Too much trust, not enough ver­ify

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Blog­ger An­drew Bre­it­bart re­leased a mis­chie­vously edited video show­ing a black Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture of­fi­cial, Shirley Sher­rod, re­call­ing her seem­ingly racist re­luc­tance to as­sist a white farmer more than two decades ear­lier. Some in the au­di­ence of NAACP mem­bers are heard en­gag­ing in a sort of call-and-re­sponse ap­proval of Sher­rod’s sen­ti­ments. Re­act­ing to the edited video, Sher­rod’s boss, Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Tom Vil­sack, de­manded her res­ig­na­tion.

Now imag­ine if it had gone a lit­tle dif­fer­ently — if, be­fore Sher­rod could re­sign, the White House had in­ter­vened. Imag­ine the re­ac­tion of those now try­ing to put Pres­i­dent Barack Obama at the cen­ter of this de­ba­cle by blam­ing him for Sher­rod’s un­nec­es­sary res­ig­na­tion. They would have been out­raged if he had backed her up in the face of the ini­tial in­for­ma­tion.

Should Vil­sack have in­ves­ti­gated fur­ther? Yes. Ditto for the NAACP. But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs should not have been the first to of­fer Sher­rod an apol­ogy. It should have been Bre­it­bart, the man who started the con­tro­versy. What he did was tan­ta­mount to re­leas­ing the Zapruder film mi­nus the moment of im­pact.

Bre­it­bart’s ex­pla­na­tion — that he didn’t re­al­ize the video had been manipulated — only am­pli­fies his ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity. Of the “source” who gave him the video, he told the Daily Beast: “I don’t know this per­son. I can’t di­vine what that per­son’s mo­ti­va­tion was. I don’t know.”

A lit­tle less trust and a lit­tle more ver­ify next time, Mr. Bre­it­bart.

Even shal­lower was Bre­it­bart’s de­scrip­tion of his mo­ti­va­tion: “The video shows racism, and when the NAACP is go­ing to charge the tea party with racism. … I’m go­ing to show you it hap­pens on the other side.”

Even if you take that bo­gus ex­pla­na­tion at face value, Bre­it­bart at least should have high­lighted the fact that the NAACP au­di­ence also expressed ap­proval when Sher­rod brought her story full cir­cle and said poor peo­ple of ev­ery race need help. But he didn’t.

Such are the pit­falls of a me­dia world in which ev­ery­one plays whis­per-down-the-lane, but no­body fact-checks the mes­sage.

The re­al­ity is that the au­di­ence’s re­ac­tion was not a tacit ap­proval of Sher­rod’s mo­men­tary re­luc­tance to help a poor white farmer. Rather, it was the kind of re­sponse you might hear when any en­gag­ing story is told in an African Amer­i­can church. Any re­motely hon­est ob­server who watches Sher­rod’s full speech must ac­knowl­edge that the au­di­ence was root- ing for her ul­ti­mate re­demp­tion — not ap­plaud­ing her out­dated short­com­ings.

Too bad ev­ery­one was will­ing to ac­cept the video at face value. To fully un­der­stand why they did, a lit­tle con­text is in or­der.

In our po­lar­ized me­dia world, Bre­it­bart en­joys cred­i­bil­ity he does not de­serve. The only cre­den­tial re­quired to cast one­self as a me­dia player to­day is a par­ti­san one. If you are will­ing to con­form to the ar­ti­fi­cial ex­tremes of lib­eral/con­ser­va­tive, you get a key­board or a mi­cro­phone and, voila, you are in busi­ness!

Some of those bear­ing such cre­den­tials have con­di­tioned their au­di­ences to be­lieve that Obama is a racist. Glenn Beck has said the pres­i­dent has “a deep-seated ha­tred for white peo­ple or the white cul­ture.” Rush Lim­baugh called the com­man­der in chief “the great­est liv­ing ex­am­ple of a re­verse racist” af­ter his Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion of So­nia So­tomayor, her­self an al­leged “re­verse racist.” Newt Gin­grich said Sher­rod showed a “vi­ciously racist” at­ti­tude. All the false charges of racism con­di­tion the talk­ing heads’ fol­low­ers to read­ily ac­cept that a mi­nor­ity woman speak­ing any ill of white farm­ers must be racist, with­out even paus­ing to won­der if there could be more to the story.

Which is not to say there isn’t plenty of blame to go around. Vil­sack and the NAACP should have re­served judg­ment, es­pe­cially if Sher­rod was telling them that Bre­it­bart’s clip was part of a longer speech with a dif­fer­ent mes­sage (which, pre­sum­ably, she was). The news out­lets that ran with the clip also should have done more to de­ter­mine whether it was au­then­tic.

The only mis­take the White House made was in fail­ing to tune out Bre­it­bart, the same “jour­nal­ist” who lent his heft to a guy later charged in a plot to tam­per with phones in the of­fice of Sen. Mary Lan­drieu, D-La.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion would have been bet­ter off re­mem­ber­ing the words then-Sen. Obama spoke in the midst of an­other racial ker­fuf­fle: “The pro­found mis­take of Rev. Wright’s ser­mons is not that he spoke about racism in our so­ci­ety,” Obama said at the Na­tional Con­sti­tu­tion Cen­ter. “It’s that he spoke as if our so­ci­ety was static; as if no progress has been made. … But what we know — what we have seen — is that Amer­ica can change. That is (the) true ge­nius of this nation.”

We should have known right away that Sher­rod was mak­ing the same point. For missing it, Vil­sack owed her the apol­ogy he of­fered. For ob­scur­ing it, Bre­it­bart owes the rest of us one as well.

An­drew Bre­it­bart

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