Race Relations and the Media

Fair & Balanced graphic used in 2005

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The current and ongoing dialogue over the hasty and unjust firing of Shirley Sherrod from the USDA highlights many issues that we need to address as a country of concerned citizens.  If you have not been paying attention to the news cycle lately, Sherrod is an African-American woman who was fired from her job at the Department of Agriculture as the Georgia Director of Rural Development because an edited video clip of her appearing to make a racist remark about a white farmer surfaced online, on a conservative website called BigGovernment.com.

Behind this initial, superficial covering of Sherrod’s speech is a man named Andrew Breitbart, a conservative whose past includes working with Matt Drudge of The Drudge Report and falsely discrediting the community activist group ACORN (the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now).  Breitbart posted the out-of-context video clip online and it was subsequently covered by, whom else, commentators and pundits on the Fox News Channel.

This is how it really went down – a timeline, if you will.  On Monday at 11:18 a.m., Breitbart posted the edited video of Sherrod addressing the NAACP, calling her a “racist” and claiming that the NAACP audience appears to be racist as well since they laughed while she was telling them about her hesitation in helping a white farmer.  Later on that day, FoxNews.com reported that, “Days after the NAACP clashed with Tea Party members over allegations of racism, a video has surfaced showing an Agriculture Department official regaling an NAACP audience with a story about how she withheld help to a white farmer facing bankruptcy.”

You can probably guess what happens next.  Conservative bloggers began picking up the false story before Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity covered it on their evening programs, calling for her resignation and eventually reporting that Sherrod had “resigned”.  Newt Gingrich stated that Secretary Vilsack did the right thing in firing Sherrod, and the NAACP claimed that they were “appalled” by Sherrod’s comments.

On Tuesday morning, the Fox News Channel continued running with the story.  A little before 7:00 a.m., Shirley Sherrod explained how she was taken out of context in a CNN interview.  Around 10:00 a.m., Glenn Beck continued spouting out his notorious, misinformation by asking his audience, “have we transformed into 1956, only the other way around?”

About an hour later, Sherrod explained to Tony Harris on CNN that she was asked to pull over three times on her commute back to Athens on Monday so that she could resign.  And why wasn’t she given the opportunity to make it home and explain her perspective?  According to Cheryl Cook, the deputy undersecretary, the Agriculture Department wanted her to pull over and resign because she was, “going to be on Glenn Beck tonight.”

Even after these revelations came to light, the White House still claimed to be 100% behind Vilsack’s decision to fire Sherrod.  Around 4:00 p.m., the white farmer and his wife, both of whom Sherrod was supposedly racist towards, cleared her name, said that she helped them save their farm, and that those who labeled Sherrod a racist, “don’t know what they’re talking about.”

What Sherrod actually explained to the NAACP audience was her own personal story about OVERCOMING her own racist thoughts.  She informed the audience about how her father was murdered by the KKK while she was a child and how she made a promise to herself to work in Georgia the rest of her life.  She detailed her initial impression of the white farmer, how she sent him to a white lawyer to help him file for bankruptcy.  She then explained how the lawyer did not help him, and that she eventually helped the white farmer save his farm.  She goes on to explain how she overcame her own prejudices in helping this farmer.

Shortly after 6:00 p.m., the NAACP investigated and took back their initial statement on Sherrod, stating that they had been “snookered” by Fox News and Tea Party activist Andrew Breitbart.   The entire unedited video includes some of the following excerpts:

Well, working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t, you know. And they could be black; they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people — those who don’t have access the way others have.

–     And    –

But I’ve come to realize that we have to work together and — you know, it’s sad that we don’t have a room full of white and blacks here tonight, ’cause we have to overcome the divisions that we have. We have to get to the point where, as Tony Morrison said, “Race exists but it doesn’t matter.” We have to work just as hard. I know it’s — you know, that division is still here, but our communities are not going to thrive — you know, our children won’t have the — the communities that they need to be able to stay in and live in and — and have a good life if we can’t figure this out, you all. White people, black people, Hispanic people, we all have to do our part to make our communities a safe place, a healthy place, a good environment.

The website Media Matters, a non-profit, media watchdog organization, summed up the role The Fox News Channel played in both covering the lies about Sherrod and then covering up the their own reporting of the story:

Fox News spent much of July 19 and 20 ginning up controversy about the false claim that Shirley Sherrod made racist remarks at a NAACP meeting earlier this year. As the claim unraveled, Fox media personalities disappeared their role in the story, continued to smear her as “descriminat[ory]” in the face of contradictory evidence, and boldly suggested the network did not contribute to the controversy.

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs finally issued Shirley Sherrod an apology.  Secretary Vilsack offered her a sincere apology later that evening.  President Obama called her and issued an apology on Thursday.

My opinion: too little, too late.  So many people failed during this whole saga.  The NAACP should have known better, not only because of the source but also because the speech was given to an NAACP audience.  The Department of Agriculture and the Obama administration failed in doing their homework and, more importantly, getting Sherrod’s input on her speech and putting it into context.

Last and certainly not least, let’s call a spade and spade and finally admit that the Fox News Channel is biased against the Obama administration and any “liberal” figures, whether we are talking about a politician or a selfless public servant like Shirley Sherrod, who has done more to help everyday Americans than a propaganda artist like Andrew Breitbart and his friends on the Fox News network.

Although the Obama administration did offer Sherrod her job back, I cannot see how she can accept such an offer after all she has been through.  As a progressive (and yes, Fox News, I take pride in that label) I am sick and tired of how neoconservatives are trying to tarnish anyone who poses a threat to their narrow-minded agenda.  I disdain the mainstream media for the superficial and knee-jerk reporting I see every day, and this incident is a perfect case-in-point.  I find myself seeking all kinds of alternative news outlets to make up for this lack-of-substance coverage that Americans are exposed to on a daily basis.  We need to hold journalists accountable for their libelous reporting that (mis)educates the public.

Fox News is not even a part of this mainstream – rather, they are part of a machine designed to pump out propaganda, catering to a neoconservative agenda that has all ready done enough damage to our country during the Bush II presidency.  The Fox News Channel should be renamed the Republican Party Channel, although that name would probably alienate respectable Republicans who actually care about journalistic integrity.

The Fox News Channel should at least change their motto from “Fair and Balanced” to “Slanted and Biased”.  I know most journalists must confront biases while attempting to cover a story as objectively as possible, but the media reporting at Fox makes it evident that they embrace these biases, no matter how false and damaging the end result.  It’s just too bad that Democrats regularly give in to this, which is why I embrace third party or independent alternatives.


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