The melon trap 2

Adrian Jawort digs deeper into the Jennifer Olsen story. Lots of stuff here you haven’t seen elsewhere, from this week’s Outpost:


For The Outpost

The man who lit that match that started a wildfire over a racist joke allegedly posted online by the chairman of the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee says he had no desire to feed a media frenzy.

Last week’s Outpost reported about the alleged online indiscretions of Jennifer Olsen, chairwoman of the YCRCC and a leader of the Yellowstone County Montana Shrugged Tea Party.

On her personal Facebook account, Olsen had allegedly re-posted a racially charged joke of a photo of a watermelon under a box that was to be used as bait in a plot to kidnap President Barack Obama. The stereotype of African-Americans only “interested only in such mindless pleasures” as indulging in watermelon has been “a staple of racism’s diet” since the slavery plantation days, wrote Keith M. Woods from the Poynter Institute.

Olsen denied she posted the photo, calling it a “fabrication” put forth by fellow Republican and Montanafesto blogger Nicole French.

Following the leads of the Montanafesto and Montana Cowgirl blogs, the Outpost and the nationally known liberal blog, Daily Kos, picked up the story.

After The Billings Gazette ran the story online later last week, national news outlets from the Associated Press to The Huffington Post (with 36.2 million readers a month) wrote about the controversy, demonstrating the power of stories spreading like wildfire in the internet era.

The person who started that wildfire, however, says he is “sick” about the way the story has developed.

Russ Hart was in class casually browsing through his Facebook page while waiting for his 11 a.m. class to start on the morning of Feb. 15.  The now infamous watermelon photo allegedly re-posted by Ms. Olsen caught his eye, and he was taken aback.

“I guess my initial reaction was I couldn’t believe that somebody in a leadership position like would be so careless to post something like that,” Hart said. “That was real surprising.”

He typed his shocked response to Olsen, “Are you kidding me?”

Hart said, “Then she typed something like, ‘I just couldn’t help myself. LOL’ – something to that effect.”

When Hart took a screenshot of the alleged indiscretion, Hart’s “Are you kidding me?” words could be seen. It was a spur of the moment decision.

“I really wasn’t preserving evidence,” he said. “I took a screenshot, sent it to a couple of people, and it was sort of a, ‘Can you believe she did this?’ scenario.”

A week later, the photo was plastered on national media sites.

Hart remained anonymous because he was in the middle of a job search, and didn’t want to be associated with any political fallout or bickering from the situation. After Montanafesto posted the screenshot picture, he was immediately taken off the Facebook friend list of Olsen.

The first screenshot image released by French’s Montanafesto blog was a close-up picture that featured just Olsen’s name and the racially charged anti-Obama image.

After the full screenshot was released later in the week, Hart’s “Are you kidding me?” comment could be seen. People commenting online inevitably asked why Russ Hart wasn’t coming forward after the YCRCC claimed that none of Olsen’s Facebook friends had seen the image. He knew he’d eventually be approached as he read online comment sections mentioning his name under articles.

As a Republican who’s been involved with volunteer political organizations like the YCRCC, Hart sympathized with the group even though it wrote a press release essentially stating his screenshot was possibly the job of a hacker or photo shopped.

The YRCC official press release on Feb. 22 read, “This alleged posting has not been corroborated by any of the over 1,000 friends following the chairwoman’s personal Facebook at the time or any other witnesses.”

Hart said of the press release, “They’re giving their chair the benefit of the doubt, and I can’t fault them for that. She told them something that wasn’t true, and that’s what they’re operating on. It would be really unfair for the party to come out looking bad for that.”

Since he was no longer a Facebook friend of Olsen’s, he couldn’t corroborate the story as a Facebook friend. Mark Higgins, also a former Facebook friend of Olsen’s, said he was immediately “unfriended” after he emailed the YCRCC Tuesday claiming he could verify seeing the racist post on Olsen’s Facebook page.

He’d just been in contact with Olsen that same day, and according to a screenshot taken by Higgins, she’d written about the controversy surrounding herself:

“People should be given a way to fact check … . It is clear the news media only reports one side. That has been a battle for conservatives for many years. So we will never be able to get out the truth.”

Higgins replied, “Jennifer, I did also see the watermelon under a box repost come from your updates. How is that lying?”

According to Higgins, Olsen had also posted Montanafesto blogger Nicole French’s personal contact information to presumably call and harass her.

“I said to her, ‘Is it really necessary to act so immature that you need to post this information? People see you as a leader, and is that what you want to teach them?’ I didn’t think that was very appropriate.”

