Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lessons from Shirley Sherrod -- Conservative media distorts reality

What lessons can we learn from the events of Shirley Sherrod's life over the past few days? The shameful display of how a conservative commentator can take down a single government employee is just another example of how conservative media work, appealing to the lowest common denominator (a white-vs.-black argument) while leaving out crucial information that would explain the entire thing. But what's worse than that, worse than the lack of investigative journalism on the part of right-wing media, is the lack of fact-checking by the administration over the matter.

It's become commonplace to assume that within all media -- left-wing, right-wing, and supposedly objective news -- that headlines don't always deliver context. In an effort to sell more copies, to bring in more viewers, or to get more "clicks," news agencies and bloggers alike need to create catchy titles to lure readers in.

Sometimes even within the news articles or web postings themselves context is missing. When this happens, rumors and gossiping rule the day, taking over what should be real investigative journalism and turning it into a steaming pile of horse manure.

Andrew Breitbart, a conservative commentator and contributor to various right-wing media outlets, posted a web video of Shirley Sherrod, an African-American employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where she described an incident in her life where she pushed aside a white farmer's concerns to a lawyer so that he could work with his "own kind." The full video, later disseminated by the NAACP, shows that Sherrod learned within that incident that she was wrong, helped that farmer when it was clear that the white lawyer was doing an inadequate job, and discovered that it's poverty, not race, that matters in the end. Sherrod and that farmer, to this day, remain great friends.

Between the postings of both videos, however, the Obama administration decided to take action. Fearing backlash from right-wing pundits over the administration's supposed preference in hiring minorities over whites, Department of Agriculture head Tom Vilsack forced Sherrod out of her position as head of rural development for the state of Georgia.

"I reacted too quickly," Vilsack later said. "I should have taken the time to listen and learn."

A proper reaction would have been to talk with Sherrod, to have heard her side of the story. A proper reaction would have been to view the full video initially, not the sound bytes that Andrew Breitbart wanted us to hear. A proper reaction would have been to refute Breitbart's video and any other commentator's disapproval of Sherrod as just another example of the lengths the hard-right in this country will go to in order to discredit President Obama.

Instead, the administration took the cowards way out, reacting no better than any of those right-wing media outlets would have; they took action without thought.

If Obama is going to lead, if he's going to fight against those who are looking only to discredit him, this is not the way to do it. One does not cower in fear of those who make vicious claims without credible evidence -- they fight by using the greatest weapon available: the truth.

The administration should have known better anyway. As Keith Olbermann points out, conservative media today lacks substance of any kind, and is the "utter and complete perversion of journalism...It is words crashed together, never to inform, only to inflame."

If there's one thing this administration should learn from this incident, it is this: There are more appropriate ways to discredit such media outlets, more options available than taking the cowards way out. If this administration isn't brave enough to defend a civil servant like Sherrod over lies and distortions that we've witnessed this past week, then Obama and company are going to have a rude awakening come November of this year, perhaps even in 2012 after that.

Now, onto the next issue: conservative bloggers are claiming that Bo, the Obama family's dog, flies in his own private jet. Keeping in line with the way the administration handles these claims, without doing any research of any kind that may disprove such claims, what should the Obama administration's reaction be? Should they find Bo a new home, or simply put him down?

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