mr. Obama.

“[I] very distinctly heard, ‘Kill him!’ Male voice,” he said. “It was definitely back in the back.”

Mr. Singleton said other people were in the bleachers he was behind and in similar orange bleachers to the right.

He moved toward the area where he thought the remark came from to see if the person who said it would repeat it. That didn’t happen, and he was unable to identify the speaker, he said.

“I didn’t hear anything else at that point,” he said.

Singleton, by the way, is described by his employer as a wire-service and newspaper reporter with some 30 years of experience. In other words, he doesn’t sound like someone out to make a name for himself. As his editor put it, “He heard what he heard.”

Conservatives bloggers today are excited over the possibility that Singleton got it wrong, pointing to it as evidence that McCain’s and Palin’s crowds would never, ever yell out death threats, and that Obama and his supporters are wrong to level that accusation.

“It’s as if they’re just making stuff up to make McCain and Palin look bad,” says the InstaPundit, Glenn Reynolds, referring to the media.

But not only is the jury out on the Times-Tribune story; there are other facts to sift through as well.

The first report that Palin’s crowds were getting out of control appeared in the Washington Post in early October, when Dana Milbank covered a Florida event at which “Kill him!” was clearly heard. According to Milbank, though, those words were apparently aimed at former Weather Underground radical William Ayers, not Obama. Which I guess makes it OK.

But wait. On Oct. 8, MSNBC reported that someone shouted “Off with his head!” at a Pennsylvania event when McCain mentioned Obama’s tax plan. That sounds like a death threat aimed at Obama, does it not? I don’t think Ayers has a tax plan.

Finally, the aforementioned Milbank says the Secret Service is now stopping reporters from interviewing people at McCain-Palin rallies — a censorious action that is most definitely not part of the agency’s mission statement, and that makes you wonder about the veracity of its claims about Singleton’s reporting. Milbank puts it this way:

So they prevent reporters from getting near the people doing the shouting, then claim it’s unfounded because the reporters can’t get close enough to identify the person.

I can understand why the Secret Service would do that. More media coverage means more reports of death threats; more death threats mean more nuts reach for their guns. But I also don’t doubt that the agency would rather keep Obama safe than be completely forthcoming with the truth.

Here’s the scorecard, as best as I can tell:

  • “Kill him!” at Florida rally. True, though probably aimed at Ayers rather than Obama. Still, a death threat is a death threat.
  • “Off with his head!” True, and almost certainly aimed at Obama.
  • “Kill him!” at Pennsylvania rally. Probably true, despite the Secret Service’s inability to find the criminal. Definitely aimed at Obama.

Is this how McCain’s defenders really want to spend their time?

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  1. mike_b1

    More media coverage means more reports of death threats; more death threats mean more nuts reach for their guns. Do we know this? Similarly, media reports of tragedies like suicide pacts or school shootings are blamed for giving other at risk kids the same idea. But there’s never been anything but anecdotal links.

  2. Dot Lane

    Well Dan, you know the media is in the tank for Obama, and Biden is from Scranton, so it all makes perfect sense. And what this really means is “no corroborating evidence” was found, which doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, as LGF and Instaclucker claim. One could say the reporter is lying, but one can’t say that it didn’t happen.

  3. Steve

    Go argue with Keller, whose comment is “Oops. Never mind.”(Better yet, invite him over here. This blog’s comment section is updated much more frequently, making the back-and-forth easier.)I’d love to hear the two of you hash this out.

  4. Ani

    I looked at Jon Keller’s blog, and my reaction was that while I could still discern the intelligence and ability to cut incisively to the crux of the matter, it seems now too dressed up in cleverness and low-brow humor — reminded me of modern advertisements and entertainment — we need people in the media to appeal to our higher selves, not our lower selves. Yes, it probably won’t sell as well, but you could make the same argument about those derivatives based on risky mortgages that seem to have first bloated and then drained our financial system — pandering with a view to profits leads to bad results in the long term. And now I’ll get down from my soapbox.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Steve: What is there to hash out? Keller’s a good guy and a good journalist. But the simple fact is that there have been death threats against Obama at McCain-Palin rallies — at least two, probably three. That’s not a matter of opinion.

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