This past summer, conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart thought he had a big scoop on his site, BigGovernment.com. What he had instead was a media firestorm in the making.
The story began when Breitbart posted a video in which Shirley Sherrod, a black, Obama-appointed executive in the Georgia state USDA office, was giving a speech at a local NAACP dinner:
“You know, the first time I was faced with helping a white farmer save his farm, he took a long time talking but he was trying to show me he was superior to me. I know what he was doing. But he had come to me for help. What he didn’t know, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland. And here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So, I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.”
Almost immediately, news reports began popping up, in both “new media” sites online and on traditional news outlets, speaking about this reverse-racist Obama nominee. Drudge Report, Fox News, and conservative blogs ran the story with particular fervor. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsak essentially demanded that she resign, which she did within hours of the story leaking.
The one hiccup in all of this: the accusations were false. The speech was slyly edited to make it appear as if she was giving a different message than she was. In fact, the story was about how she overcame certain implicit racial tendencies. In the forty minutes of the speech that wasn’t distributed until days after the resignation, Ms. Sherrod stated:
“Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who haven’t. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to help poor people – those who don’t have access the way others have.”
Whether the video was edited/misconstrued by Brietbart or his undisclosed source—he insists that it is the latter—this episode shows one of the dangers of “new journalism.” While there are undoubtedly many of new journalists who hold themselves to traditional standards of integrity, there are no institutions to really enforce them. Sure, institutions of old media don’t always enforce these standards either (conservatives would point to the Dan Rather affair during the 2000’s; liberals, anything owned by Rupert Murdoch), but at least there is some structure that tries (or pretends) to hold reporters responsible. The only structural thing suppressing new journalists from leading with their biases or making sure they double check sources is the threat of readers leaving if they put out stories that aren’t up to par. Sounds great, right? Free market! But an increasing number of media consumers today are focused less on true quality of the reporting, but on the ideological slant of the content. Just ask the execs at Fox News and MSNBC. It is this polarized media environment that will ensure that people will continue to get their “news” from people like Breitbart.
If you want more information, check these out:
Brietbart’s original story: http://www.webcitation.org/5rbhsjhzR
Fox News’ coverage: http://www.webcitation.org/5rQUyfera
The full video of the speech: http://www.naacp.org/blog/entry/watch-the-shirley-sherrod-video-in-full/
Timeline of the affair: http://mediamatters.org/research/201007220004