The Reconstruction of a Media Mess
A Look at How One Video Triggered a Rush to Judgment
At one point during the furor over Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department staffer forced to resign after a video was posted on a conservative website, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the incident was a “teachable moment.”
The episode may or may not serve to foster a broader national discussion on race. But it did open a window on how information and misinformation can careen through the current media ecosystem. Increasingly, supersonic speed predominates and reaction time shrinks. Online posts come in the middle of the night. Commentary and punditry add velocity to stories even before news reports have sorted them out. Partisan players are increasingly becoming news distributors with ties to cable channels and bloggers who follow them closely.
The case also illustrates how in this current media culture, someone can go from obscurity to household name status, and from ostracized to lionized, in a matter of 48 hours. In all, the Sherrod story was the second-biggest topic in the mainstream press last week.
The Sherrod saga began on the morning of July 19 when the conservative website Big Government posted an excerpt of a speech that appeared to show the African-American woman admitting to an NACCP audience she did not do her best to help a white farmer in trouble. The broader backdrop was that the NAACP had recently issued a statement asking the tea party to repudiate the racists in its midst. The proprietor of Big Government, Andrew Breitbart, publicized a video that he said showed that the NAACP itself was racist.
Within hours, the video was picked up in the blogosphere, the administration forced Sherrod to resign and it became a cable talk topic (particularly on Fox).
The narrative abruptly changed the morning of July 20 when Sherrod told her side of the story. Then the full video showed her using the farmer story as an example of how she moved beyond racial issues to help save his farm. Events moved quickly after that. The NAACP, which initially condemned Sherrod’s remarks, declared that it had been fooled by a hoax. On July 21, both Gibbs and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to Sherrod, who was asked to continue working in the department. And on July 22, Obama spoke to her by phone.
Toward the end of the week, the story began morphing into a broader analysis of race in America, the behavior of the media and the apportioning of blame among parties ranging from the Obama administration to the Fox News Channel.
The chronology that follows traces how the story evolved and played out in the media in that frantic period between the July 19 release of the video and the July 21 apologies to Sherrod from Gibbs and Vilsack as well as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. It does not purport to capture every item or account of the Sherrod story, but it does outline the arc of how and how quickly the story moved.
Ironically, one message that emerges from the debris of the Sherrod episode is something Breitbart wrote as the first words in the post containing his now controversial video excerpt:
“Context is everything.”
Monday July 19
- At 8:18 a.m., political activist Andrew Breitbart posts on his conservative Big Government website a roughly two-minute video excerpt of USDA official Shirley Sherrod’s March 27, 2010 speech to an NAACP gathering under the headline: “Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism—2010.” Breitbart writes that “you will see video evidence of racism coming from a federal employee and NAACP award recipient.” In the clip Sherrod says about a white farmer who came to her for help, “I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.”
- By early afternoon the blogosphere is alive with talk of the posting. At 12:55 p.m. the conservative Hot Air blog says, “Breitbart announced that he would publish at least one video of the NAACP itself cheering racism. Breitbart delivers on that promise today at Big Government.” At 1:33 p.m., the Gay Patriot blog says, “I love Andrew because he, like me, hates hypocrisy and has a nose to find it.”
- At least one blogger has doubts. In a 3:31 p.m. posting on the website First Things, Elizabeth Scalia worries the Sherrod video clip might not tell the whole story: “I am uncomfortable with this ‘get’ by Breitbart,” she writes. “I want to see the rest of the tape.”
- That evening, the three commercial broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) air no stories on the Sherrod saga during their nightly newscasts.
- In cable prime time there are substantial differences in how the story is handled that first day. MSNBC, with its liberal lineup of hosts, makes no mention at all of the tape, Sherrod, or the story.
- Toward the end of his 8 p.m. Fox News Channel show that was taped earlier in the day, Bill O’Reilly plays the Breitbart video and demands Sherrod’s job: “Well, that is simply unacceptable. And Ms. Sherrod must resign immediately.” (A graphic on the screen reports that Sherrod has already resigned.) This appears to be the first on-air reference to the story on Fox, although the channel’s website, according to one of its anchors and reader comments, had posted it earlier.
- Fox host Sean Hannity opens his 9 p.m. show with the news of Sherrod’s resignation and plays the tape from Big Government. He interviews former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who lauds Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s decision to dismiss her. “You know you can't be a black racist any more than you can be a white racist,” Gingrich says.
