When Shirley Sherrod heard Eloise Spooner vigorously come to her defense during a CNN segment Tuesday morning with Tony Harris, there were tears in her eyes, she pumped her fist and nodded in vindication. The firestorm that Sherrod had found herself in was really just beginning. It’s all a product of a viral video culture, race, huge lapses in media ethics and the rush to judgment.
Sherrod was forced to resign on Monday from her job as Georgia’s state director for rural development because of a video that surfaced in which she was accused of making “racist” statements during a Douglas County, Ga., NAACP event in late March. The statements were propelled into the national spotlight by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart on his website—an edited video that left out the context, breadth and scope of her remarks.
Moreover, the incident that Sherrod described regarding a white farmer who had come to her for help occurred decades before she held a federal position. Not only did Breitbart not offer the full context or get the facts straight regarding when the incident took place, but also he baited the NAACP at the expense of Sherrod’s livelihood. Fox News ran with it. Agriculture Secretary Ed Vilsack called for her ouster (he took full responsibility on Wednesday).
By Tuesday night, after the NAACP got a copy of the full video from the local TV station that had videotaped the event, we all were given a more complete measure of Shirley Sherrod.
By the time the video, Sherrod and the Spooners had their say, the story changed. Sherrod’s speech, which she said she has given several times, was not “racist” as Breitbart claimed (although he now says it’s not about Shirley Sherrod and has since posted at least two other clips from the talk that I presume he finds objectionable).
Instead, it was about reconciliation, life lessons and working together to help each other. It was about how Sherrod helped save the Spooner farm even though it went against her first inclination and why she stayed in the South in the first place. It was about how Sherrod and the Spooners became friends through this encounter, changing not only how Sherrod saw herself, but also how she saw the world. The NAACP saluted her work, and the White House urged Vilsack to reconsider.
On Wednesday, Sherrod’s story continued to make the rounds of all the morning talk and news shows and Vilsack issued a public apology, offering Sherrod a new position in the administration. But very few media outlets, particularly those who rushed to judge her on Monday and Tuesday, owned up to their misfire on Wednesday. Instead, the question has become about why the administration acted so quickly and is the White House afraid of Fox News? That is fair and that is fine.
But questions also must be asked about the media’s role in this debacle. By media, I mean the ecosystem that creates and rewards a never-ending cycle of “shock” news, name-calling and lack of standards among many journalism organizations and a blogger who admitted to posting the video to get revenge against the NAACP for passing a resolution against “racist elements” in the Tea Party Movement, no matter the consequences.
As a journalism instructor, this type of so-called journalism is appalling. But it has become par for the course, particularly when issues of race and politics are concerned. Jeremiah Wright, Van Jones, ACORN are all examples of the media –with a big push from conservative commentators—rushing to judgment without all the facts. The only hope, here, is that legitimate newsgathering will make its way back into the news cycle, that solid, on-the-ground or on-the phone reporting (as Anderson Cooper’s team did in calling Sherrod Monday night) will become the true standard; that the Breitbarts of the world will no longer be considered legitimate. The hope here is that Shirley Sherrod’s “teachable moment “extends beyond what she taught those gathered at the NAACP event—that snap judgments serve little purpose—and into the cycle of information and news that we produce and consume every day. We’ll see.