The REAL lesson of the Shirley Sherrod story
So it turns out that a blogger edited a speech given by a mid level Department of Agriculture employee in a way that made her look like a racist. He released the doctored account, and a media feeding frenzy ensued, led by FOX News. Notably, the blogger is explicit about his intent in presenting the out-of-context tape: he intended to attack the NAACP, where Ms. Sherrod spoke, because the NAACP had accused elements of the tea party movement of being racists.
As it happens, I was only tangentially aware of this when the story broke: I was traveling in Wisconsin, and when I listened to the broadcast of her comments on FOX radio, I couldn’t hear a thing for all the mike feedback.
Then, in the kind of piling on and gut check reactions that so characterize political life today, Ms. Sherrod got fired by her boss and got publicly upbraided by the President of the United States. Not, to say the least, how any of us might wish to be fired—if we were going to be fired.
Notably, both Secretary Vilsack and President Obama, through their spokespeople, claimed to be proud of their swift action in eliminating a racist from the Department of Agriculture. Indeed, one admitted that firing Ms. Sherrod was proactively required by the media environment today: waiting to discuss the issue, or otherwise taking time to assess what she said and why she said it, was expected to create a media firestorm. Firing Ms. Sherrod would, it was assumed, kill the story instantly.
Ah, sweet irony: Ms Sherrod’s story was taken wildly out of context, and she was not only not a racist, she was the kind of real world hero who both helped a farmer she had racist feelings about, and engaged in the kind of personal soul searching that, at its best, makes all of us better persons. Firing her to kill the story in fact only added fuel to the fire and turned an embarrassment into a nightmare. The Obama administration was, as they say, hoisted on its own petard.
But here’s the thing: what happened to Shirley Sherrod is the inevitable result of the political media culture we’ve built today. One seeks to be first with a story so that people at large click on your site to find out what’s going on. The more outrageous the better; facts and complicated contexts disappear in a haze of ginned up “events” of alleged depth and meaning. As attention to the “story” builds, “mainstream media” (whatever they are) note the attention paid to it and report it—perhaps obliquely, in the style of “we don’t know if this is true, but lots of people are talking about it,” but now often directly—e.g., “Shirley Sherrod got fired for making racist statements.” Partisans of each side find reinforcement of heir points of views in their niche casted web sites and news outlets. Gawumph: “news.”
It happened to Shirley Sherrod. It happened with the ACORN “pimp tapes.” It happens when Photoshop is used to “make a point” in a campaign or a rally. It is the way we make “news” today.
So will we change it? In the future will we, as President Obama suggested, take the time we need to find out the facts of the case before making judgments and taking action? Will we, in other words, look before we leap in this modern era of instantaneous communication and global competition?
I’ll put my answer this way: if you think the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.