- On CNN, during a discussion about the tea party and racism on Larry King’s 9 p.m. show, Dana Loesch, a radio talker who has written for Breitbart, brings up the Sherrod story. She asks why liberals don’t “repudiate” people like Sherrod who Loesch says was admitting she “was basing whether or not she was going to help somebody on the color of their skin.” No one else commented on Sherrod.
- Anderson Cooper’s 10 p.m. show on CNN is focused on the BP oil spill, but the channel plays the video and correspondent Joe Johns reports that Sherrod has resigned her USDA post, quoting Secretary Vilsack’s statement that “there is zero tolerance for discrimination in USDA."
Tuesday July 20
- During CNN’s 6 a.m. “American Morning” show, Shirley Sherrod gives an interview telling her side of the story and asserting that the video misconstrued her remarks about an event that occurred 24 years ago: “I was telling the story about how working with him [the farmer] helped me to see that the issue is not about race, it’s about those who have versus those who do not have.” When asked about losing her job, Sherrod says “the stuff that Fox and the tea party does is scaring the Administration.”
- Around 11 a.m., in another interview with CNN, Sherrod criticizes the NAACP, which had issued a statement condemning her remarks based on the video excerpt. Sherrod also says the administration “harassed me” while she was driving to the office. “I had at least three calls [on July 19] telling me the White House wanted me to resign.” Harris then interviews Eloise Spooner, the wife of the farmer, who calls Sherrod a “good friend” who “helped us save our farm.”
- The idea that the Sherrod video did not tell the whole story is now coursing through the media bloodstream. At 11:21 a.m., blogger Charles Johnson puts up a post headlined: “Resigned USDA Official: Breitbart’s Video Was a Lie.”
- Glenn Beck, on his 5 p.m. Fox program, criticizes the Obama Administration’s and the NAACP’s handing of the Sherrod case and declares; “Here’s my take on Shirley Sherrod. She should not have been fired or forced to resign."
- Reconsidering its position on Sherrod, the NAACP issues a statement that “we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias.” It posts on its website the full Sherrod speech video (43 minutes long), which it says previously “was selectively edited to cast her in a negative light.”
- The three broadcast network evening newscasts (ABC, CBS, NBC) now pick up the story. NBC reports on the farm family’s backing for Sherrod and on the NAACP’s “snookered” statement. CBS reports that Agriculture Secretary Vilsack is still sticking by the Sherrod ouster. ABC also reports on the NAACP’s change of heart while anchor Diane Sawyer calls the episode a “rush to judgment.”
- The MSNBC talk hosts also focus on the story. On his 7 p.m. program, Chris Matthews attacks both the Fox News Channel and Breitbart, declaring the episode “a full dress rehearsal for the bad guys.”
- In an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity in the 9 p.m. hour, Breitbart says he was motivated to obtain the Sherrod video after the NAACP had condemned "racist elements” in the tea party. Declaring that his main concern is combating allegations of racism against the tea party, Breitbart adds: “I could care less about Shirley Sherrod…This is not about Shirley Sherrod.”
- As the story unfolds, the White House takes fire from the political left. On her 9 p.m. MSNBC show, Rachel Maddow criticizes Fox for its coverage, but blames the Administration for ousting Sherrod based on the “conservative spin about what’s so wrong with you…If you keep falling for this sort of stunt, you are encouraging them."
- In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper during his 10 p.m. program, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous discusses the group’s original statement condemning Sherrod’s remarks, which has been retracted. “We responded quickly [initially] because…we’re called to respond to video evidence all the time, make very quick judgments…Our statement came out at like 1 a.m.”
Wednesday July 21
- Overnight, Breitbart is defending himself. At 1:13 a.m., a post on Big Government says his original video shows the NAACP audience receiving Sherrod’s “tale of racism” with “laughter and cheers…They weren’t cheering redemption. They were cheering discrimination.”
- Early Wednesday morning news surfaces that Vilsack will reconsider Sherrod’s departure. A 3:58 a.m. item on CNN.com quotes a statement from the Agriculture Secretary that, “I am of course willing and will conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts…”
- At 6:13 a.m. liberal writer David Corn, who works for Politics Daily, makes his views about the culpability for the episode known by tweeting: “Vilsack is a Villain in the Sad Tale of Shirley Sherrod.”
