2010-07-29 / This Week's Attitude

A Rush To Judgment — Without The Facts

This Week’s Attitude
By Neil S. Friedman

No one was left blameless in last week’s media circus that humiliated Shirley Sherrod, a black Agriculture Department official, forced to resign after a segment from an outof context video was scattered over the Internet.


Right wing activist blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a two-minute snippet — from an as yet unnamed source — on his Web site that suggested Sherrod was making racist comments without noting it was part of a longer video in which she actually made a stirring case against prejudice, resulting in a inaccurate news story that rapidly snowballed.

No sooner did the video surface on YouTube than conservative media “broke” the news that a black member of the administration of a black president made reverse racist remarks before a black audience. Faster than you can say the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, almost every mainstream cable and broadcast outlet — regardless of which side of the political spectrum it leaned — also reported the unconfirmed story.

Once again, the Internet with its slapdash blogosphere (duly criticized by my colleague Charles Rogers in his July 15th “View From he Middle” column) in competition with the 24/7 news media has become an occasional millstone for modern journalism. In the relentless fixation to get a jump on “breaking news,” one of the fundamental principles of responsible journalism is commonly overlooked — checking facts and sources – and the public is sometimes left with unverified concoctions that swiftly spread like an out-of-control wildfire before the facts are revealed to quash it.

Perhaps more damage to Sherrod than what the media lemmings reported was the bureaucratic bungling by the Obama Administration and the NAACP’s embarrassing knee-jerk reaction and mishandling of the matter.

As the misinformation mushroomed, Sherrod’s embarrassment was compounded by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who forced her to resign before validating the source of the racist allegations and before having the common decency to allow her to present her side of the story.

In a 43-minute speech at an NAACP meeting last March, Sherrod recounted how 24 years ago — before she was a government employee — her prejudice against a white farmer, stemming from the release of her father’s white murderer when she was a teenager, underwent a transformation. She said she had “come a long way” and admitted that she’d learned the lesson that “it’s not about race, it’s about those who have versus those who don’t.”

Whether or not Obama was aware of or sanctioned Sherrod’s dismissal is not known, but the incident demonstrates how the White House has become reluctant to tackle some conservative criticism, apparently thinking it will improve the President’s chances for reelection in 2012.

MSNBC commentator Keith Olberman last week urged Obama to act more decisively and, to reinforce the suggestion, reminded him of a line uttered by a fictional counterpart in the idealized movie, “The American President.” The movie President acknowledges during a televised press conference, “I was so busy trying to keep my job, I forgot to do my job.”

During a seven-minute telephone call to Sherrod on Friday, Obama reportedly shared some of his own personal experiences, and urged Sherrod to “continue her hard work on behalf of those in need.”

The NAACP, probably afraid of the backlash from what they assumed were racist comments, immediately condemned Sherrod, stating the organization has no place for bigotry. After learning the whole story, the group’s president, Ben Jealous, apologized to Sherrod claiming his organization had been “snookered.”

What a shabby excuse! It was the responsibility of a respected, century-old civil rights organization to look into the matter and view the entire video before condemning someone over a doctored segment from a right wing source known for using misleading pieces to smear progressives.

When the facts came to light, there were more instant apologies and backtracking, yet conservative media members made an ugly situation uglier when a few accused the White House of “railroading’ Sherrod and going off “half-cocked” in the initial handling of the news. No pun intended — particularly considering the topic — but isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?

This fiasco unfortunately confirmed that bigotry in America continues to be an issue we have yet to overcome, but also made it crystal clear that the competition to be the first to report breaking news is a matter that needs more accountability from reputable news organizations before witch hunts, half truths and innuendos are circulated in a headlong rush to judgment.

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