The firing of Agriculture Department staffer Shirley Sherrod — over racial remarks that were taken out of context — raises judgment questions not only about the Obama administration and the NAACP, whose president is a former journalist, but about the news media.
"This whole saga confirms, as if it needed confirmation," veteran journalist Paul Delaney told Journal-isms by e-mail on Wednesday, "sloppy 'journalism' is the thing this year & it can be toxic, sometimes [irreparably] so. what are we going to do about it???"
Delaney, a retired senior editor at the New York Times, picks up a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Black Journalists next week.
The need for unsloppy journalism couldn't be clearer in an era when right-wingers with an agenda have set their targets on the news media and come back with victories obtained by questionable means — from edited video sound bites of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 presidential race to the successful campaign to discredit ACORN, the agency designed to help low-income people.
"Despite long-standing charges from conservatives that the news media are determinedly liberal and ignore conservative ideas, the news media agenda is easily permeated by a persistent media campaign, even when there is little or no truth to the story," two professors warned after studying the 2008 race.
"In the instance of the 2008 presidential election, the conservative echo chamber’s allegations about ACORN, mostly unfounded, became one of the news media’s major stories of the campaign."
Last week, it was the New Black Panther Party, a fringe group alleged by conservatives to be the beneficiary of racial solidarity from President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. The group allegedly sought to escape responsibility for supposedly intimidating black voters in Philadelphia nearly two years ago. The detractors won an acknowledgment from Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander that the Post should have been faster on the story. Wednesday's report on the Sherrod case went on the front page.
The White House formally apologized Wednesday to Sherrod, who until Tuesday was the rural development director for the Agriculture Department’s state office in Georgia. "The apology capped what had been a humiliating and fast-paced turn of events for the White House, the national media and the N.A.A.C.P., all of whom, Mr. Gibbs said, overreacted to a video that appeared to show Ms. Sherrod saying that she had discriminated against a white farmer.
"The remarks were taken out of context," as Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Sarah Wheaton reported for the New York Times. Their reference was to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who fielded questions about the debacle at his media briefing. Benjamin Jealous, a former journalist who heads the NAACP, apologized earlier for denouncing Sherrod without having seen the full video.
"Snippets of that speech — a heavily edited version — made their way through the Internet and were played by Fox News on Tuesday, which used them in the context of reporting about the N.A.A.C.P. last week accusing parts of the Tea Party movement of being racist."
[There was disagreement over Fox News' role. In the Washington Post on Thursday, Howard Kurtz wrote, "But for all the chatter — some of it from Sherrod herself — that she was done in by Fox News, the network didn't touch the story until her forced resignation was made public Monday evening, with the exception of brief comments by [Bill] O'Reilly."
[But Fox's own website story Tuesday said, "The Agriculture Department announced Monday, shortly after FoxNews.com published its initial report on the video, that Sherrod had resigned.]
To Sherrod at least, Fox News is clear in its agenda.
"They were looking for the result they got yesterday," she told Joe Strupp of Media Matters for America, referring to her firing. "I am just a pawn. I was just here. They are after a bigger thing, they would love to take us back to where we were many years ago. Back to where black people were looking down, not looking white folks in the face, not being able to compete for a job out there and not be a whole person."
Meanwhile, instead of deploying more gatekeepers to keep such influences — real or perceived — in check, the migration of news to the Internet has meant the mainstream media are giving us fewer.
In Washington, for example, the deep-pocketed Robert Allbritton, whose company funds Politico as well as the local ABC affiliate and an all-news cable outlet, is preparing to launch a hyperlocal website, TBD, led by General Manager James M. Brady, formerly executive editor of washingtonpost.com, and Erik Wemple, former editor of the Washington City Paper.
"TBD at its inception will employ no editors whose sole function is copy editing," Wemple told Journal-isms by e-mail on Wednesday, speaking of those once called "the last line of defense."
