Sherrod debacle a crime of context
Technology is a wonderful thing, except when it is misused, abused or overused. Television, for example, was invented to inform and educate viewers, not to be a repository for reality shows like “Jersey Shore” or “The Bachelor.” Likewise, the internet was designed to bring our world closer together, not to enable illiteracy and defamation by tweeters and bloggers. Last month, we all received a lesson in techno-ethics when an honest public servant had her character assassinated on a blog site.
It all began with a feud between the NAACP and the Tea Party gang. Both organizations charged that the other was racist. Enter Tea Party blog master Andrew Breitbart (BigGovernment.com) who broadcast a videotape excerpt of USDA official Shirley Sherrod (an African American) making a speech in which she appeared to be confessing to having treated a white client unfairly when performing her duties as director of Georgia’s Rural Development Agency.
In the video, Sherrod said, “The first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm, he was trying to show me he was superior to me…. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farms, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save his land. So I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do….”
Within hours, Sherrod’s excerpted video went viral, and before she knew it the NAACP had thrown her under the bus and Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack immediately demanded her resignation. Fortunately, CNN did its homework, and by that evening, they had located, then aired Sherrod’s speech in its proper context.
First of all, the incident she alluded to with the white farmer had taken place 24 years earlier. Breitbart’s presentation gave the impression that she was relating a recent anecdote. Second, the blogged excerpt stopped short of the real message that Sherrod offered in her full speech, which focused on a family tragedy, and her lifelong struggle to put that tragedy into proper perspective. Forty-five years ago, Sherrod’s father had been murdered by a white man, and that incident had shaped her life and career, she said. Following the excerpted portion of her speech, Sherrod said, “Forty-five years ago I couldn’t stand here and tell you what I’m tell ing
you tonight. God helped me to see that it’s not just about black people, it’s about poor people…. But I’ve come to realize that we have to work together. We have to overcome divisions that we have. We have to get to the point where… race exists, but it doesn’t matter.”
Had Breitbart, the NAACP, and Vilsack cared to investigate rather than castigate, they would have learned that Sherrod was anything but a racist. She was a dedicated public servant giving personal testimony about her life’s journey. Moreover, the white farmer she alluded to is still singing her praises. Roger Spooner told CNN, “She was unbelievably helpful. She saved our farm.”
In the days following CNN’s broadcast, both Vilsack and the NAACP apologized to Sherrod. Vilsack even asked her to return to the USDA and accept a promotion. All’s well that ends well, I suppose. And in the end, Shirley Sherrod will be fine. But had it not been for CNN’s diligence, she would have remained scorned and unemployed, a victim of political ideologues who took her words out of context and spread them like wildfire, in hopes of fanning the flames of racism.
The internet is the most powerful and farreaching communications tool in the world, yet it is the least regulated form of media. That must change. The courts must treat blog sites as they do newspapers and TV stations, and that means cracking down on web-generated libel. The first step is for bloggers to be required to identify themselves by name and verifiable e-mail addresses, or else be denied entry onto a blog site. That will eliminate most of the cowardly postings designed to defame innocent people and derail their careers, because cowards typically don’t want to go to jail or pay fines. In the meantime, mainstream media outlets must stop giving exposure and credibility to bloggers. And, those of us who surf the internet must take it upon ourselves to check multiple sources prior to forming an opinion.
And one final observation: Since Vilsack initially jumped to conclusions and made Sherrod text in her resignation, it is only fair that Obama do the same with Vilsack. Now that would be a good use of technology.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).