Pedestrian killed here signHmmm. Whose fault would that have been?Photo: Peter DuttonWhen pedestrians get killed by drivers, who is to blame?

Well, if you read the Washington Examiner, you might be surprised to learn that a slight nationwide increase in pedestrian fatalities could be the fault of Michelle Obama and her “Let’s Move” campaign. Because, you know, isn’t everything?

This absurd implication would almost be worth ignoring completely, except that it has been gleefully picked up and run with by influential conservative blog The Daily Caller.

Another interesting thing about the story, as reported on the D.C. news blog TBD, is the reaction of the person whose quote is used to back up the absurdity. Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), said in an interview with TBD that she didn’t mean any such thing:

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In fact, Harsha tells us, she didn’t tell the Examiner that at all. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. According to Harsha, the First Lady’s fitness campaign never even came up in her discussion with [reporter Scott] McCabe. “Absolutely not,” she says, adding that she actually supports the “Let’s Move” campaign.

But as McCabe points out to us, the Obama nugget came from the GHSA’s pitch to him for the story, which he passed along:  “Why the increase? We don’t really know but speculate that it could be a couple factors. One is the possible increase in distracted pedestrians and distracted drivers. We’ve been focusing on the drivers, but perhaps we need to focus some attention on distracted walkers! Additionally, Mrs. Obama and others have been bringing attention to ‘get moving’ programs, so perhaps pedestrian exposure has increased.”

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Harsha says her theorizing to the Examiner never went beyond the predictable and mundane: More people seem to be walking and running, particularly while listening to music or fiddling with their smartphones, and not paying attention to traffic signals. “What we were trying to say is if people do walk more, there’s more risk,” says Harsha. “We’re concerned with the increase in pedestrian fatalities, and we need to monitor it. Maybe some education needs to be done for people who are into physical fitness.”

There are a lot of things to hate about this story: The reflexive demonization of the First Lady. The manufacturing of a trend out of very thin statistical fabric. The blaming of victims who can’t defend themselves.

But what might be most depressing about the whole ridiculous thing is that in this country, merely wanting to walk from one place to another can qualify you as being “into physical fitness.”

UPDATE: I spoke this afternoon to Barbara Harsha of the GHSA about the way the story played out. When I asked her if she thought she had been misquoted she said, “I definitely feel I was misquoted, and I’m beginning to think it was intentional.”

Here’s what she had to say about her organization’s report: “We issued a report today about the slight increase in pedestrian fatalities based on six months’ worth of 2010 data,” Harsha said. “We are concerned about it, and we have some theories about why there may be an increase. One of which is that we think there are more distracted pedestrians out there, and we have some anecdotal information about that. The other is that, with all the emphasis on physical fitness and addressing obesity, hopefully people will be walking more. If they walk more there’s going to be more exposure to risk. Which doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t walk. If there is more walking, people should do it in a careful manner, in a safe manner. They should be cognizant of their surroundings, they should pay attention to traffic and traffic signals. They should put down their iPods or cell phones and pay attention because they’re at risk for fatality or injury.”

I asked if the emphasis in some media outlets on Michelle Obama came as a surprise to her. “It does and it’s very disappointing,” Harsha told me. “You know, these are nonpartisan issues. Addressing the issues is something that people of both parties or any party should be interested in doing. It’s a politicization of an issue and I think that’s very sad…. It may change who we talk to in the future.”

More perspective on the GHSA report and its handling by the media can be found at the always excellent Greater Greater Washington.