A smear victim’s quest for justice

    The news isn’t always bad. For instance, (a) the weather is warming up, (b) Gabrielle Giffords is speaking new words every day, and (c) conservative hit man Andrew Breitbart is now being sued for defamation.Item (c) should gladden the hearts of anyone who believes in justice. And just desserts.Last July, you might recall, the right-wing gadfly posted an excerpt from a video which supposedly showed black federal official Shirley Sherrod supposedly confessing to the NAACP about how she supposedly had failed to render full government assistance to a white farmer, supposedly because she hated the color of his skin. As Breitbart alleged in his accompanying text, Sherrod told a “racist tale” about how she slighted the farmer “because he is white.” The video excerpt went viral, and Fox News predictably ran with it (because Fox loves stories about black racism, regardless of whether they are true). Sherrod was promptly dumped by her panicked employer, the Department of Agriculture.Within a matter of days, it became clear that the clip was a smear. The full video of Sherrod’s speech to the NAACP put the lie to Breitbart’s hit job. Sherrod was actually describing an incident that took place 24 years earlier; and that despite her initial hesitation about the farmer, she ultimately went the extra mile to help him avoid foreclosure. Indeed, the white farmer in question has nothing but praise for Sherrod’s efforts way back when; he told CNN last summer that the Breitbart video clip was “ridiculous” and “a bunch of hogwash, in my opinion. She was just as nice to us as anyone could have been” and she was “helpful in every way.”Once the truth became known, prominent conservatives quickly distanced themselves from Breitbart’s smear. Rich Lowry at the National Review wrote that Sherrod’s “saga over the last couple of days is a lesson in how the culture of offense often works in contemporary America – chewing people up and spitting them out before they even have a chance to defend themselves.” Columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox, “She is owed an apology.” Even Glenn Beck said of the Breirbart smear, “this looks really bad. Context matters…this woman deserves her job back.”

    Breitbart is a known commodity – he peddles untruths for partisan purposes, slicing and dicing his videos to comport with his aims – so it’s welcome news indeed that Sherrod has now filed a defamation lawsuit, seeking an apology (Breitbart has never offered one), punitive damages for emotional distress, and the removal of the offending video clip from Breitbart’s website. Sherrod, who filed the suit in Washington last Friday and served Breitbart with the papers while he was visiting the Conservative Political Action Conference, issued this telling statement:”This lawsuit is not about politics or race. It is not about Right versus Left, the NAACP, or the Tea Party. It is about how quickly, in today’s Internet media environment, a person’s good name can become ‘collateral damage’ in an overheated political debate.”How true. Thanks to Breitbart, and thanks to the panicked decision of her employer (who caved to Breitbart before all the facts were known), Sherrod’s life was instantly transformed. One day she was a career civil servant; the next day, she was a “black racist” dumped on the street. Her lawsuit could shine a light on the fundamental unfairness of our overheated online world.Actually winning the lawsuit, however, is another matter entirely. As veteran First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams pointed out the other say, Sherrod faces high legal hurdles in order to prove defamation. Because Sherrod was a public official at the time of the incident, “she has to demonstrate not just that (Breitbart) did it, but that he knew what he was doing was false.” In other words, under America’s tough libel standards, Sherrod will have to persuasively demonstrate that Breitbart was deliberately mendacious, that he saw the whole video and purposely distorted its meaning. Breitbart has the lower hurdle; he can say that he acted in good faith, that he was simply unaware of the full video context. Can Sherrod prove otherwise?And even if Sherrod was to win the case, said Abrams, “I don’t think that a victory for her would have any real impact on the ability of right-wing media to keep on doing what they’re doing” – because most of what they’re doing is “rhetorical hyperbole,” and, thankfully, that kind of unfettered opinion is protected by the First Amendment. (Indeed, Breitbart was in fine form at CPAC, where he referred to liberal groups as “hate-filled, racist sheep.”)Nevertheless, the Sherrod case concerns a false statement of fact, not opinion. And it’s at least gratifying to see a smear victim take it to the perpetrator. Perhaps other partisan hit men can be dissuaded from practicing their craft if they hear that Breitbart is racking up hefty legal fees. In our hyperpolarized Internet environment, that alone would constitute a victory.——-Speaking of the Internet, check out Rick Santorum’s new complaint. Turns out, Pennsylvania’s presidential aspirant is still dogged by his ’03 comments about “man on dog.” His critics’ rhetorical hyperbole may not be fair, but such are the protections of the First Amendment.——-Today marks the fifth birthday of this blog. It has appeared in various iterations, and I suspect it may dwell on NewsWorks for awhile. Thanks, as always, for reading.

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