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More grist for the Satanic mills

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

In this week’s Centre Square commentary, Chris Satullo suggests that last week’s media circus over a videotaped speech by an obscure federal official says far more about our toxic political culture than about the woman herself.

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A rumor, Churchill once said, can get half way around the world before the truth gets out of bed.

That was back in Sir Winston’s slower day.

In this digital age, before the truth raises its hand, a falsehood can circle the globe, start its own talk show and call for your resignation.

Just ask Shirley Sherrod.

Sherrod is the federal official who, just this week, has been defamed by a deceptively edited video on a prominent Web site, blasted on Fox News, fired, exonerated, offered her job back, and apologized to by both Barack Obama and Bill O’Reilly.

This is a disturbing tale of how off the rails our partisan media culture has gone.  It begins with Breitbart.com, a news aggregation site that shows what happens when news obsession gets cross-bred with partisanship and ADD.

The web site posted a video snippet edited to make it seem Sherrod, who was black, admitted denying services to a white farmer because of his skin color. In fact, the farmer credits Sherrod with helping save his farm.

The violations of Journalism 101 here are multiple.  Why not insist on seeing the whole video before posting an explosive snippet? Why not call the farmer? Why not call Sherrod?

Of course none of this had anything to do with journalism. It had to do with agenda, with whipping up a blogstorm to further a standing conservative narrative – about how it’s really black people who are the racists.  Once Breitbart ran the video snippet, the Fox news talkers, like good Pavlov’s dogs, began flogging it.

Again, just business as usual in the partisan snakepit of cable. Let me make here the fairness point that characters on the left such as Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore also shoot from the hip sometimes.

The real shocker is that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a good guy, reacted by canning Sherrod, without doing basic fact-checking.  Within a day, he’d come to his senses and apologized.

Too late. He made the Obama administration look craven.

You’d like to think such a flagrant case of drive-by character assassination would make everyone in the exploding partisan media step back, take a breath, and vow reform.   You’d like to think that.  But it’s more likely Shirley Sherrod won’t be the last person wounded by this media buzzsaw. She’s just this week’s victim.


  • Giles Farnaby says:

    I get the uneasy feeling we’re entering into a new, 21st-century version of the McCarthy period, with right-wingers substituting selectively edited video clips for the “list of subversives” McCarthy used to wave around. And yes, leftists are capable of the same thing, but it seems the right fringe is particulary fired up and firing away wildly these days.
    Be afraid…

  • The PepperMonkey says:

    Your piece this morning was very, very selective re editing of material in journalism. The example that you’ve cited seems to pale in comparison to others that could be brought up that have been prominently used as partisan ammunition.

    To wit:

    • The “Collateral Murder” edited videotape that was making the rounds (so to speak), and triumphantly held aloft as proof of US barbarity in Iraq. Please compare the edited version with the unedited version. Why no editorial on this?
    • Surely you’re familiar with the JournOlist? The “O” by the way stands for Obama. This was a loose consortium of allegedly professional journalists explicitly colluding on how to spin stories and formulate talking points based upon their own political policy preferences? This seems a far more grave offense from a journalistic point of view. But wait! If you happen to agree with a certain set of policy prescriptions, then all is well?
    • Let’s not even talk about Michael Moore.

    In short, if some right-winger is guilty of selective editing, they learned it from the real professionals. For all of the noble-sounding bromides about journalistic integrity, why no criticism of the point of view you agree with? Your selective editorializing on some topics, but not others, shouts with silence.

  • Myra says:

    The Sherrod story was embarrassing and unnecessary. Andrew Breitbart is not a trusted source of information, and should never be quoted without checking everything first. You do mention that others, on the left, do the same thing “sometimes” – I would make that “all the time”.
    There are several left-wing comedians in this country who are mistaken for (and even marketed as) newscasters all the time. And then they are frequently interviewed on NPR shows like Fresh Air because they are oh so witty. Now, that’s annoying too! And one more thing Chris – we all need to check our premises, and ask ourselves “why am I willing / not willing to believe this”, reading your commentaries, I doubt that you do that.

  • P. Withington says:

    It would be nice if Mr. Satullo had his facts straight. Fox News did not mention the Sherrod story until after she was forced to resign. He errs, therefore, in attributing the administration’s actions to Fox News.

    As you suggest, Mr. Satullo, best to take a bit of time to research the issue carefully – Journalism 101.

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