Why Fact-Checking Is Even More Important in Today's Go-Go Media World

I'm still laughing at the credulity of the NAACP national office, the White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack over the firing of Shirley Sherrod. You can't make this shit up. And when I'm done laughing, I want to weep. Som

It’s such a journalism cliche that when someone says, “If your mother says she loves you,” everyone chants the rest: “Check it out!”

When that advice is ignored, it’s often a hoot. I’m still laughing at the credulity of the NAACP national office, the White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack. You can’t make this shit up.

And when I’m done laughing, I want to weep. Some of the brightest people in our public life believe anything that’s on the Internet.

President Obama underlines this idiocy with a comment to ABC’s Good Morning America. Vilsack “jumped the gun, partly because we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles.”

The media made me do it? That’s a hoary excuse.

It never occurred to anyone in their executive suites that rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart and Fox News might have a hostile agenda when they showed the video clip of a black USDA official saying she denied white farmer aid to which he was entitled ... 24 years ago.

The White House, USDA and the NAACP accepted the clip as fair and balanced and belly-flopped into the slimey Pool of Political Correctness.

The speaker, Shirley Sherrod, was a political appointee. Vilsack forced her to resign with White House approval, and the NAACP condemned her racism.

Here’s a suggestion: If someone who openly loathes everything you stand for posts a clip that appears to mock everything you stand for, check it out.

Well, that clip wasn’t the whole story. It wasn’t fair and balanced. The excerpt was from a talk about racial conciliation. The audience was a Georgia NAACP banquet five months ago. Sherrod was a Georgia state ag official when the incident occurred.

Blogger Breitbart is unapologetic, saying he never saw the entire 43-minute video before posting the clip. No one, so far, is claiming credit for circulating the misleading video fragment. Now, after the NAACP obtained and posted the whole video, there is a confused scramble to undo the injustice to Sherrod. What isn’t clear is the failure of the NAACP to ask its Georgia affiliate for the tape before damning her.

Had anyone at USDA or the NAACP national headquarters been thinking instead of reacting with stunning cowardice, they would have told someone, “Check it out!” Any sensible editor — always alert for someone ready to grind and ax and use it on someone — would have told a reporter panting to report the brouhaha to “Check it out!” They would have obtained the entire video, and it would have been obvious that Breitbart and Fox News never hesitated before embracing dishonest, distorted editing of the longer video.

Breitbart’s biggovernment.com and Fox are known gorers (Exodus 21:28-29). Breitbart is best known for the hidden camera sting that all but destroyed the anti-poverty organization ACORN. That video showed actors posing as a prostitute and pimp getting business advice from ACORN workers. Fox News often is a mouthpiece and accomplice of the GOP and its core Tea Party.

Now that the whole video has been seen, the NAACP is backing off, saying it was “snookered.” More bullshit. They did it to themselves.

As for USDA, Huffington Post quotes Secretary Vilsack saying the controversy surrounding Sherrod's comments could, rightly or wrongly, cause people to question her decisions as a federal employee. The furor, he said, also could lead to lingering doubts about civil rights at the agency, which has a modern history of discrimination against black farmers.

He’s not on message. The White House press secretary announced the official apology to Sherrod and a groveling Vilsack has had to offer her another job. She’s the second Obama official hounded out of office by rightwing bloggers, and the unthinking White House response recalls Obama’s visceral reaction to the arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Huffington Post described the origin of the Sherrod fiasco this way: It began when biggovernment.com posted a 2-minute, 38-second video clip in which Sherrod describes the first time a white farmer came to her for help. It was 1986, and she worked for a nonprofit rural farm aid group and not USDA. She said the farmer came in acting “superior” to her and that she debated how much help to give him.

“I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land,” Sherrod told her Georgia NAACP audience in March. Initially, “I didn't give him the full force of what I could do.” Rather, she gave him enough help to keep his case progressing. Eventually, she said, his situation “opened my eyes” that whites were struggling just like blacks and helping farmers wasn't so much about race but was “about the poor versus those who have.”

Now she recalls she became close friends with the farmer and helped him for two years. Sherrod said that working with the farmer, Roger Spooner, whom she does not name, changed her entire outlook.

Since the video clip blowup, the white farm family has defended Sherrod. “She's always been nice and polite and considerate. She was just a good person,” farmer’s wife Eloise Spooner said. “She did everything she could trying to help.”

Her talk to the NAACP in March also suggests some context for her feelings as a young state official. In the unedited video, Sherrod tells how her father was killed in 1965 by white men who were never charged. She says she made a commitment to stay in the South the night of her father's death, despite the dreams of leaving her rural town.

“When I made that commitment I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only,” she said. “But you know God will show you things and he'll put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• Fox19 showed its predictable bias again when it reported the Senate vote ending GOP obstruction to extending jobless benefits. Rather than a Democratic spokesman or representatives of both parties, Fox19 chose Mitch McConnell — Republican Senate leader — to damn the Democrats and exculpate his own party.

• Too many reporters say the Tea Party is a freewheeling protest movement unrelated to the GOP. It's the conventional wisdom de jour. A recent Gallup Poll suggests reporters were conned or have become fellow travelers in search of a continually lively story.

Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport says poll data demonstrate that “there is significant overlap between Americans who identify as supporters of the Tea Party movement and those who identify as conservative Republicans. Their similar ideological makeup and views suggest that the Tea Party movement is more a rebranding of core Republicanism than a new or distinct entity on the American political scene.

“Conservative Republicans outnumber moderate/liberal Republicans in the general population by about a 2-to-1 margin; among Tea Party supporters, the ratio is well more than 3 to 1. More generally, almost 8 out of 10 Tea Party supporters are Republicans, compared with 44 percent of all national adults. These findings are based on three surveys Gallup conducted in March, May, and June of this year. Thirty percent of Americans, on average, identify as Tea Party supporters — a percentage remarkably consistent across the three surveys.

“One reason for interest in the burgeoning Tea Party movement this year has been its potential impact on the midterm elections in November. Already the Tea Party is viewed as affecting Republican primaries, with its chosen candidates prevailing or poised to do so in several contests, including the withdrawal or defeat of well-funded 'establishment' Republican candidates in the Florida and Kentucky Senate races.

“This potential impact is clear from data showing that Tea Party supporters are more enthusiastic about voting this year than are Americans overall, and more likely to say they are certain to vote. At the same time, Tea Party supporters are no more enthusiastic or certain to vote than the traditional Republican base: conservative Republicans.

“While Tea Party supporters are not universal in their backing of Republican candidates, they skew heavily in that direction. About 80 percent of Tea Party supporters say they will vote for the Republican candidate in their district, slightly lower than the projected 95 percent Republican vote among conservative Republicans.

“This suggests that the potential impact of the Tea Party on Republican chances of winning in congressional and senatorial races this fall — even if supporters turn out in record numbers — may be slightly less than would be expected.”

Britain’s Economist magazine looked at the risk/benefit tension of the new corporate concern for employee mental health and cautions, “It is not self-evident that a positive mental attitude is good for a worker or his output: history shows that misfits have contributed far more to creativity than perky optimists. Besides, curmudgeonliness is arguably a rational way to cope with an imperfect world, rather than a sign of mental maladjustment.” Amen.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]