Shirley Sherrod, race and media: How ideologically slanted media organizations are hurting America
The sad case of Shirley Sherrod -- a black woman whose story of overcoming her own prejudice was perverted into a false example of racism by a media savvy conservative activist -- provides an important lesson for journalists and news consumers, if we're willing to heed it.
Sherrod was busy this morning speaking out on the network morning shows to rescue her reputation, dragged through the gutter over the past day or so thanks to a heavily-edited video of a speech she gave in March at an NAACP banquet, in which the former USDA official admitted overcoming her own racial prejudices to help a white farmer save his farm from bankruptcy in the 1980s.
Conservative activist Andrew Breitbart posted the video on one of his websites, heavily edited to focus on Sherrod's admission that she initially didn't do all she could to help this white farmer. The story fit the case conservatives have been itching to make against organizations like the NAACP -- that they have morphed from fighting against oppression to enabling reverse racism -- so Fox News Channel swung into action, blasting Sherrod and demanding she be ousted from her job.
By the time Sherrod herself had spoken out, the white farmer had defended her in numerous interviews and the NAACP found the full tape of her speech -- in which she also recounted how her father was killed by a white man who was never punished 45 years ago -- the political pressure had pushed Sherrod's superiors into demanding her resignation.(Click here for brief bio on Sherrod)
This, of course, is what I suspect Breitbart and similar activists intend; unveiling video so explosive that media outlets are pushed to jump on the story without properly vetting it, amplified through hundreds of like-minded platforms. Mainstream media outlets get sucked into the frenzy by allegations that moving slowly is evidence of liberal bias, while all involved are pressured to shut down the story quickly as possible with a resignation or similar action.
So why are TV reports this morning centered on the Obama administration, and not the media frenzy which kicked all this off in the first place?
On the Today show this morning, initial discussion centered on questions about how the NAACP and Obama administration could have moved so quickly to criticize Sherrod without vetting the story. Good Morning America did talk media, offering Breitbart (left) in a debate with liberal media analyst Eric Boehlert after a story on conservative media's recent take on race issues.
But Breitbart wasn't even asked directly how he got the video clip he initially posted or why it lacked context and distorted her message (he did tell the liberal blog Talking Points Memo that the video was sent to him already edited).
Instead, Breitbart talked on GMA about other videos he has presented which supposedly invalidate allegations Tea Party supporters shouted racial epithets at black Congressmen during the vote on health care legislation. Again, the best question wasn't asked: Since the Sherrod video turned out to be misleading, why should anyone trust any other videos Breitbart produces?
Tantalizing as the political questions are, shouldn't someone be asking why organizations such as Fox News Channel -- a cable channel with "news" in its title -- passed along the clip without vetting it? This, in the end, is the value of transparency in media organizations; so you know why something happened when they get a story wrong.
This morning, Fox and Friends featured a former USDA secretary from the Bush administration recycling the current talking points on this issue, blaming the Obama administration for mishandling the controversy and the NAACP for sparking the issue with its criticism of racist elements inside the Tea Party movement.
"The president has surrounded himself with people out of the mainstream," said Ed Schafer, the former USDA secretary this morning. "The NAACP made a statement, they kinda created this situation...This is a charged atmosphere because of what the NAACP has done." So the nation's oldest civil rights organization is at fault because it asked a political party to denounce racism? (to be fair, Sherrod herself has also blamed the NAACP for sparking the fight with conservative activists)
Not a word during that segment about Fox News' complicity in passing along the story or its own failure to vet the allegations. Here's a story from Fox News' Special Report posted Tuesday which also doesn't acknowledge the channel's role in spreading the story and barely mentions Breitbart.
Fox News has also spent lots of time talking about the decision to narrow prosecution of New Black Panther Party members accused of intimidating voters at a polling place during the 2008 election.
Once again, mainstream news outlets have been accused of bias in moving slowly to cover a story trumpeted by ideologically slanted media outlets -- the Washington Post's ombudsman even chided his own newspaper for moving too slowly on the story. (Click here to see Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz ask CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer about allegations from Fox anchor Megyn Kelly he missed the story during an interview with Attorney General Eric Holder)
But Sherrod's case shows exactly why fair-minded news outlets should be careful -- taking time to make sure these stories trumpeted by media outlets with clear political agendas are examined carefully. It's time to put the brakes on a runaway media culture open to manipulation and subversion; outlets moving slowly on stories shouldn't necessarily be penalized.
A few other things which occur to me about this:
The irony of a black president who can't talk about race -- As the midterm elections approach, President Obama has more pressure than ever to avoid subjects which might spook the independent voters Democrats need to hold onto Congress. Which means he must choose his words on race carefully; keeping the politician who has achieved one of biggest victories against prejudice in our nation's history from talking openly about the issue with the American people.
The effort by some conservatives to invalidate the modern civil rights movement -- One of the few things America has agreed on in recent years is the moral righteousness of the early civil rights movement and its victories against segregation and racism in the 1960s. So it is interesting to watch the modern strategies of some conservative activists, who seek to position themselves as modern civil rights activists fighting against so-called reverse racism, while taking aim at the current model of traditional civil rights heroes such as the NAACP. In this world, the election of the first black president isn't evidence of progress but subversion, and talking about race issues is equivalent to race-baiting. Unless, of course, they are doing the talking.
The power of withholding context -- It is amazing how the impact of Sherrod's story changed as more details emerged. In fact, her story described an encounter from 24 years ago, when the federal government was facing allegations it had systematically denied black farmers access to loans that it was giving to white farmers. Sherrod had been on the front lines of helping black farmers deal with these issues in the 1980s, and admitted she was bewildered when asked to help a white farmer in similar circumstances. Her message in the speech was that working on his case helped her realize what was happening then wasn't a race issue but a money and class issue -- a point she made clumsily but powerfully. Ironically, that's a message some conservatives would likely applaud, if they had taken time to figure out what she was really saying.
The lack of accountability in media organizations -- As cable newschannels profit by echoing and amplifying the political viewpoints of their target audiences, their value as news organizations plummet. Reporting on Sherrod's case without looking closely at media's role in amplifying it misses the biggest aspect of the story, moving the incident into the more comfortable confines of politics rather than news outlet's own conflicted values and compromised news judgments.
If you're still reading, check out Sherrod's full speech below, posted on the NAACP's website: