Tuned In

Shirley Sherrod and the Summer's Latest Media Shark Attack

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I could tell it was summer yesterday. Not because of the soup-like atmosphere that greets me on opening the door in the morning, or the sweet garbagey fragrance of New York in July, but because the political media was busily living every week like it was Shark Week. The latest example of which was the 24-hour feeding frenzy, freakout and rush to judgment over USDA official Shirley Sherrod.

A summary, if you haven’t been following the story: Andrew Breitbart’s conservative blog, Biggovernment.com, ran an edited video from a speech Sherrod gave at an NAACP meeting, in which she appears to be crowing over her refusal to do as much as she could to help a white farmer, because of his race. Breitbart called the speech both racist itself and proof of the NAACP’s hypocrisy, because its officials have recently charged the Tea Party movement with racism. The clip blew up online and the story was played up by Fox News. Other outlets ran with the story, and the NAACP condemned her remarks. In the ensuing firestorm, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack got Sherrod to resign.

Then a strange thing happened: outlets actually began reporting out the story. In interviews, Sherrod said that the clips Breitbart ran were cherrypicked from a much longer speech that had exactly the opposite message—that she came to realize her error; that the white farmer was a poor man being screwed over by rich people much like the black farmers she had seen lose their farms; and that she eventually did the right thing by helping him out to the best of her ability. (Also, contrary to the text intro to BigGovernment’s video, Sherrod did not actually work for the USDA during the incident she describes.) She further explained how her view of race had been shaped by growing up in a farming community, where she says, when she was 17, her father was murdered by a white man who was never convicted of the crime.

By yesterday afternoon, CNN had tracked down Roger Spooner, the farmer she assisted, and his wife Eloise, both of whom said that Sherrod had saved their farm and deserved her job back. And by yesterday evening, the NAACP had located and posted the full video of Sherrod’s speech, above, which is actually a remarkable personal story about how Americans black, white and otherwise have been damaged by racism and how they can overcome it.

The whole fracas has unsurprisingly inspired a lot of comment (here’s the discussion at TIME’s Swampland politics blog), but here are just a few thoughts, in bullet form:

* By this point, you can trace the pattern of a dust-up like this blindfolded. Conservative outlets (and it is largely conservative outlets) begin whipping up a hot-button “scandal,” preferably accompanied by video: ACORN, the Black Panthers, kids singing a song about Obama at a school event. The video and outrage go viral online, and quickly go into heavy rotation on Fox News, which informs us that “some say” this is evidence that the Obama administration is transforming us into a [socialist/reverse-racist/dictatorial/fill-in-the-blank] state. Also, why isn’t the rest of the media covering this? Because of their liberal bias? Whereupon other media outlets start picking up the story. And away we go…

* Sherrod’s near-immediate resignation—despite the fact that she gave an explanation that was verified on video in less than a day—is an example of how powerful vocal media outlets have become, particularly Fox News, and how cowed the Administration, or at least members of it, are by this outrage machine.

* It’s easy, and justifiable, to criticize the media for how soon and credulously it picked up on a controversy spurred by an obviously edited videotape. But credit where it’s due: CNN and other outlets who pursued the fuller story behind the tape showed the continuing value of old-school digging out the facts.

* That said, no one should kid themselves that unearthing a full videotape resolves any issue in the sphere of partisan political debate. By this morning, some conservative commenters had moved on to backup lines of attack: that the Obama Administration was at fault for acting too quickly (on a controversy that conservative outlets ginned up to begin with); that the vindication of Sherrod’s defense was only proof of the media’s bias, i.e., reporters dug out the truth to help out a liberal; and that, bogus or not, the Sherrod “scandal” was necessary to focus attention on bogus charges of racism against Tea Party conservatives. (Whether those charges are actually bogus or not—whether, say, the Obama-as-witch-doctor sign is racist—I’ll leave aside in the interest of keeping this post under 5000 words.)

* The politics of the story aside, it also demonstrated another unfortunate dynamic in today’s media: the edited story beats the unexpurgated story. Short beats long. The gist beats the context. However the story gets reported from here, the fact remains that plenty of people have seen the “racist” cutdown version of Sherrod’s remarks, and will only see that.

* There’s also a sad dynamic here that goes beyond the news media alone. It’s nearly impossible to talk frankly and honestly about race in this country for fear of being attacked. An honest discussion of racism requires openness and admitting, as Sherrod did, one’s own flawed history and mistakes, warts and all. But who’s going to do that when you know someone could edit down your words to only the warts? The fact is, you could watch the full version of Sherrod’s remarks and still have a debate over whether her analysis of race in this country is right, or whether her audience’s reaction was appropriate. But that requires open-mindedness and sophistication, neither of which are much rewarded in American discussions of race and politics. The prize goes to those who are most quickly and vocally outraged, and everyone quickly learns it’s best to shut up. (Or to save one’s remarks for presumedly friendly audiences, as I suspect Sherrod saw the NAACP meeting.) And that—along with Sherrod’s summarily losing her job—is the biggest damn shame of all here.

* But if there’s one good thing that comes out of all this, it’s that some people will actually watch the full version of Sherrod’s speech, which is really quite remarkable. And maybe even discuss it without attacking one another. Stranger things have happened.