He’s baffled the story has spread so far, but defends French as an honest person. “We need people like Nicole in our community calling people out for being hypocrites. That’s important,” he said. “It might help keep some of these politicians honest.”

Higgins noted about Olsen’s continued denials, “People start to get defensive, and then they start to lie about things. It’s just so much easier to come out with the truth. Otherwise you rapidly start forgetting all the lies you’ve told, and you’re stuck with that story.”

As far as Olsen claiming she may have been hacked, or that someone created an fake Facebook profile to discredit her, Higgins said, “This came from her Facebook page, and it’s not like I was friends with any of these supposed fake aliases, I was friends with her account. She posted pictures of her place, and it was all her stuff. I know what I saw.”

As far as Hart’s role in coming forward, he sent an email to the YCRCC, and has been contacted in the committee’s ongoing investigation.

“They’re in a tough spot,” he said. “They don’t want to throw their chairwoman under the bus when she says it didn’t happen.”

Even though Hart simply wished Olsen hadn’t denied posting the joke, “I don’t think she’s a bad person,” he said. “I would’ve liked to talk her about it, but that’s not going to happen now.”

Hart says part of him feels remorse about the events that have transpired since he took the now infamous screenshot on a whim.

“Part of me wished I would’ve reached out to the party first, but I don’t know if that would’ve gotten me anywhere,” he said. “It’s making me sick the way it’s all going down, but I guess that’s the world these days.”

The melon trap

My thoughts on the Jennifer Olsen scrape, from this week’s Outpost:

Is the chairman of the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee a racist? I have no idea. And there lies a problem.

The Outpost published a story last Thursday about an allegation that Republican chairman Jennifer Olsen, also a Tea Party activist, had attacked President Obama with a racist joke on her Facebook page involving a watermelon under a box trap. The allegation first appeared on a blog, Montanafesto, which posted a screen shot of the Facebook image. The blog post was by Nicole French, an avowed Republican who has been active on the medical marijuana issue.

When Outpost freelancer Adrian Jawort contacted Ms. Olsen about the allegation, she denied that she had posted the joke. Fair enough. People who know far more about Facebook than I do say that hacking it isn’t that hard.

But Ms. Olsen did something worse than just deny the allegation. The way she and fellow Republicans reacted says a lot about their miserable support among minority voters.

Had the same thing happened to me, or probably to you, we would have known how to react. We would have denied having done it. We would have expressed regret that such an offensive joke had somehow become linked to our names, and we would have repeated our deeply held beliefs in racial equality and justice.

We wouldn’t, without evidence, have accused anyone in particular of doing the hacking, and we certainly wouldn’t have blamed the incident on an entire political class.

Ms. Olsen got all of that wrong. On her Facebook page, she posted a cryptic note (now vanished) saying that she would not comment on blog posts. “It is what it is,” she wrote, about as lame a denial as the English language can craft.

In response to our inquiries, she didn’t express regret that she was an innocent victim of a malicious hacker. Without providing any evidence, she blamed the posting directly on Ms. French.

Worse, she added this comment: “Liberals always try to take our focus away from real issues by doing things like this. It is absolutely not true.”

This turned a muddle into a mess. We got a response from Ms. French, who acknowledged that she has no affection for Ms. Olsen but denied being a liberal and denied that she faked the post. She also noted that she couldn’t be sure someone else had not done so. A couple of fellow Republicans chimed in, saying they had confidence in Ms. French’s integrity.

The response of some other Republicans was, if anything, worse than Ms. Olsen’s. Ms. French said she posted the screen shot of the joke on the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee’s Facebook page with the comment, “Are these the ideals we wish to espouse?”

Before the post was removed an hour later, responses ranged from the dismissive – “it was a joke” – to the personally insulting to the idiotic, such as the suggestion that anyone who can see racism in a joke involving a black president and a watermelon must herself be racist.

Yes, that’s a mature response to an allegation of racism: Make an allegation of racism!

Now, it’s true that some Americans don’t understand the racist implications of watermelon. In fact, most Americans may not understand, provided they were born last week, somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But for prominent members of a major political party, one that has struggled for decades to win the votes of black Americans, that level of ignorance amounts to dereliction of duty.

Following November’s election loss, Republicans began soul searching about why so many white people vote for them and so few blacks and Latinos do. Mostly, they seemed to conclude, they haven’t done a good job of getting their message out.

No doubt. But some of the loudest conservative voices on TV and radio still talk as if racism is something that only blacks do to whites. In a more generous frame of mind, they say that blacks won’t vote for Republicans because blacks don’t recognize their own best interests.

