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The Shirley Sherrod saga, and how the media discusses race

This week, a sweeping Wall Street reform bill was signed into law, with great ceremony, by President Obama — a hard-fought victory to follow his success at passing health care reform. But you might not have heard much about it on Wednesday.

What you may have heard more about was the messy, sometimes nasty, and racially tinged sideshow between the NAACP and the Tea Party over who is, and is not, racist. The dust-up damaged the reputations of a number of people, including the agriculture secretary, a woman who worked for him, the purveyor of a misleading videotape and assorted members of the media.

Here’s how it started: Monday morning, conservative provocateur Andrew Brietbart, publisher of, posted a 38-second clip of Shirley Sherrod, the aforementioned Agriculture Department employee, speaking to a Georgia chapter of the NAACP. In the clip, Sherrod appears to suggest that she discriminated against a white farmer because of his race.

The clip spread all over the Internet, and then jumped to Fox News

Both the USDA and the NAACP released strongly worded condemnations of Sherrod, and the same day she submitted her resignation at the request of an agriculture department official.

But the next day, a more complex version of the story began to emerge.

The farm couple whom Sherrod was accused of discriminating against appeared on CNN. They called her a lifelong friend and credited her with saving their family farm.

By late Tuesday, the NAACP had posted the complete video of Sherrod’s remarks and, far from telling a story of racial discrimination, Sherrod, whose own father was murdered by a white farmer in segregated Georgia, had been relating a story of overcoming racial divisiveness.

By 2 a.m. on Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak had issued a statement saying he would reconsider her forced resignation.

Fox News began condemning the Obama administration for pressing for Sherrod’s resignation without a proper investigation into her remarks.

And by the end of business on Wednesday, Vilsak had issued a formal apology to Sherrod and offered her a new job at the USDA.

To put this incident in context, and understand how the modern media handles issues of race, Jon Meacham spoke with Terence Samuel, author of “The Upper House: A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate,” and editor-at-large of The Root, an online magazine that focuses on issues of interest to African-Americans. The Root is owned by The Washington Post Company.

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  • David A.

    Alas, even NTK’s relatively excellent story and interview on the Sherrod Affair misses (like EVERYONE else) the real big story. And that story is that there is a vast but informal network of right-wing, conservative Republicans (and make no mistake about it these people are Republicans) who readily engage in outright, premeditated lying and deceit to achieve their political ends. From the Swift Boat gang, to the destroyers of ACORN, to this latest escapade, they shamelessly forge documents and lie. This group includes not just the small fry Brietbart (who is not a provocateur, he’s a Goebbelsian liar) but Hannity, Limbaugh, Palin and a huge host of others. THIS is the story. Since Hilary Clinton was hooted down after her essentially correct characterization of a “vast right wing conspiracy”, no liberal or moderate politician has touched this and nor has the mainstream media. NTK had its opportunity now and, sadly, it fumbled.

  • Alicia Davis

    RE: The Sherrod Story:

    This bell cannot be unrung. I am appalled that supervision did not think it worth a day’s wait to have a face-to-face with Ms Sherrod and evaluate the situation. It was the Internet for goodness sake, an ever greater reason to scrutinize the data. Her character was called into question unjustly. I cannot imagine that she would be able to return to the work atmosphere with the same heart. Forgiveness is separate from forgetting, it is a sad statement of a judgement for this level of profession. The person that put the information out there in the manner in which he did may not receive any backlash; it is sinister at best.

    We continue to advance toward the rear as human-kind… all for political reasons. Unwise!!!

  • Ted

    PBS missed the point completely. Bretbart said that he was not pointing at Sherrod. The point was that many people in the NAACP audience cheered or laughed when Sherrod stated that she had not helped the farmer as much as she could have because he was white. The fact that she changed is irrellevant to the point. The NAACP had accused the Tea Party of racism and the video clearly shows that the NAACP was being hypocritical.

  • David A.

    Ted missed the point completely. Breitbart essentially forged a (video) document to make a political point. The story that PBS missed was that this sort of deceit is standard operating procedure in right-wing circles.

  • Eva

    While the comment Ms. Sherrod made was not racist, it seems that it was still prejudicial. She mentioned it was about the haves versus the have nots. If she meant that, in her position, she was required to serve the “have nots” fine, but otherwise that comment is inappropriate. Can anyone that heard the entire remarks she made answer which it was?

  • Myers

    PBS missed the point all right but not in the manner, that the masters of spin and propaganda have obviously sold to the echo chamber of apologists, who have already run to their key boards to defend the indefensible.
    No, the NAACP did not say the tea party was racist. They did ask the leadership to denounce the elements who were. Mark Williams, spokesperson for the Tea Party “the same man who has denounced Barack Obama as ‘Indonesian Muslim’ and a ‘welfare thug’ ” response can be read here Read that and you will see the true divide. As the author says, “if Mark Williams is not a racist, then there are no racists in American society–a position which many, some liberals among them, no doubt find plausible.”

