Old habits die hard. White House officials, political pundits and TV networks baited by the Shirley Sherrod “racism” hoax have been as quick to pass the buck for their stake in the phony story as they were to spread its apocryphal content in the first place.
On July 19, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted what he alleged was “video proof” of “racism coming from a federal appointee,” in this case U.S. Department of Agriculture Georgia State Director Shirley Sherrod.
The two-and-a-half-minute clip, whittled down from a 45-minute speech given at a March 27 NAACP banquet, depicted Sherrod recounting a case in which she was called to help a farmer facing bankruptcy.
In the course of her story, Sherrod recalled she “didn’t give him the full force of what I could do” because the farmer was white.
Taken within the purview of its edited form, the video purported to be a shameless admission of abject racial discrimination. Breitbart posted the video as a response to the NAACP, which had recently called on Tea Party leaders to repudiate members who use racist language, a characterization Breitbart said “negatively and falsely brand[s] the millions strong, loosely affiliated Tea Party phenomenon as ‘racist.’”
The video went viral, and the reaction was almost immediate. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack forced Sherrod to resign upon seeing the clip, a move White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina later called “a good example of how to respond in this atmosphere.”
The NAACP condemned Sherrod, issuing a statement via Twitter that claimed the organization was “appalled by her actions.” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs admitted that even President Obama was “fired up” about the clip. There’s little doubt the swift nature of Sherrod’s termination wasn’t without reason. She was let go within 48 hours of the story breaking, before the mainstream media could even put their hands on it.
Of course, the Breitbart clip became media wildfire. Almost all the major networks picked and re-aired the video, especially Fox News, which looped Sherrod’s words with an almost Orwellian repetition alongside headlines such as “discrimination caught on tape.”
Discussing the incident with Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich applauded the Obama administration’s firing of Sherrod by stating “after that kind of viciously racist attitude [it] was exactly the right thing to do.” Bill O’Reilly said Sherrod’s behavior was “simply unacceptable” and that she should “resign immediately.” CNN and MSNBC also re-aired the Breitbart clip numerous times for the next day-and-a-half without question.
And that was the problem. No one — not the media that re-ran the clip ad nauseam, nor the officials who fired her, nor the pundits that waxed endlessly about Sherrod’s admissions in a post-racial America — had seen the original, unedited tape from which the clip originated or bothered to posit on the veracity of its source. If they had, they would have understood the parabolic tenor of Sherrod’s tale, that it was actually meant to illustrate her ultimate realization that, as was later made clear in the full, unreleased video, “we have to work together.”
The media, and the White House, had erred. It wasn’t until after it was revealed that the video was heavily edited for narrative that the institutional backpedaling began. It would have been prudent for networks, pundits and presidential staff to internally question their tactics, to ask why anyone in 2010 would base their judgements from content taken from the blogosphere without checking their origins. Publicly, they instead resorted to finger-pointing. The blaming game had began.
The NAACP claimed it had been “snookered” by Breitbart. CNN and MSNBC, which both aired the Breitbart clip without verifying or cross-checking its content, decided to blame Fox News.
CNN called Fox’s handling of the incident a “smear campaign.” MSNBC news host Rachel Maddow accused Fox of “manufactured outrage,” stating the network “continuously crusades on flagrantly bogus stories designed to make white Americans fear black Americans.”
Network colleague Keith Olbermann similarly referred to Fox News as a “fraud machine,” and claimed its handling of the Sherrod case showed an “utter and complete perversion of journalism.”
On Fox, Gingrich made an about-face, saying he was “operating on the context of the Secretary of Agriculture” and stating that later developments returned him to the preconceived realization that “it’s one more example of the Obama administration’s continuing incompetence.”
O’Reilly offered a similarly backhanded apology, admitting that he didn’t do his “homework” by “not putting her remarks into the proper context.” However, he followed this admission by quipping that Sherrod “sees things through a racial prism” and that he still feels she “said other things that need explanation.”
O’Reilly ended his apology segment by stating Sherrod was guilty of a “possible ethical violation” for her “blatant partisanship.”
There were still a few holdouts. Rush Limbaugh, who previously referred to Breitbart’s handling of the story as “great work,” lambasted the “cowards in the conservative movement” who “caved” on their support of the Breitbart footage.
Then there is the plain ironic. A July 21 New York Times editorial commended Glenn Beck’s handling of the story, simply because he did not run anything on it at all. “This time, he was right,” the editorial said.
Beck, who first said Sherrod “obviously has some sort of Marxist or redistribution qualities to her,” later said he “supported” her, and then hinted at a wild conspiracy theory that the entire Brietbart tape could have been planted as “political assassination from the White House or from the NAACP” as a way “to destroy the credibility of Fox News.”