I never thought I'd write a post with this title, but Mark Halperin has driven me to it. Blaming the media-at-large for amplifying the Fox/Breitbart smears of Shirley Sherrod, he says:
The Sherrod story is a reminder — much like the 2004 assault on John Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — that the old media are often swayed by controversies pushed by the conservative new media. In many quarters of the old media, there is concern about not appearing liberally biased, so stories emanating from the right are given more weight and less scrutiny. Additionally, the conservative new media, particularly Fox News Channel and talk radio, are commercially successful, so the implicit logic followed by old-media decision makers is that if something is gaining currency in those precincts, it is a phenomenon that must be given attention. Most dangerously, conservative new media will often produce content that is so provocative and incendiary that the old media find it irresistible.
So the news-and-information conveyor belt moves stories like the Sherrod case from Point A to Point Z without any of the standards or norms of traditional journalism, not only resulting in grievous harm to the apparently blameless, such as Sherrod, but also crowding out news about virtually anything else. The endless obsession with the Simpson story was absurd and gluttonous, and the pattern has been reproduced countless times since (the death of Anna Nicole Smith, the Gary Condit–Chandra Levy mystery, the ongoing Rod Blagojevich soap opera), but the Sherrod story may be the low point of this phenomenon because of its illegitimate origins. Andrew Breitbart, a conservative firebrand with a record of selectively editing video for partisan advantage, used a misleading snippet to produce a chain reaction that embarrassed the old media, the NAACP and the President of the United States — all of which led to even more content generated, rehashed, debated and mulched.
At a time when the country faces real challenges, with major elections coming up in November, did the nation really want to spend a week on this? Presidential advisers, including Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod, who have earned virtual Ph.D.s in such political-media complexities, were on one level as seemingly powerless to stop the whole mess from spiraling out of control as were their predecessors in the Clinton and Bush White Houses. But the Obama Administration took the critical and alarming step of bowing to the expectations of the right and forcing Sherrod out of her job before completing even the most cursory investigation.
Gibbs and other officials publicly stopped short of saying it was all the media's fault, but they certainly suggested something very close to that. There is enough blame to go around. The new-media genie is not going back into the bottle; there are no easy solutions for how to end the dynamic unleashed by Orenthal James Simpson and his motley band of abettors, accusers, analysts and voyeurs. But all of us who are involved in politics and media should take a moment to recognize that we have hit a low point. And let all of us resolve that, having hit bottom, it is time to start climbing out of the pit.
Halperin is certainly correct to say the Sherrod smear originated with right-wing media, and he's also correct to describe her firing as "craven" as he does earlier in the article. But his central thesis -- that the Sherrod case represents a low-point for American media -- is sorely lacking.
The Sherrod smear began with Andrew Breitbart and quickly spread to Fox News. Based on Breitbart's video and Fox's relentless promotion of it, the NAACP's Ben Jealous tweeted his condemnation of Sherrod. By the end of the day on Monday, July 19, Sherrod had been sacked.
As best I can tell from searches on Nexis, neither CNN nor MSNBC covered the Sherrod story until she had been canned. CNN did a quick story on the fact that Vilsack had canned her, but didn't dwell on it. I saw nothing on MSNBC.
By Tuesday, however, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had ripped apart Breitbart's smear and that morning Sherrod appeared on CNN (which is based in Atlanta) to debunk the smears. From there, MSNBC picked up the story, also exonerating Sherrod, as did newspapers and progressive blogs. That evening, each of the national news broadcasts aired stories pointing out that Sherrod had actually been telling a story of racial redemption. By Wednesday, excellent reporting by media outlets not named Fox had saved Sherrod's reputation, caused the administration to admit it had been wrong, and even forced Fox News to hilariously claim that it was the White House and the White House alone that had overreacted. (Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism has posted a comprehensive timeline illustrating exactly how things unfolded.)
Obviously, in a perfect world, Breitbart and Fox never would have smeared Sherrod, but they did. And once they did, and once the USDA fired Sherrod, it became a big story. Sure, the media could have ignored it, but if they had ignored it, they'd have been lending their tacit approval to Fox's new brand of McCarthyism. I wish they hadn't been put in the position of needing to debunk Fox's lies, but they were. And from the AJC and CNN on down, they did a damn good job of it. It wasn't a low-point -- it was a high-point.
Comments are closed on this story.