Executive Producer Responds to Viewer Comments on Sherrod Segment

BY Linda Winslow  July 22, 2010 at 7:02 PM EST

We have received several complaints from our viewers regarding Wednesday night’s NewsHour coverage of the Shirley Sherrod story.

Most focused on two points: why we didn’t mention the name of Andrew Breitbart, whose website, BigGovernment.com, originally posted the incomplete and misleading excerpt from Ms. Sherrod’s speech; and why we didn’t take to task other online news outlets, as well as major cable news channels, who exacerbated the misrepresentation of Ms. Sherrod’s position by playing the incomplete excerpt over and over.

We certainly could have mentioned Mr. Breitbart’s name but, since we don’t consider him to be a household name, we were more concerned with mentioning the name of his website and identifying it as a vehicle for conservative political opinion.

By the time the NewsHour aired at 6 p.m. EDT, our editors had decided the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s apology to Ms. Sherrod, and her reaction to it, had advanced the story well beyond the Breitbart behavior that started the whole thing. That’s why the introductory setup was written to explain, as briefly as possible, how the mistreatment of Ms. Sherrod began:

JIM LEHRER: It began when the conservative website BigGovernment.com posted video of Sherrod from an NAACP event. She described working for a farm assistance group in 1986, and meeting with a white farmer who she said acted superior.

The piece then went on to show both the short clip that misrepresented Ms. Sherrod, as well as the rest of what she had said. It included an NAACP representative talking about how their further investigation caused them to learn that the material posted on BigGovernment.com was wrongly manipulated. We then moved to the Vilsack apology and offer to restore her job. Here is what Jim Lehrer said in introducing David Chalian:

JIM LEHRER: Sherrod had already accepted the administration’s apology, but said she will take some time to consider the job offer.

The Sherrod incident came after the NAACP had called for the Tea Party movement to address allegations of racism within its ranks.

Here now is “NewsHour” political editor David Chalian.

David, what does this say, this whole kind of strange, if that’s the word, set of events? Boom, boom, boom. All this happened in 24 hours. What does it say about how information is heard and how quickly it is reacted to, boom, boom, boom, these days?

DAVID CHALIAN: You have nailed it, that it is an information issue in that way.
I don’t recall ever seeing an administration make a personnel decision based on the hour-by-hour news cycle. But, in this 24/7 world, you saw the White House, the Department of Agriculture react and act upon incomplete information. And that is why Robert Gibbs hung his head today, and that is why Secretary Vilsack was out there apologizing. They had to admit that they actually took administrative action before they had all the facts. We in the press, also, many news organizations, showed these clips before we understood the full context of these clips. We didn’t see that full speech at the time. So, again, all the players, the administration, the press, in this game, if you will, took incomplete information to the public.”

Between them, Jim and David quickly and concisely told the audience three things: (1) where the story stood at that precise time on the clock, in a day that had been filled with several fast-moving developments; (2) what the editorial point of our segment was; and (3) why the NewsHour thought this story was important enough to call to the audience’s attention.

In our judgment, this story was about how a combination of supposedly responsible organizations and institutions handled a misleading piece of information that first surfaced on a website with an avowed political agenda. The press, the administration and the interest groups involved all have blame to share for prejudging Ms. Sherrod’s words before understanding their original intent and full context.