"We screened our editors for copy skills by administering a copy-editing test to each one. Those whom we hired did quite well on it. We'll rely heavily on those skills from the start, but as with any web-first or web-only operation, we'll need our reporters to deliver clean copy in every blog post and article. Would we prefer to have a squadron of copy editors? No doubt. Faced with a choice between hiring copy editors or reporters, though, we went with the latter. We'll leave it to you and others to judge how smart an idea that was."
Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, wrote on Wednesday, "Sherrod's case shows exactly why fair-minded news outlets should be careful — taking time to make sure these stories trumpeted by media outlets with clear political agendas are examined carefully.
"It's time to put the brakes on a runaway media culture open to manipulation and subversion; outlets moving slowly on stories shouldn't necessarily be penalized.
"Reporting on Sherrod's case without looking closely at media's role in amplifying it misses the biggest aspect of the story, moving the incident into the more comfortable confines of politics rather than news [outlets'] own conflicted values and compromised news judgments."
Later in the day, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza agreed: Referring to Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger who posted the misleading video, Cillizza wrote, "The story being played out in the press is now entirely focused on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the White House — a process story about who knew what when — rather than on where Breitbart got the video and whether he knew it was edited in such a way as to make Sherrod look bad. (For his part, Breitbart isn't revealing where the video came from and insists that he does not have the full-length video of Sherrod's full remarks.)
In his new book, "The Promise: President Obama, Year One," Jonathan Alter told how media mogul Rupert Murdoch wanted to endorse Barack Obama during the 2008 election campaign. But Roger Ailes, who heads Murdoch's Fox News Channel, insisted that such an endorsement would be bad for business. Murdoch capitulated and endorsed Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican.
In today's environment, more media outfits are willing to tailor the news to appeal to what they consider the most profitable political demographic. Perhaps as cynically, more Internet news startups seem to be more about achieving business objectives than journalistic ones.
News consumers must demand better, but will they? Will news media feel any heat over their roles in the Sherrod debacle?
Chris Ariens, TVNewser: The Shirley Sherrod News Cycle
Brent Baker, NewsBusters: Nets Which Promoted NAACP’s Attack on Tea Party Treat Sherrod as Victim; NBC First to Voter Intimidation
Wayne Bennett, the Field Negro blog: The Reverse Race Card
Todd Steven Burroughs, NewsOne: Shirley Sherrod: When Racists Brandish Videos, Not White Robes
Charlie Cobb Jr., theRoot.com: A friend takes a look at the real Shirley Sherrod
Bruce Crawley, Philadelphia Tribune: Black is the New Black in the Media
Mary C. Curtis, Politics Daily: Shirley Sherrod Wasn't a Coward — and She Paid the Price
Eric Easter, ebonyjet.com: The NAACP: “Snookered”, Hoodwinked, & Bamboozled
Sam Fulwood III, Center for American Progress: Oldsters Mix It Up over Race
Frances Martel, mediaite: Andrew Breitbart To CNN’s John King: "I Did Not Fire Shirley Sherrod"
Huffington Post: Bill O'Reilly: Fox News Better, More Influential Than Network News (VIDEO)
Journal-isms: Helen Thomas' Sisters: Media Got It Wrong [June 9]
Audrey Kuo, AAJA Voices, Asian American Journalists Association: Copy editors are essential – even online (2009)
Joel Meares, Columbia Journalism Review: Et Tu, WaPo? The Post’s weightless weigh-in on the Black Panthers coverage
Terence Samuel, theRoot.com: Shirley Sherrod and the Politics of Overreaction
Otis L. Sanford, Memphis Commercial Appeal: A rush to judge felled Sherrod [July 22]
Zachary Tomanelli, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting: Sherrod Story Raises Question: How Many Breitbart Frauds Will Media Fall For?
Marisa Treviño, Latina Lista blog: USDA Sec. Vilsack still owes an apology and swift action to discriminated Hispanic farmers
Jesse Washington, Associated Press: Black racism: a real problem, or pure politics?
Tonyaa Weathersbee, BlackAmericaWeb.com: Shirley Sherrod: The New Face of Courage