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.
Olsen denied she posted the photo, calling it a “fabrication” 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 the Montanafesto blog was a close-up picture that featured just Olsen’s name and the 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 stating, “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 incident.
“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.”