    No, the larger point here is the sorry state of the tribe on the Potomac ,i.e. corporate media , the oligarchs who own the media , the politicians who serve them, and the celebrity media hacks, shills and propagandists who apparently can’t be bothered to even “consider the source”, as if Breitbart doesn’t have a history of this sort of thing.

    Nope let’s blame the “new media” because if we don’t blame the inter tubes, then we might have to question just how “fair and balanced” our drinking buddies over at Fox are or worse still, be labeled a liberal. Forget about Judy Miller and all of her rock solid reporting at the “liberal” NYT, about all those wmd that Saddam would soon be dropping on our heads.

    Worst of all, is the craven triangulating ways of the centrists at the DNC, who whine about the unrealistic expectations of the left , such things, which presumedly, now includes throwing a loyal, long time, public servant under the bus because some crack pot blogger and his friends at Fox are saying nasty things about her. We are truly toast.

  • Melissa

    …there is plenty of hate to go around on the left and right and no hope for progress until bomb throwers on both sides decide to call a cease fire, and the media gets back to reporting objectively. The Sherrod fiasco highlighted all that is wrong with the media, new and old, and the dangers to the average person who might get caught in the crossfire of this uncivilized war.
    I had high hopes for Need to Know after the first episode, but they quickly evaporated after the second show-the reporting is unapologetically biased. I was groaning after the Palinese piece, are we going to have to endure another long and tedious season of ugly personal attacks on conservatives that so many in the media seem to enjoy?

  • Marilyn

    I think that we should seriously think about fining those who print words out of context in order to hurt or manipulate! If they continue suspend their right to write or speak in a public forum for a period of time! I don’t think anyone understands the pain they inflict on someone when they do this and if they do well’ “Shame on them” We need to strive to be better than this! I understand it is sometimes hard not to get upset by what others say but don’t we owe it to ourselves to find out the real truth!

  • David

    Absolutely missed the point. It’s as if we the consumers of news (whether leaders in the NAACP and the Administration or the general public) now have a personal responsibility to “check our sources.” What!? I thought that was the media’s responsibility. I thought that was what true journalism was all about in our democracy. I thought we were supposed to be able to rely on the media because they “checked their sources” and delivered “fair and balanced” truth based on investigated facts. Your report placed all its emphasis on the reaction, and none on the actual perpetrator of falsehoods, either the originator or the media. You helpd the perpetrator achieve his intended results, no doubt: embarrass the NAACP and the Administration and help perpetuate right-wing prejudices. Not once did you put him or the media in the spotlight for their outright wrong-doing.

  • Sam Freedom

    You’re still missing the single most important point of this “teachable moment”, that while Ms. Sherrod was quoted, out of context, and was really trying to explain to people that she had some kind of epiphany, what it amounts to is that she DID clearly admit to once having RACIST attitudes.

    Now, if she were a white person, groups like the NAACP might commend her for having had a turnaround, but would still demand a “full, and fair” investigation into her time in the USDA in order to find if there were any other farmer’s affected by her, admitted, racist attitudes, in situations that were NOT corrected.

    Why is that not obvious to you. She ADMITTED to racism. How many other farmers could have been affected by her previous racist attitudes? Why is she being treated like a victim when she admits to having victimized people herself? Pityable? Yes. Acceptable? No. She is not a hero, she is not a victim, she is an admitted racist who claims to have had an epiphany. How many other uncorrected situations affected by her racist attitudes remain unattended?

    why don’t you do a story on THAT?

  • Cheryl Woodie

    Please watch Face the Nation, 7/25/2010, one of the best debates on race/culture/class I have witnessed since the era of Dr. King. We need to deepen our discussion about these issues.

  • Myers

    Sam Freedom,

    If that was the case then why the need to edit the film to obscure that point? Why didn’t Briebart say so in his introduction to the clip instead of what he did say?
    Nope, the point is Briebart is nothing but a partisan propagandist: always has been and always will be and like Drudge will be greeted at Fox with open arms, regardless of how many times they pull stunts like this.The “liberal” media stenographers ,know that as well as anyone with so much as a dial up connection but think that the “fair and balanced” he said , she said, faux comity narrative, is more important than questioning the source. The centrist wonks at the DNC will continue to blame the left, throw pawns like Sherrod under the bus and take their knives to gun fights and the corporate media will blame the New Media for their own craven willful inability to call a duck a duck.
    Glenn Greenwald nailed the utter insanity here: “Phillips and Roberts used the fraudulent Shirley Sherrod video as their jumping off point to attack “anonymous bloggers,” but, as Henley says: “Andrew Breitbart is a lot of things, but ‘anonymous’ is none of them. The Sherrod lie got as far as it did because, in CNN-spokesmodel circles, Breitbart is a celebrity. “

  • Myers

    At least one establishment media figure gets it, rather than go into a defensive crouch about the barbarians at the gate.
    “The mainstream media and the Obama administration must stop cowering before a right wing that has persistently forced its propaganda to be accepted as news by convincing traditional journalists that “fairness” requires treating extremist rants as one side of the story.”

    Enough right-wing propaganda

    By E.J. Dionne Jr.
    Monday, July 26, 2010; A13