How a Grinnell fender-bender fueled a misleading campaign narrative

Zach Spindler-Krage is a reporter for the Scarlet & Black, the student-run newspaper for Grinnell College. He is a third year political science student from Rochester, Minnesota and has written for the Minnesota Reformer, MinnPost, Post Bulletin, and Duluth News Tribune.

An exceptionally conservative presidential candidate. A distinctly liberal college. I probably should have recognized that Vivek Ramaswamy’s event in Grinnell was a recipe for disaster. 

If I had to hypothesize, I would guess Ramaswamy was prepared to capitalize on the politically-charged situation, strategically thinking of ways to engage young people who don’t hesitate to speak out against perceived injustices.

His interactions with students appeared to follow a formula. His goal was to evoke a reaction, often by remaining unemotional and uncaring while discussing important topics to students. Whether it was LGBTQ+ activists, public school supporters, or Ukrainian students, he knew how to solicit visceral responses, carefully documented by campaign staffers recording every interaction from multiple camera angles. With content in hand, he could take to social media, mischaracterizing interactions and ignoring facts.

For example, one X/Twitter post by Ashley St. Clair of the conservative satirical site Babylon Bee shows a student talking to Ramaswamy about climate change. The caption reads, “After the irrational Ukraine kids got tired and dispersed, a more respectful young man walked along with Vivek to argue about his views on climate change. They actually seemed to reach a common area of agreement at the end.”

After being amplified by Ramaswamy and his campaign’s “war room,” St. Clair’s original post has garnered 4.8 million views to date. Yet her caption was disingenuous, suggesting the two reached an agreement without any evidence to support that notion. Through this post, the campaign also forced this student to become a standard for rationality.

It’s on par with Ramaswamy’s messaging: you are either an irrational liberal who disagrees with him, or a rational American who supports him.

If the campaign needs to edit videos or lie in the captions in order to make an interaction fit their narrative, they have no moral misgivings. They do what is necessary to draw attention and advance their interests, even if it means using students as pawns, with no respect for their genuine opinions or desires.

With that in mind, I should not have been surprised when Ramaswamy and his campaign put forth a clear lie about the car accident that occurred prior to the event in Grinnell on Thursday, October 5. The accident took place when a driver backed out of her parking spot, incidentally contacting a campaign vehicle parked across the street. The campaign claimed that: (1) the incident was intentional, (2) the student was affiliated with a group of protesters, and (3) the driver fled the scene.

In reality, the situation was vastly different. The driver was clearly distracted by Ramaswamy’s arrival and did not look behind her or in her rear-view mirror. As she backed out, she scraped her right bumper on the left bumper of the campaign car.

Drawing provided by Zach Spindler-Krage showing how the fender-bender in Grinnell occurred

It was apparent that: (1) the accident was unintentional, (2) the driver did not know it was Ramaswamy’s car, (3) she was unaffiliated with protesters, and (4) she remained at the scene to talk with police.

And yet, the media ran with the campaign’s story, refusing to take the time to verify the account or talk to the involved parties.

More than anything, I see this episode as a reminder that national media will choose speed over accuracy far too often. If local reporters had not been present, the truth of the situation may not have come to light. Even with our clarification of facts, the initial inaccurate stories may have already shaped many people’s view of the fender-bender.

It is unfortunate—because of incomplete reporting, a young woman can become the target of personal attacks, and a candidate can promote his narrative of violent, irrational liberals targeting him.

Yet, as the Grinnell Police Chief told me during my investigation into Ramaswamy’s illegal parking, “Facts are good.” Indeed they are.

I cannot necessarily change the way people think about the incident. But I have a duty as a journalist to portray the facts as accurately as possible. So that is what I did.

The following is a shortened version of an article by Zach Spindler-Krage and Eleanor Corbin, which the Scarlet & Black published on October 5: “It was truly just an accident”: Students who hit Ramaswamy’s car speak out after media frenzy

(click through to read the original article)

The Grinnell College student accused of crashing her car into the back of a Vivek Ramaswamy presidential campaign vehicle on Thursday afternoon said it was an accident, not the purposeful crash national media, notably conservative outlets, first reported it to be.

Celia Meagher `23.5, the accused student, also said she was not affiliated with a protest group that engaged with Ramaswamy in Grinnell and that she did not leave the scene of the crash.

The Republican presidential candidate was in Grinnell to record a KCCI “Coffee with the Candidates” roundtable discussion with three undecided Poweshiek County Republican voters at Saints Rest Coffee House.

In an incident that has since been covered by major national news outlets, the S&B exclusively interviewed Meagher. She provided a perspective on the Oct. 5 incident that differs from current media reports. Meagher said that the information she could provide was limited by the insurance process.

“It was not an intentional accident whatsoever,” Meagher said.

A media release from the Grinnell Police Department states that they have not found any evidence to substantiate the current narrative of this incident being intentional.

“It was truly just an accident. We were completely unaffiliated with the protestors, ” said Nic Grofsorean `24, Meagher’s partner, in response to media characterization which he says is inaccurate.