That’s the way to win over political opponents: persuade them that they are too dumb to think for themselves.

In Montana, Eric Olsen, Ms. Olsen’s father and also a local Tea Party stalwart, has written on his Facebook page that Barack Obama is a racist. Tom Balek at Rockin’ on the Right Side, perhaps the most prolific conservative blogger in the state since the Electric City Weblog recently shuttered its doors, has called the New York Times racist.

Such language abuse amounts to, if not full-bore dementia, an astounding display of ineptitude or, worse, a deliberate attempt to render the word meaningless. If “racist” means nothing, then no one can be a racist.

So where are we left? Amid squalor and ugliness. The Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee put out a statement on Friday saying that Ms. Olsen has received death threats. Montana Cowgirl, probably the most widely read political blog in Montana, says it has received hate email about its posts on the incident, including one email that said, “You are a racist bitch. Please drink yourself to death.”

America has come a long way since I was growing up in deeply segregated South Texas. That was an evil time, and I would never want to go back. We have learned hard-earned lessons since then.

Unfortunately, some of us remain unschooled, and our ignorance does us all harm.

Neither rain, nor hail

I usually defend the post office — my dad worked there for 44 years and accumulated 4,000 hours of unused sick leave — but I suppose I should mention that two weeks ago today the Outpost received a check in the mail that had been mailed from a Central Avenue address in March 2012. In-town service in under a year — and people complain about the post office.

Long may he rest

Because I teach German at MSU Billings, I occasionally get requests to translate old letters that people happen to have around. Yesterday, I translated a letter that a German man wrote to an American in May 1933.

The letter itself was inconsequential: He was introducing himself to a new pen pal in America. He was 20 years old, just out of Gymnasium (which is basically college prep school) and working in a book store. He was looking forward to exchanging letters about German and American characteristics and politics.

I don’t know if any of those letters were ever written. But to be a 20-year-old German in 1933 had to be one of the least promising resumes in world history. Did he survive? If so, in what condition?

Probably, we will never know.

Race on the cover

The Outpost has a story this week on allegations that Jennifer Olsen posted a racist joke on her Facebook page (see below). Since we may not get that story posted on the website for a bit, and since there seems to be a lot of interest in this, here it is:


For The Outpost

The internet meme was one of many racist images floating in cyberspace mocking President Barack Obama for his African-American roots.

Under a cardboard box that was held up by a stick with a string on it, the “snare” had a watermelon as bait. Underneath it a caption read: “BREAKING NEWS: The Secret Service just uncovered a plot to kidnap the president.”

However, this particular image was allegedly re-posted on the personal Facebook page of Jennifer Olsen last Friday. Ms. Olsen happens to be the chairwoman of the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee and a leader of the Yellowstone County Montana Shrugged Tea Party.

Although Ms. Olsen denied the saved screenshot image was taken from her Facebook page, the image has nonetheless rapidly spread across Montana political blogs on the internet, originating from whistleblower Nicole French’s Montanafesto blog before appearing on the popular liberal political insider blog.

David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Michigan’s Ferris State University, said, “The mission of the Jim Crow Museum is straightforward: use items of intolerance to teach tolerance. We examine the historical patterns of race relations and the origins and consequences of racist depictions.”

He explained watermelon’s negative connotations towards blacks: “The association of Blacks with watermelons is, at its root, a mean-spirited attempt to insult and mock Blacks.”

Pilgrim cited Keith M. Woods from the Poynter Institute, who wrote that watermelon has been “a staple of racism’s diet” since the slavery plantation days.

“Over time,” wrote Mr. Woods, “the watermelon became a symbol of the broader denigration of black people. It became part of the image perpetuated by a white culture bent upon bolstering the myth of superiority by depicting the inferior race as lazy, simple-minded pickaninnies interested only in such mindless pleasures as a slice of sweet watermelon. Like all racial and ethnic stereotypes, this one’s destructive properties have, through the decades, stretched far beyond mere insult.”

French, an active Republican whose credentials include being the former elections director of the Yellowstone Young Republicans, said she felt compelled to make the image public in hopes Republicans would condemn racism in its own ranks.

“We want to rid the party of this sort of ugliness,” she said.

On her own Facebook page, Ms. Olsen said she wouldn’t comment about blog posts. But in an email, she denied complicity in posting the image, stating that the alleged posting was “absolutely not true.”

“The blog posting this about me is all fabricated,” Olsen wrote. “This is not the first time they have made up stories about me as writer, Nicole French, and I had a falling out a few years ago and since then she writes this nonsense.”

