Until Monday, Shirley Sherrod's was not a name that would have inspired widespread recognition in America. A black lady working for the US Department of Agriculture in Georgia, she was a worthy, hard-working but low ranking government official. Then a right-wing website broke a video in which it claimed she was advocating racist, anti-white policies. She appeared to be suggesting that she had not given a white farming couple the 'full force' of her support in helping them to keep hold of farming land they were in danger of losing. The website which showed the video, BigGovernment.com, owned by right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart, has a history of inaccurate scoops, but this didn't stop a fire-storm breaking over Ms. Sherrod's head. She was subject to strong outbursts by Fox News anchors, notably Bill O'Reilly, and eventually asked to resign by the Agriculture Secretary. Even the Civil Liberties Association, who hosted the video-ed meeting, supported her resigning.
However, when the full video eventually surfaced, it was clear that the context of her comments were far from being racist, but were in fact part of a painfully honest assessment of her own journey from identfiying race to considering poverty as a principal factor in determining the need for help. Her father had been killed by white murderers who had never been apprehended, and Sherrod committed herself to remaining in the South despite this. The white farming couple she referred to did indeed receive her full support, as they have been gratefully acknowledging. Now, the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has apologised to Ms. Sherrod and asked her to re-join the Administration.
There are a few unpleasant undertones to this story. First and foremost is the iniquity of a right-wing movement dealing in deliberate falsehoods and misleading information to smear an unassuming, low-ranking public servant for their political ends, to say nothing of their mixing it around in the racism pit. If we needed any further evidence of the bankruptcy of the media part of the American right then it is surely here. Alongside this, however, is the all-consuming need of the 24 hour news cycle to be claiming victims, without recourse to any form of investigative check-up. If the original video was deliberately put out to create a false impression, the more 'mainstream' news organisations are themselves guilty of a wretched and absolute failure of responsibility to check Ms. Sherrod's side of the story, and identify whether or not the original video was genuine, before leaping into condemnatory comment. Third, and in some ways of most concern, is the way the White House Administration leapt so quickly to a media tune. President Obama's team need to be media savvy, but part of that savvy is surely to be confident enough in themselves and their procedures not to leap into judgement. Their rapid forcing of Ms. Sherrod's wholly unjust resignation was a miserable capitulation before the forces of an untamed and irresponsible media. Finally, it is clear that the election of a black president may have broken a glass ceiling for the black community, but it has not diminished the awful power of racism to divide and harm.
The 24 hour news cycle has eaten in, perhaps irreparably, to the idea of politics as a considered, long-term pursuit. Too many decisions are now made in haste in order to satisfy this voracious need for sensationalism on an hourly basis, and far and few between are the evidences of serious investigative reporting and proper, considered responses. The Sherrod Affair has claimed a scalp and restored it in just a few days. That can hardly be to anyone's benefit.
Huffington Post story is here, and further commentary here.
Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish is concerned that the whole episode shows us a White House living in fear of right-wing attacks.