The best thing that could come out of the injustice done to Shirley Sherrod is a warning to America of the explosive danger of allowing a volatile topic like race to be driven by proto-journalists with political agendas in a news ecosystem that has no quality filters or brakes.
In this new age of unregulated news and the relentless 24-hour news cycle, anyone with a camera (or video-editing software) becomes a source. Information leaps from the guy in his pajamas to the top of the network lineup before it is vetted, analyzed or pondered, as it might have been in the olden days of the archaic mainstream media. The initial video that zoomed around the blogosphere implied that Sherrod was confessing a racist response to a white farmer who had come to a USDA office seeking her help.
Sherrod had already been fired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack well before the narrative turned in her favor. A longer version of the tape showed that she was actually sharing her experience of 24 years ago in putting aside her own anger and seeing beyond race. And the farmers whom she had initially been reluctant to help came forward and said that she had saved their farm.
The source of the damning video was Andrew Breitbart, a conservative blogger who has made no secret of his hostility to liberals and their institutions. Breitbart admitted that the video was produced out of anger at a resolution passed by the NAACP condemning racism within the Tea Party movement. On Sean Hannity's show on Fox earlier this week, Breitbart was frank about his motives when asked if he supported Sherrod's firing. "I'm agnostic on the issue because I'm invested in getting the NAACP and the Democratic Party and the Congressional Black Caucus to stop constantly calling the Tea Party racist," he said. "That's my job. I could care less about Shirley Sherrod, to be honest with you. This is not about Shirley Sherrod." He wanted to get back at the NAACP, and he claimed to have found the smoking footage showing that the 100-year-old civil rights organization was also racist.
Breitbart has a history of creative editing to serve his political ends. He acquired fame last year for posting surreptitious videos of two collaborators posing as pimp and prostitute and approaching counselors at ACORN, the community organization, for help in setting up a business in human trafficking. The tapes seemed to show that the ACORN officials were willing to help him figure out how to do it. The resulting scandal essentially destroyed the organization. It didn't matter that a later investigation dismissed criminal charges against ACORN officials and showed that the tapes had been heavily edited, that voiceovers had been substituted for the original dialogue and that — in at least one case — the ACORN counselor immediately called the police after the couple's visit.
The poignancy of the Sherrod case is that it involves a real human being, not a large, faceless organization like ACORN. We can easily discern the trajectory of this woman's life, her years as a courageous foot soldier in the civil rights movement in Mississippi when it could have had fatal consequences. She, by all indications, should have been a model for racial progress in America, moving from an outsider demanding her basic rights to an insider in an organization with a notorious record of bias against blacks. Now the NAACP and the USDA are backtracking, and Sherrod is trying to reconstruct a life and a reputation that were destroyed in just a few minutes.
What hasn't changed in our new super-heated media configuration is that the follow-up story can never undo the original damage. Last night, Vilsack apologized and offered Sherrod a better job. But after a few days in the hot glare of publicity, her life will never be the same. It was ironic to watch the White House press corps pound White House spokesman Robert Gibbs at Wednesday's briefing, wanting to know who knew what and when in the firing of Shirley Sherrod. It was as if they were one answer short of calling this Sherrod-gate. Of course, all the White House and USDA knew was what the same news media with the inquisitive tone had reported without checking the facts or taking into account the motives of the source. Was it press critic H.L. Mencken who pointed out the circular absurdity of newspapers polling their readers on the knowledge of current events they had acquired from reading those same newspapers?
Today the racial story is not so clear-cut. In the face of obvious progress, white Americans have grown impatient with complaints of racism. As polls show, the majority of whites no longer believe that racism is a major issue. For some conservatives, racism is simply a political weapon used by blacks to leverage power.
Breitbart's work attempts to fulfill a particularly virulent conservative fantasy: that black people are just as racist as whites, that they secretly harbor hatred for whites and are prepared to take revenge. It is a recurring theme in commentaries on the Fox News Network and the conservative blogs. These white anxieties have escalated as African Americans acquired real power — culminating in Barack Obama inside the White House. Now black people can do more than just talk about racism — they can do something about it.
That's why Glenn Beck calls President Obama a racist. He must be, right? Ultimately, the Sherrod scenario presented by Breitbart was a dream fulfilled for the right. Here was a black bureaucrat admitting to secretly taking revenge on a white man, and a roomful of NAACP members nodding in agreement with her. Since Breitbart couldn't actually find the damning footage, he just made it up. Apparently, there was no one at Fox News who could say, "Let's wait a minute; does this sound like the NAACP, or someone who has worked in the government for 25 years? And why does Breitbart want us to run this?" The important issue is why no one asked those questions before forever disrupting the life of Shirley Sherrod.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow us on Twitter.