- Major apologies come in the afternoon. At his 2:30 press briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, in response to a question, offers the first White House mea culpa. “I think without a doubt Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology. I would do so certainly on behalf of this administration."
- A short time later, Vilsack holds a press conference saying that he, not the White House, decided to force Sherrod’s resignation. He also says he spoke to Sherrod, talked to her about coming back to work and extended my “personal and profound apologies for the pain and discomfort that has been caused to her and to her family over the course of the last several days.”
- At 4:47 p.m. an Associated Press story is one of a number hammering away at the Administration’s handling of the episode, noting that the White House “faced a blast of criticism” over the issue and declaring: “The incident is a stumble for Obama administration and for the NAACP."
- During his 6 p.m. show, liberal MSNBC host Ed Schultz criticizes both the conservative media and the White House. He calls the saga “a manufactured story supplied by a hate merchant [Breitbart]” but adds, “The White House just can’t stand up to Fox News, can they? I think that is the bottom line."
- On Fox News, at 8 p.m., Bill O’Reilly offers a mixed mea culpa. He says, “I owe Ms. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework, for not putting her remarks into the proper context” when he first aired the video excerpt. But he adds, “Ms. Sherrod may very well see things through a racial prism and did make political statements under the USDA banner…She should be in the private or charity sector.”
- Anderson Cooper begins his 10 p.m. CNN show with a commentary on the situation. “Cable news is part of the problem. There's no doubt about that. The left and the right have their own anchors who only report on the stories that suit their slant,” he says. He declares that watching Breitbart “try to weasel his way out of taking responsibility for what he did to Ms. Sherrod today is a classic example of what's wrong with our national discourse.”
Thursday July 22 and Beyond
- An editorial in the July 22 New York Times provides further evidence of a media narrative turning against the Administration. Headlined “Faster than a Speeding Blog,” the editorial says, “The Obama administration has been shamed by its rush to judgment after it forced the resignation of a black midlevel official in the Agriculture Department who was wrongly accused of racism by the right-wing blogosphere."
- Sherrod, by now a major figure in the week’s news, makes the rounds on the network morning news shows July 22. On NBC’s Today show she says she would like to have a “conversation” with Obama to help him understand “the experiences [of people] at the grassroot level.” She also expresses her view that Breitbart “knew his actions would take Shirley Sherrod down.” On the CBS Early Show she says she would “definitely consider” suing Breitbart and is unsure whether she wants to take up Vilsack’s offer to work on civil rights issues in the USDA. “I would not like to be the one person that this country is looking at to solve all of the problems of discrimination within the Department of Agriculture,” she says.
- Shortly after noon on July 22, President Obama reaches Sherrod by phone. According to a White House statement, the conversation lasts seven minutes, and “the President expressed to Ms. Sherrod his regret about the events of the last several days.”
- By now, with the Sherrod saga finally slowing down, the press begins its post-mortems. One aspect focuses on the role of the media themselves. In a July 22 discussion of the Sherrod case on the Politico, conservative commentator and Breitbart critic David Frum, says, “We live in an intensely competitive media environment where, more and more, people want their information refracted through a political site, where there is a dwindling market share for news that offers itself as objective and reliable.”
- At 2:06 a.m. on July 23, the Big Government site posts an item from a leading figure in conservative talk radio headlined: “Rush: ‘Breitbart was Exactly Right.’” The post includes an excerpt of Rush Limbaugh saying, “If you listen to the whole speech as people have, forty-three minutes, she’s racist. The NAACP is racist.”
- A July 23 New York Times piece examines the subject of race and the Sherrod story, declaring that “No matter how hard his White House tries to keep the issue [of race] from defining [Obama’s] presidency, it keeps popping back up, fueled in part by high expectations from the left for the first black president, and in part by tactical opposition politics on the right.” Indeed, this story moved so fast, driven by cable and the web, that print editions of newspapers were often left to analyze the events.
- In some conservative circles, one emerging theme is criticism of the media’s treatment of Sherrod as the protagonist in the story. A July 23 post on the Big Government site decries the mainstream media’s “hypocritical sanctimony surrounding Shirley Sherrod.”
- In a July 23 interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, Obama offers his analysis, saying that Vilsack “jumped the gun” on initially ousting Sherrod partly because “we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles.”
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