In person, away from the spotlight of a TV camera or stage lights, Shirley Sherrod seems an unassuming, slightly bashful presence — like your grandmother, if she were plunged in the middle of a global, racially charged media scandal.
But watching Sherrod traverse the National Association of Black Journalists convention here Thursday, posing for pictures and accepting compliments from those hailing her stands against a conservative attempt to change the nation's civil rights conversation, I realized she has morphed into something else.
She's become our latest Rorschach test on the issue of race in America. And because this discussion in mostly taking place in media, it's time to demand responsible outlets help us learn to talk about this issue a little better.
For those who believe racism is a persistent problem, Sherrod's forced resignation from a government job last month was a cautionary tale of how far some conservatives will go to take down a civil rights organization. They cheer Sherrod's passionate vow to sue Andrew Breitbart, the conservative who posted video clips that made her speech about racial conciliation look like a support of racism, and have used the incident as an indictment of the country's powerful conservative media structure, especially Fox News Channel.
For those who think race discrimination is mostly in America's past, the media explosion following Sherrod now is an excuse for politically correct posturing. Some say Fox News is being unfairly maligned, since it didn't substantially cover Sherrod until after she was fired, though Fox News executive Michael Clemente did tell Politico "there was a breakdown in the system" when its website published a story on the edited video of Sherrod's remarks an hour before her forced resignation July 19.
In interviewing Sherrod for a special panel discussion at the NABJ conference Thursday, I repeatedly asked her how journalists could do better with such stories. She suggested everyone learn from history and resist attempts to distort it; good advice for any journalist.
"I truly believe we can come together, but you don't get there by not talking to each other," she said during a roundtable discussion that included CNN anchor Don Lemon and MSNBC's Maria Schiavocampo. "You don't get there by pushing things under the rug. You have to continue to fight in a different way."
I agree. But I wonder how much progress we can really make if the talk is mostly just different sides shouting at each other from different, ideologically skewed media outlets?
Later on Thursday, new MSNBC anchor Lawrence O'Donnell asked me to appear on that night's episode of Countdown, which he was guest-hosting for Keith Olbermann. In the interview, I resisted attempts to place blame solely on Fox News for what happened to Sherrod, well aware that both CNN and MSNBC have their own ideological and business reasons for wanting to discuss Fox News' role in the scandal. (Bill O'Reilly even gave me a backhanded compliment for saying the same thing last week on CNN).
There is a war at hand — a conflict over the perception of history, under siege by ideologically driven news outlets willing to twist facts and make inaccurate assumptions to prove their political points.
I understand Sherrod's passion for speaking out against the immense wrong done to her, and I don't blame her for wanting to sue the man who created a controversy that leaves many people still convinced she is a racist.
But the time may have come for less contentious talk from the rest of us, led by a media which might, finally, put aside its addition to conflict and controversy to do some real social good. (This is, I know, an ironic plea from a critic known for challenging conservative pundits on their excesses).
Spare me the insulting talk about how black people need to be quiet about race. If this were just something black people wanted to talk about, cable news channels would focus on their mostly white audiences and ignore it.
Unfortunately, race is the scab America can't stop picking; an itchy friction between black and white that will remain with us for generations. That's why we all, as consumers with more control than ever over media thanks to technology, must get past our anger and indignation and insist websites, cable TV, the networks and print outlets find new way of talking about all this.
Wouldn't it be nice if media helped us find our way, instead of profiting from our divisions?