She added, “Liberals always try to take our focus away from real issues by doing things like this.”

“I don’t know how I’d ‘fabricate’ a screenshot,” French said in response, noting that someone would have had to hack Olsen’s Facebook account, or she would’ve had to doctor the image.

“I don’t have a personal vendetta,” she said. “If this was someone else posting this in the Central Committee executive board or a Democrat, I would’ve posted it as well.”

The incident recalls the fallout after U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull was accused of racism when he forwarded an email on his government account making light of President Obama’s mixed-race. Nor is this the first time a Tea Party affiliated member in a leadership position in Montana has come under scrutiny for a post made on Facebook.

In 2010 Montana’s Big Sky Tea Party Association leader Tim Ravndal was fired over an insensitive reference to Matthew Shepard, a homosexual who was beaten to death and then tied to a fence post. The remarks stemmed from a Facebook conversation about gay marriage.

One commenter had written, “I think fruits are decorative. Hang up where they can be seen and appreciated. Call Wyoming for display instructions.”

Ravndal replied, “Where can I get that Wyoming printed instruction manual?”

Big Sky Tea Party Chairman Jim Walker responded to the public outcry that followed in a statement:

“The discussion in that Facebook conversation is entirely outside the position of the Big Sky Tea Party. Even though Mr. Ravndal was having a personal conversation and made no reference to our group, we felt strongly that swift and decisive action was required as we cannot accept that sort of behavior from within our membership, let alone from an officer of the corporation.”

“We continually make it known that we will not tolerate bigoted dialog, behavior or messages at our functions, our meetings or within our ranks. If a person demonstrates bigotry relative to race, sex, ethnicity, etc. they are not welcome in our organization. The Tea Party movement is about standing up for individual freedom for everyone.”

While Judge Cebull and Ravndal were immediately apologetic when their online indiscretions were made public, Olsen supporters claimed the picture did not have racial implications after it was posted by French on the Yellowstone County Republicans Facebook page for their review. French said the posting was up for about an hour before she was subsequently banned from the group and it was taken down.

According to Ms. French’s screenshot of the page, Congressional Committeeman Brian Kenat wrote to French on the Facebook page, “You’re the one being racist by saying a watermelon under a box is. If you cut up a watermelon and stuck it under a box, you’d be more likely to trap a child.”

Joe Bailey, a vice chairman of the YCRCC, chastised French as a Democrat and drug dealer for her support of medical marijuana, claiming she was a “failure of a person” before writing, “I feel sorry for your daughter.”

When informed of Olsen’s alleged posting, former representative of House District 47 James Knox wrote to French that it was “a funny take on a picture. If you think that is racist then you got problems. Personally, it would have been better if it was over a gun.”

However, like French, not all Republicans are eager to claim the joke wasn’t racist. “It was completely unacceptable,” said Republican Josh Daniels, the precinct committeeman for House District 47A.

A.J. Otjen, who ran against Denny Rehberg during the last Senate primaries, said such images do nothing to gain adherents. She said, “I think it’s indicative of the wrong direction of the party and the people who want to go in that direction.”

Mr. Daniels said, “I disagree with Obama on just about everything you can think of, but you just don’t bring in a person’s race. That doesn’t solve anything; it just brings hate towards you. (Olsen’s) supposed to be representing the party for the people of this county, and she failed us. We’re the party of Lincoln, who got rid of the slaves and did a lot for blacks and their civil rights when the Democrats were against it.”

Both Otjen and Daniels vouch for the integrity of French, doubting she’d fabricate such a Facebook posting regarding Olsen. When informed of Olsen’s denial, Mr. Daniels said, “Of course she said that, because she got caught.”

“I think for someone who is supposed to be the head of the GOP in this county, it’s just not something we stand for. There’s no way we’re going to be gaining younger voters and GOP members if they keep acting like this. All it does is run people away, and makes us look like rednecks.”

UPDATE: The official response from the Republican Central Committee:

The Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee is fully aware of the media coverage regarding the alleged Facebook posting by its’ sitting Chairwoman.  In no way, shape, or form do the Yellowstone County Republicans condone nor accept the use of stereotypes from its’ members in either their personal or political lives.  The committee investigates any allegation made against a member and due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, we are approaching the situation methodically.  Our chairwoman has received several death threats related to this allegation, which at this time remains an allegation pending further investigation.  Because of the nature of these threats, the sensitivity of this situation is heightened.  It is widely known that hacking is used to apply fraudulent posts in social media frequently. This alleged posting has not been corroborated by any of the over 1,000 friends following the chairwoman’s personal Facebook at the time or any other witnesses.  Ms. Olsen has never demonstrated this of her character to anyone on the board or in public to our knowledge.  We believe that asking Ms. Olsen to step down as Chairwoman at this time would be premature, unnecessary, and unwarranted.  As the matter progresses we will adjust our approach as necessary in a proper and justified manner which portrays the key values of our local Republican party.


