[Originally published in The Guardian]
The hasty sacking of Shirley Sherrod shows how easily we are manipulated by 'journalism' based on inaccuracies
When Shirley Sherrod spoke at an NAACP event and shared a 24-year-old story of overcoming her prejudices, little did she realise the same speech would come back to in a new, highly edited form, putting her at the centre of a national controversy, costing her a job at the department of agriculture and almost ruining her reputation.
Yet that is exactly what happened this week. Rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart, in cahoots with Fox News, went on a mission – which he claims was to reveal the "truth" about the NAACP – to cause controversy. He took a bite-sized clip from Sherrod's speech, tagged it with a headline accusing her of being a racist and released it to the world.
The clip showed Sherrod, who at the time was the director for rural development in Georgia, saying that she did not use the full force of her power to ensure that a white farmer got everything he needed. "Racist!" screamed the headlines. We now all know, of course, that the clip told only a fraction of the entire story. From the full video, it is clear that once Sherrod realised that her biases – which were connected to having lived and grown up in the South – had affected her job, she sought to overcome them. Once she had managed to do that, she was able to provide great support to the white farmers – who have publicly praised her helpfulness.
That the media picked up on the story, ran with it and repeated it without bothering to check the video in full is deeply troubling. Unfortunately, "journalism" based on the regurgitation of clips, soundbites and inaccuracies has become all too common. Controversy wins the day over facts, and regardless of the cost – which can include damage to the life or career of an individual, undermining the good work of an organisation (as in the case of Acorn) and losing the trust of the public. Indeed, in recognition of the fact that controversy sells, scandals are increasingly being manufactured and manipulated by the rightwing media to push people out of jobs and to scare the government.
Sonia Sotomayor experienced similar treatment over her "wise Latina" comment. Luckily for her, she got the position she wanted. Others have not been so fortunate. Van Jones, for example, the government's former green tsar, went through the same thing and was eventually ousted. Outlets such as Fox News are becoming more and more political and are using their influence to shape and direct – often in the worst possible way – the political debate.
Of course, that can only happen if the White House allows itself to be pushed around by overblown, or in this case false, stories. Yet, that is what the White House is doing. It seems like the White House is so afraid of conservatives now that it is constantly on high alert for anything that may come from the right and catch them off guard. But its efforts to respond quickly – hastily – often end up making the White House look foolish.
President Obama has called Shirley Sherrod to apologise. This is after Sherrod apparently received four calls from the White House earlier this week asking her to resign. While I understand that the White House wishes to protect itself and the president, its knee-jerk reactions have become farcical. This case is also a sad indictment on partisan politics and the nature of the political battle between right and left, which is being reduced to dirty tricks.
That the NAACP, itself supposed to be an organisation concerned with equality, was so fast to denounce Sherrod as "shameful" is another surprising twist – it also had to backtrack once the full video was made available. Rather than taking responsibility for not using due diligence and checking the facts, the NAACP said it had been "snookered" by Breitbart and Fox News. The truth is, the NAACP was not "snookered"; it simply failed to act in a professional manner.
Both the NAACP and the White House's reactions also reveal sensitivities to race-related discussions in this so-called "age of Obama", particularly since it has been suggested – again by rightwing commentators – that the president favours black people and minorities over white people. The national conversation about race is becoming skewed by rightwing scandals and by inappropriate responses from the other side. This is deeply unhelpful.
Shirley Sherrod has been offered another job at the USDA. She may decline. In the meantime, the government and the country as a whole must use this as a teachable momentand reflect on the nature of the media and politics. One thing is for sure: while we allow ourselves to be so easily manipulated, those with an agenda will continue to exert their control.