An Associated Press (AP) news article on the incident has been published with the headline, “Protestors angry about Ukraine aid comments ram his empty car in Iowa, Campaign Says.” The AP story has now also been published by the Washington Post, Yahoo News and U.S. News and World Report.

It cites Ramaswamy’s campaign saying that, “protestors upset about Vivek Ramaswamy’s remarks on aid for Ukraine yelled and swore at the presidential candidate in Iowa on Thursday before jumping into a vehicle, ramming a campaign car and speeding off.”

Fox News also reported this incident as a “hit-and-run.”

Meagher said that, following the crash, “We [Meagher and Grofsorean] just moved over and waited for the police.”

In a tweet now pinned to his X, formerly Twitter, profile, Ramaswamy said, “Had a civil exchange with protests today, right before two of them then got into their car & rammed it into ours. Those two should be held accountable, but the rest of the peaceful protestors shouldn’t be tarred by the behavior of two bad actors.”

Grinnell Police Department corroborated the accidental nature of the incident in a media release, stating, “It was reported on social media that two protestors intentionally rammed into the Ramaswamy vehicle and fled the scene. Our investigation has revealed no evidence to substantiate that information.”

The S&B was at Saints Rest, while media carrying the initial AP story or spreading a photo of the damaged campaign car on social media were not.

The following is a shortened version of an article by Zach Spindler-Krage, which the Scarlet & Black published on October 6: Exclusive: Ramaswamy’s vehicle was parked illegally during Grinnell accident; police and driver refute misleading accounts of the incident

(click through to read the original article)

Vivek Ramaswamy’s campaign vehicle was parked illegally when it was hit in Grinnell, Iowa on Thursday, October 5, according to Grinnell Police Chief Michael McClelland. Before authorities could assess the scene, campaign officials quickly relocated the vehicle without informing police of its original parking location.

Ramaswamy, a Republican presidential candidate, was in Grinnell for the recording of a KCCI roundtable discussion with undecided Republican voters. Prior to the 1:00 p.m. event, a student backed into his campaign’s 17.5-foot Ford Expedition, which was parked in a no-parking zone designated by diagonal white stripes.

The failure to provide the police with a complete account of the now widely reported incident further complicates matters for Ramaswamy and his campaign. They have recently faced backlash for offering inconsistent narratives which starkly contrasts with the accounts of witnesses and law enforcement officers. 

“They’re not supposed to be parked there,” McClelland said in an exclusive interview with the S&B. “And I don’t believe they told Officer [Dalton Kies] they were parked there during the accident.” Kies was the officer who responded to the scene and completed the accident report. McClelland added that the campaign did not previously request—nor were they granted—special parking privileges. 

The Ramaswamy campaign has not shared any images depicting the vehicle’s position in relation to the line markings with the media or police. The campaign did not respond to a request for comment from the S&B regarding why they moved the vehicle before police arrived. 

Photographs taken by the S&B show that there were open parking spaces on the same street. Additional photographs show that the vehicle was also likely within five feet of a fire hydrant, in violation of the Code of Ordinances of the City of Grinnell, Iowa. Furthermore, according to section 321.361 of the Code of Iowa, no diagonally parked vehicle is allowed to extend into the roadway more than 16 feet when measured at right angles to the adjacent curb.

“It’s scary and overwhelming,” Meagher said, referring to what has transpired since the accident. “People were able to get my phone number so easily. I’ve been getting calls and texts all throughout the day.”

Daily Wire podcaster Michael Knowles offered his take on the incident, calling the driver a “punk” and saying that they should “rot in prison for years” for “political violence” that is “along the spectrum of assassination.”

Meagher said that the unfortunate part of the situation is that if she had bumped into any other illegally parked car, she would have been able to move on without any media attention or further complications. 

“I’ve been trying to avoid reading any media coverage,” Meagher said, referencing what she believes has been misleading coverage.

McClelland said that despite the location of Ramaswamy’s vehicle, Meagher was still at fault for the accident. Meagher said that she has already paid her fine.

Top photo of Zach Spindler-Krage provided by the author and published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Zach Spindler-Krage

  • I don’t believe either story

    What is missing from the student newspaper story is, why was Meagher at the same location as Vivek’s campaign? Had she attended Vivek’s talk? Not addressing these simple questions and stating that Meagher was unaffiliated with the protesters sounds shallow.

    • that's a valid question

      But it is a busy street in downtown Grinnell. Lots of people were in that area without attending his event or being involved with the protest.

      • Of course

        Point taken. It is great that a student paper sheds light on the character of the communications of a National campaign. And Zach has plenty of time to grow his journalism skills.

        • I asked Zach about this

          He explained, “Fair question. She was eating/picking up lunch at the deli that is connected to the coffee shop where the event was hosted. She did not know Vivek was going to be there. Those details are in the police statement, linked in both stories.”

  • Zach, thank you for this story...

    …and congratulations on your Udall honorable mention and Minnesota work. (I check out Grinnell College news stories occasionally.) When POTUS candidates visit Grinnell in the future, may they park where they are supposed to park and be more truthful.