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Shirley Sherrod: blogging the news

"Working with him [a poor white farmer] made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who haven't. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to help poor people -- those who don't have access the way others have." --Shirley Sherrod

23 July 2010. There are many lessons in how blogger Andrew Breitbart used an edited video clip of a speech by Shirley Sherrod to, by his own admission, make a black person look like a racist. Breitbart runs the Big Government Blog. He says he was retaliating for charges of racism by the NAACP that the tea party movement is racist.

Sherrod is a former United States Department of Agriculture Georgia State Director of Rural Development. She resigned in the aftermath of media parrots, led by FOXNews, repeating Breitbart's hit piece.

The first lesson is obvious. It's immoral to use another person to advance your agenda. Breitbart took action against the NAACP and in support of the tea party with reckless disregard for the truth or the consequences. He told FOXNews pundit Sean Hannity: “I could care less about Shirley Sherrod, to be honest with you. This is not about Shirley Sherrod. This is about tarring the American people and the tea party movement with the false charge of racism.”* Really? The second lesson is dishonesty is not the best policy when caught in wrongdoing.

The third lesson is one every honest political blogger and journalist knows: it is deceitful to take things out of context, especially when done to promote your agenda. A short video clip from a 40-minute talk can be very misleading. The minimum requirement for honest reporting is to view the entire speech before using a part of the speech to make a point. No, the minimum requirement is to make a diligent effort to see the whole video. If you can't get the video, you should try to find some people who were present at the speech and get their take on it. If you can't get the whole speech or find people who heard it, then you shouldn't post a clip from an anonymous source. If somebodyespecially an agenda-based bloggerdoes post a clip from a speech with incendiary commentary, the minimum requirement of integrity-based journalism is to make an effort to get the entire video and talk to people who were there. That would require work and a sense of fairness. Also minimally required is to contact the person being used by the agenda-based blogger and get her response. That would require a sense of balance.

In this case, the clip-heard-inside-the-Beltway makes Sherrod appear to have discriminated against a white man, a poor farmer trying to save his farm from foreclosure. A video of the whole speech demonstrates just the opposite. Sherrod went out of her way to help the white man get justice, overcoming her natural resentment of white people nurtured over many years of degrading treatment, including the murder of her own father, at the hands of whites in rural southern Georgia. You can view the speech here should you care to know more about this person used like a stage prop by a man with a big agenda and a small heart.

Most readers, like most bloggers and journalists, won't bother to view Sherrod's speech. It goes on for over 40 minutes and most people won't invest that much time just to get accurate information, especially if it doesn't support their own biases, prejudices, and agenda. That's a pity because she is a remarkable woman with remarkable stories to tell. She has a lot to say to young people of all races. "Don't let life pass you by having a good time." "Life is a grindstone, but whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us." Corny? Maybe, but the message is solid. Is the next generation going to take us to the next level in the struggle to end racial and gender discrimination? How many young people today are moved to action by the stories their parents and grandparents tell them? Do the stories of lynchings and murders, cross burnings and the degradation of living with segregated public facilities for everything from eating and sleeping to going to the bathroom, resonate with today's youth? Slavery was impossible to forget during the days of segregation and Jim Crow. Are those memories being lost in the haze of black celebrities? Does the success of people like Barack Obama, Oprah, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods (oops), etc., blind today's youth to the horrors of America's past? Is the pursuit of wealth and fame, partying with and envying rappers, driving young people down hedonistic pathways with such force that they won't stop to smell the stench of injustice?

If you bother to view Sherrod's entire speech, you'll probably find that there are several other short clips one could create to discredit her. Bill O'Reilly did just that in an amazing piece of self-serving deception, in which he apologizes for not putting the Breitbart clip in context and then proceeds to take more clips out of context to further tarnish Sherrod. (He suggests she may have violated the Hatch Act by praising president Obama and criticizing G. W. Bush. Really Bill, you couldn't go much lower in your twisted effort at a faux apology.) An unscrupulous editor could make her sound like an enemy of the rich, a religious fanatic, a Marxist/socialist, and a few other things, I suppose. The overall picture I get is of a competent, determined woman who has been through hell in the racist south, but has emerged with optimism and a positive attitude, hoping that the next generation will continue the struggle for equality. She's also a supporter of government assistance to its citizens, a political view many disagree with, but which is equally valid to her critics' libertarianism. There is a legitimate political debate to be had over whether or how much government should assist its citizens, but that debate has sunk to cesspool levels of late, largely due to the unrestrained rancor of people like Mr. Breitbart and his allies at Faux News.

Another obvious lesson from this affair is that the media vultures are always hanging around, looking for anything to promote their agendas. This story has already been twisted in more directions than a corkscrew willow. Once the truth about the video came out, those who had condemned Sherrod had all kinds of justifications for not bothering to view the edited clip in its original context. The NAACP, for example, claimed it was "snookered." One story is that she resigned under pressure from somebody in the White House. President Obama apologized to Sherrod and chastised USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for firing her without a proper investigation. Vilsack has publicly apologized to Sherrod and has offered her another job, which she says she is considering. The positive fallout of this affair is that Sherrod will be able to take her message to a much larger audience. She is now "famous" and will probably be offered many platforms from which to voice her views. This may sound like a good thing, but in these incendiary times I wouldn't want to be in her shoes. Everything she says will be scrutinized beyond the limits most people could endure. The right wing will benefit, too, as it twists the affair into support for its agenda and takes on the role of persecuted victim. And so it goes.

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