Three Democratic congressmen -- all black -- say they heard racial slurs as they walked through thousands of angry protesters outside the U.S. Capitol. A white lawmaker said he heard the epithets, too. Conservative activists say the lawmakers are lying.
What does the video show? Not much. Indeed, new interviews show that a much-viewed YouTube recording cited as evidence by conservatives was actually shot well after the time in question.
It was March 20, near the end of the bitter health care debate, when Reps. John Lewis, Andre Carson and Emanuel Cleaver say that some demonstrators, many of them tea party activists, yelled the N-word as the congressmen walked from House office buildings to the Capitol.
Stung by the charges of racism, conservatives and tea party activists insist it never happened. And one of them is offering big money if anyone can prove it did.
With so many media and citizen cameras at the demonstration, any epithets would have been caught on tape, said Andrew Breitbart. He's the Web entrepreneur who released the video of ACORN workers counseling actors posing as a pimp and prostitute, and has pledged $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund if anyone provides proof of the epithets.
''It didn't happen,'' said Breitbart, who wasn't there. ''This is 2010. Even a racist is media-savvy enough not to yell the N-word.''
The dispute pits the lawmakers -- one of them, Lewis, is a leader and survivor of 1960s civil rights battles -- against conservatives determined to counter claims of racism within the predominantly white and middle-aged tea party movement. The criticism has proven a distraction to a nascent movement pushing a unified message of fiscal conservatism and limited government.
The issue still echoes in the media and blogosphere.
''Listen, I was there,'' Carson, D-Ind., said in an interview. ''In many regards I think (the challenges are) a veiled attempt to justify actions that are simply unjustifiable. I think we need to move toward a dialogue that explores why this kind of divisive and reprehensible language is still making it into our political debate.''
A fourth Democrat, Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, who is white, backed up his colleagues, telling the Hendersonville (N.C.) Times-News that he heard the slurs.
A reconstruction of the events shows that the conservative challenges largely sprang from a mislabeled video that was shot later in the day.
Breitbart posted two columns on his Web site saying the claims were fabricated. Both led with a 48-second YouTube video showing Lewis, Carson, other Congressional Black Caucus members and staffers leaving the Capitol. Some of the group were videotaping the booing crowd.
Breitbart asked why the epithet was not captured by the black lawmakers' cameras, and why nobody reacted as if they had heard the slur. He also questioned whether the epithets could have been shouted by liberals planted in the crowd.
But the 48-second video was shot as the group was leaving the Capitol -- at least one hour after Lewis, D-Ga., and Carson walked to the Capitol, which is when they said the slurs were used.
Questioned about using a video on his Web site from the wrong moment, Breitbart stood by his claim that the lawmakers were lying.
''I'm not saying the video was conclusive proof,'' he said.