News next: a journalism teacher's diary

August 4, 2010

Who crucified Shirley Sherrod?

My cousin Ed is a syndicated cartoonist and winner of Hunter's Aronson Award for Social Justice. Here's his view.

My father used to say it took two to produce a news story: one to report and write it, the other to tell him when to stop. He was trying to teach a lesson about deadlines, but his observation also illuminates the truth that reporters hardly ever know all there is to know about a story.

Journalistic judgment calls for knowing when you know enough. But if that’s so, is the corollary also true: must reporters and their editors also decide when they don’t know enough? Is there a point at which a news organization shouldn’t publish what it knows?

The Sherrod video

In July, the White House fired Shirley Sherrod from her post as the Department of Agriculture’s Georgia State Director of Rural Development after rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a video labeled “Bigotry in their ranks,” which he said provided “evidence of racism coming from a federal appointee and NAACP award recipient.”

The video, of a Sherrod speech at a regional NAACP banquet, appeared to show her boasting that she had given a white farmer facing foreclosure less help than she gave to black farmers, and left the impression that she was referring to her current position at the USDA.

Posted on Monday, July 19, the video quickly went viral as an illustration of the familiar conservative talking point that liberals practice reverse discrimination and African-Americans are reverse racists. Among those who aired it on-line were Fox News and CBS News. By the next morning, Sherrod had been ordered to submit her resignation. An hour later, the NAACP’s president denounced her (the organization has removed the statement from its website).

But by July 21, it was clear that the two-plus minute video plucked from a 45-minute talk was a lie. The video of the full talk shows that meeting that white farmer changed her heart. A deeply religious woman, she told that story as a pilgrim’s progress from spiritual blindness to light.

In her speech, she prefaces the tale—which unfolded not this year, but 24 years ago–by saying when she made the commitment to work in Southwest Georgia “I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only, but you know God will show you things and he’ll put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people.”

“Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who versus those who don’t, you know, and they can be black, they can be white, they can be Hispanic and it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people—those who don’t have access the way others have.”

The question may seem quaint in the era of the 24-hour news cycle and the unsleeping blogosphere, where the pressure is always to publish at once and worry about correcting mistakes later. But the ordeal of Shirley Sherrod, the black government official falsely accused of racism, offers an object lesson in the consequences of a policy of publishing first and reporting afterward.

Most commentators blamed the White House and NAACP for rushing to judgment, without recognizing that Sherrod had been smeared by a notorious rightwing blogger and without checking the accuracy of his report. But there is plenty of blame to be shared–among the news media and the academic enablers of a culture that exalts the blogger as a populist slayer of elitist professional reporting.

As some have pointed out, the Obama administration’s headlong rush to judgment was not an example of a mistake but of a carefully-considered strategy—one that in turn owes its formulation to the new media environment.

Politicians seek to own the news cycle. The lesson they drew from the 2004 Swift Boat campaign against presidential candidate John Kerry is that they must react instantaneously or negative news will dominate for hours or days.

Faced with the spread of the Sherrod video on-line and the prospect that it would soon be on cable news, the administration followed its playbook, ousting Sherrod to get in front of the story.

Howard Kurtz, the influential press critic of The Washington Post, defended Fox News , noting that it didn’t broadcast the truncated Sherrod clip until after she resigned. But Fox and CBS had already posted the clip on their websites, Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly had already called for her to be fired, and Sherrod’s boss instructed aides to move fast because he believed Glenn Beck was going to use the video on air.

So we have a chicken-and-egg situation: politicians react to on-line news or to a story they know is coming; the reaction then becomes news, and the justification for publishing or perpetuating untruths. Media and politics: which is the chicken, which the egg?

Some distinguished academics earn their living by celebrating every layoff in the nation’s newsrooms as they look forward to the day when “the people formerly known as the audience” or bloggers rebranded as “citizen journalists” have supplanted “legacy media.” They have been notably silent about this sorry example of “process” over “product.”

Jeff Jarvis of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism argues that technology changes the standards. “Online, the story, the reporting, the knowledge are never done and never perfect,” he writes. The report can be provisional because unlike a newspaper or broadcast, it can be endlessly corrected and augmented.

“At my school,” he writes, “we say we teach what we call the eternal verities of journalism. But I also try to make sure the students are open to new worldviews and new methods and means of journalism. Those can come from bloggers and from the public we serve.”

It’s a vision that naively assumes that all bloggers are people of good will–or, if they are not, their distortions and falsehoods will be revealed by other bloggers.

A more realistic view comes from the bete noire of the Internet triumphalists–The New York Times–whose columnist David Carr noted that the

Web-enabled system of news . . . was supposed to bring accountability and real-time fact-checking to current events. But the velocity that is the medium’s chief feature is less a tool of efficacy than instigation, in part because both the current administration and mainstream media have developed a hair-trigger response after getting run over by stories that seemed to come out of nowhere.

The wisdom of crowds is no substitute for the wisdom of reflection. It is no substitute for verifying facts, sifting information, uncovering motives. What the Shirley Sherrod episode shows is that our news culture no longer offers the time to get the story right, and–if Jarvis is correct–doesn’t aspire to get it right.

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