Up with Lee

A fairly upbeat assessment of Lee Enterprises’ financial prospects.

Key quote:

Lee is most certainly not a blue-chip company and the glory days of the newspaper publishing business are most certainly over. However, we also believe that the worst for Lee is over and we don’t expect it to buy any other newspaper chains at 25X TTM FCFs using debt like it did with Pulitzer in 2005. Lee has been able to keep its EBITDA stable since it bottomed out in 2009. Although Lee’s revenue has been steadily sagging since 2006, it has been able to offset these headwinds with lower operating costs. Lee has also mitigated its print revenue declines with its revenue from its digital advertising and circulation programs.

Over the line

If Montanafesto has this right, it should end Jennifer Olsen’s political activities in Montana.

Of course, at Rockin’ on the Right Side, this will be viewed as just another sign of liberal racism.

UPDATE: In response to a question from one of our freelancers, Jennifer Olsen says by email that this blog post “is absolutely not true.” More to follow.

I’ve ranged, and now I ramble

Over at “Big Sky, By and By,” Ed Kemmick rightly takes note of my unsophisticated affection for Jimmie Rodgers’ “I’ve Ranged, I’ve Roamed and I’ve Traveled.”  It’s true that I am a musical naif; I’ve often said that if human beings communicated solely by musical notes instead of with words, I would be functionally illiterate. But perhaps some history is in order.

My father loved country music, Jimmie Rodgers above all. In 1964 (when I was 13) my father fulfilled a lifelong dream by hauling us — wife and four boys — all off to Nashville to see the Grand Ole Opry. I don’t remember too much about it, except that it lasted about 8,000 hours, and it was sweltering in the old Ryman Auditorium, and I remember Dave “Stringbean” Akeman in his ridiculous costume and Porter Waggoner in his even more ridiculous costume.

My memory tells me that we drove around town aimlessly for a while after the show, but since that is something we never did, I’m sure that’s a false memory. We were probably just trying to find the motel. Anyway, on the radio came on one of those old half-hour commercials for a two-record Jimmie Rodgers set, in which an occasional song was interrupted by several minutes of sales pitch. That’s when I first heard “I’ve Ranged, I’ve Roamed and I’ve Traveled” — as part of a cornball sales pitch on an AM country station while riding around Nashville in a packed car after a long, hot summer night at the Grand Ole Opry.

We fell for the song — and for the pitch. Not long afterward, we ordered both records as a gift for my father, and eventually they came to me. “I’ve Ranged, I’ve Roamed and I’ve Traveled” became, and remains, the only Jimmie Rodgers’ song I can confidently sing by heart, except for the yodel.

I won’t deny that there was always something just a tad ironic in my affection for the song. Still, the affection is genuine: It’s a sharp piece of story telling that mixes nostaglia, sentiment, innocence and pure cornpone all into one guileless little package. It really is about as universal a story of its time as it could be: Restless country boy heads off to the big city, gets into trouble, and spends the rest of his life trying to get back home. We spend our fancy, modern lives disappointing our mothers: That’s what this song is all about.

Not that Jimmie ever spent much time thinking that through. He just pulled it right out of that storehouse in his heart and strummed along.

Banned for life

Apparently I have been banned altogether from Tom Balek’s Rockin’ on the Right Side. Responding to his recent post claiming that fans of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” are low-information voters, I noted that studies have shown that “Daily Show” fans are, in fact, relatively high-information voters. I even provided a link, which I won’t bother to reproduce here, making the case. Just to make things even easier for him, I also threw in a bit of snark, noting his reluctance to let facts get in the way of his opinions.

Out it all went: facts, links, snark and all. Maybe he doesn’t like me. Could it be because I called him a liar and a racist? But as I noted in that post, I applied exactly the same standard of evidence in making my claim that he applied in claiming that Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice are liars and that the New York Times is racist. In short, no standard at all.

I remain perfectly willing to either withdraw my claims or provide evidence for them as soon as he either withdraws his claims or provides evidence for them. Until then, I suppose, we remain in a standoff — one that you apparently will never read about on his site.