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A media mess, its lessons

This is what happens when ideologically focused noise machines are treated like real news outlets.

But there are still potent lessons for media — and media consumers — in 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.

Sherrod spent much of last week speaking out to rescue her reputation, dragged through the gutter thanks to a heavily edited video of a speech she gave in March at an NAACP banquet, in which the then-USDA official admitted defeating her own racial prejudices to help a white farmer save his farm from bankruptcy in the 1980s.

Conservative activist Andrew Breitbart posted on one of his websites the heavily edited video, which focused on Sherrod's admission that she initially didn't do all she could to help the 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 other websites, blogs and Fox News Channel pundit Bill O'Reilly swung into action, blasting Sherrod and demanding she be ousted from her job.

Reality emerged Tuesday, as CNN featured Sherrod explaining what she really said, backed by the white farmer she helped and a full tape of the speech finally unearthed by the NAACP. But the actual meaning of her speech, in which she also recounted how her father was killed by a white man who was never punished 45 years ago, wasn't reported soon enough to keep Sherrod's superiors from demanding her resignation.

This is what I suspect Breitbart and similar activists intend: unveiling video so explosive, amplified through hundreds of like-minded platforms, that media outlets are pushed to jump on the story without properly vetting it. 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 as quickly as possible with a resignation or similar action.

Unfortunately, much of the press coverage following revelations that Sherrod's words were misrepresented focused on missteps by the Obama administration and the NAACP and not the media frenzy that kicked all this off in the first place.

Worst of all, we news consumers may be part of the problem. Studies conducted in 2005 and 2006 at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, it often made their beliefs in the inaccuracies stronger, particularly if they were politically partisan. And the aggressively right-friendly commentary on Fox News prime time earns the highest ratings in cable news.

So as left-leaning MSNBC competes with Fox News and the liberal media watchdog Media Matters squares off against conservative media watchers, the perception that the news audience wants content reflecting its own beliefs grows. And subjects like Sherrod can get chewed up in the process.

Indeed, Sherrod's case shows exactly why fair-minded news outlets should be careful — taking time to make sure 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 lessons we should learn from Sherrod:

The irony of a black president who can't talk about race: As the midterm elections approach, President Barack Obama has more pressure than ever to avoid subjects that might spook the independent voters needed by Democrats to hold onto Congress. This 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. So it is interesting to see some conservatives 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.

Conservative pundit Glenn Beck has already reserved the National Mall, site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech, for a rally by the tea party, which opposes many of the government efforts to erase racism and poverty that King championed.

From this perspective, 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, conservatives are doing the talking.

The power of withholding context: Sherrod's speech 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 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 speech's message about realizing the problems she was working on were more about class than race was actually applauded by the banquet audience, further countering notions the group was celebrating anti-white sentiments.

Our inability to know how to even talk about race: Some people seem to think that noting a mistake based in prejudice is the equivalent of calling someone a racist. Or that even talking about prejudice is "playing the race card" or seeking some unfair advantage.

But, again, Sherrod's case showed it is possible even for people dedicated to fighting for racial equality to make a mistake based in unfair racial assumptions, and that talking about those examples help us all better understand the issues at hand.

The question left now: Whether an increasingly partisan media culture can handle these issues any better, now that Sherrod's ugly experience is behind them.

A media mess, its lessons 07/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 23, 2010 3:53pm]
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