The facts of the case are well known. On July 19, Andrew Breitbart posted a 2½ minute edited video of a near 45 minute speech that Shirley Sherrod had given in March of 2010 at an NAACP event. The edited video segment posted by Breitbart to make Sherrod and the NAACP appear racist would not by itself have been too newsworthy. After all, we know that the blogosphere and the Internet in general are full of rumors and innuendos, as are cable channels and talk radio. In any event, Breitbart was not a trusted source for news. He is perhaps best known as an ideologically conservative activist, and had previously been involved in the ACORN controversy, also involving selectively edited videos.
It is also no surprise that Bill O’Reilly on the Fox News Channel called for Sherrod’s resignation shortly after the edited video was posted. Bill O’Reilly and Fox News in general have a strong ideological bent that colors everything they say.
I think that the story would have played out differently if Ms. Sherrod had not been summarily fired from her position in the US Department of Agriculture a few hours after the video came out, and if the NAACP President had not denounced her remarks that evening. We would likely be mostly discussing how you have to be very careful with what you read on the Internet, hear on talk radio or watch on ideologically oriented cable channels, whose chief objective is to increase their ratings by focusing on polarizing issues, often presented in a strident, divisive tone designed to tap into and stoke the anger of the audiences they attract. Nothing new here.
Had Shirley Sherrod not been so hastily fired by the USDA, we could even look at this whole story as a tale of the media at its worst, . . . but also at its best. Responsible journalism, especially CNN, came to the rescue. By 7 am on the following day, July 20, Ms. Sherrod got to tell her side of the story in CNN’s American Morning. Later that afternoon, CNN’s Rick Sanchez devoted a whole hour to the case on his program, Rick’s List, and played the un-edited video of the 43 minute NAACP speech from which the the 2½ minute video Breitbart posted had been carefully edited.
I watched the full speech on Rick’s List on July 20. Rather than the racist remarks Breitbart alleged, it was a beautifully constructed story that could have come straight out of a bible class, teaching us how our basic humanity can help us overcome hurt and anger.
In 1965, when she was 17 and living in her native Georgia, young Shirley had seen her father killed by a white farmer. No charges were brought against him by an all-white grand jury. After her father’s death, she resolved to dedicate herself to help poor black farmers in Georgia.
In 1986, she was working with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to save black-owned land, when Roger Spooner came to the field office of the Federation where she was working, the first white farmer who ever asked her for help. His land was being sold, and in fact had already been rented out from under him.Sherrod took Spooner to see a white lawyer, who she felt would be able to do a lot more for him in rural Georgia than her black-oriented organization could. However, she continued to follow the case. When she later found out that Spooner was about to lose his farm - because the lawyer, rather than doing anything to help him, was advising him to let the farm go - she took Spooner to a second lawyer who helped him keep and stay on the farm by filing for bankruptcy.
Sherrod’s story was confirmed when Roger’s wife, Eloise Spooner, called CNN that same Tuesday morning and was interviewed on the air, and later when both Roger and Eloise Spooner were interviewed by Rick Sanchez in the segment of his program devoted to the case. They credit Sherrod with helping them save their farm: “If it hadn’t been for her, we would’ve never known who to see or what to do.” They have remained friends with her ever since.
In her March 2010 speech to the NAACP, Shirley Sherrod was using her experience with Roger Spooner as a life lesson: “Working with him 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.”
She said that perhaps the Lord had sent Roger Spooner to remind her that she needs to open her heart to all poor people, not just poor black people. She wanted this to be a lesson to all young people listening to her speech, and wished that there had been white and Hispanic young people in the audience who could also learn from her experiences.
I hope that Shirley Sherrod’s story becomes a major case study in communications and journalism schools across the country. As I was trying to think through the key lessons in this case, I came across this blog - What journalism students can learn from Shirley Sherrod, JournoList by Matt Vasilogambros, a journalism student at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. In his blog he wrote:
“I'm constantly reminded, whether it be through the media or through people I know, that newspapers might soon die out - a daunting statement for any journalism student who will spend over $100,000 on his or her education . . . This summer, the conversation shifted from how we can save newspapers to how we can save journalism. In the pursuit of being first to break news or drawing the most website hits, some reporters forgot the very elements that define journalism. Truth is our goal in this profession, confirmed only through fact not hearsay.”
I like the way Matt Vasilogambros succinctly framed the conflict between the transformation of the media industry in the Internet age, and journalism’s continuous commitment to “the investigation and reporting of events, issues, and trends to a broad audience.” He reminds us that while being first to break news and attracting large audiences is all important to the media business, truth must be the foremost goal of the journalism profession.
More than ever, given our increasingly fast paced society and disruptive business models, we need to keep in mind that “the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”