Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lessons from Shirley Sherrod

We live in an age where people react swiftly without processing anything. Thanks to the Internet and blogging, we (myself included) can respond to anything as fast as we can get to a computer. Thanks to the 24/7 media crush, any controversial, shocking, offensive, bold statement or action will be reported, analyzed and dissected immediately with disregard for context.

The soundbyte and the reaction become the story instead of including the full scope of what someone says or does. Case in point: John Mayer's stupid but not racist comment about saying the N word or his junk being David Duke. Taken by itself, it looks bad but after reading the ENTIRE Playboy interview (as I discussed here) , it's not as offensive.

As a former journalist, we lived for soundbytes but with all of my stories I strived to provide as much context as possible. In a time where people are bombarded with info, I believed in old school practices - get it right no matter what. Inform the readers and don't run with something without double checking. I try to do the same with E-TV.

Bloggers have a lot of influence today, especially in the political/news realm. They have more freedom and tend to find a lot of stories the mainstream media can't get. They have power but some fail to use it with responsibilty. Case in point, this hackjob named Andrew Brietbart.

He sat on the Shirley Sherrod video for months, doctored it to highlight certain points and then, in the middle of a fight between the Tea Party and the NAACP, decided to release it this week. Everyone flipped out at this Black woman working for the USDA saying she didn't want to give her all to this White farmer 24 years ago.

Unfortunately people flipped out without watching the entire video. I was lucky to turn to CNN to get some more information and happened to see Rick Sanchez not only show the video in full, but interview Sherrod and Roger & Eloise Spooner, the White farmers in question.

"Look kids! Real-life reporting to get the truth! Seeee, it still does exist. I told ya!"

The next day, CNN interviewed Sherrod in person and Rick Sanchez again devoted most of his show to the story. Now the NAACP, USDA, Dept. of Agriculture and the White House had to play damage control and backpedal from their rush to judgment.

It was simple protocol - check all the facts. consider the source. don't rush to judgment. Journalism 101, Fact-Finding 101 and everyone failed. So what we learn from this?

(Just the Facts? Where Have You Gone, Joe Friday)

1) News organizations need to better regulate what they report from blogs. Some blogs have agendas and without proper discernment, they get credibility and the public gets snookered into giving them page views. Blogs win, media loses.

2) Don't jump to conclusions without getting all the facts. Reputations and lives can and have been ruined by rumors. Thankfully we saved Shirley Sherrod but what of ACORN and Van Jones, others ruined by this hack Brietbart.

3) Everything's a soundbyte nowadays. It's clean, neat and pretty. But like most things that look that way, it's part of a bigger picture. You don't read a book and just look at one chapter to gain an understanding.

Like anyone else, my blog is my space to react to what happens. But I write with the Spiderman motto "with great power comes great responsibility". Words have power and I and many others choose to use them wisely because of it. It's because we have integrity and unfortunately, integrity has always taken a back seat to popularity, especially now. We won't attack someone unless we have facts.

Evidence cannot lie as CSI's Gil Grissom said (one of my fave shows and characters), but it can darn sure be manipulated for an agenda.

Shirley Sherrod should be the final straw in a dangerous game of jumping the gun that blogs play in the mainstream. It should remind us to search for the truth. Keep the text in its context. READ and SEE Everything not just the flashy soundbytes but the boring words around it to understand it. We failed her and fortunately we were able to salvage some of it via spin control.

Sadly it'll happen again because these are the times we are in. But let it be a lesson in the danger of giving power to too many voices, rushing the judgment and not keeping the text in its context. What's more important, upholding your integrity or leading by emotion because you didn't ground yourself first.

I leave you with Proverbs 4:7 as a motto on how we should be as a society in the information age. Wisdom is the principal thing therefore get wisdom. But in all your getting, get understanding - to paraphrase. Be informed but understand what you get first.

(Keith Olbermann's Special Comment on this matter is brilliant. A breakdown that goes so well and so deep that I'm tempted to make it my own post. Since this blog is so long anyway, I'll just link it so y'all can click on to watch later.)


  1. Sadly, journalism has become more hype than truth.The internet has been a huge catalyst to a plethora of mis-information.People believe (like on the news)If it's on the Net, it MUST be true.Great post!

  2. I saw it firsthand too often. I watched great journalists do their job and be professionals but also saw some who cared more about the spotlight and their shine than doing a good job. People used to want to get in this profession to be like Woodward/Bernstein now that want to do it to be famous and brand themselves (the latter isn't bad if you brand yourself with honest, respectable qualities). But the Internet has made us lazy for the truth instead of using it to find it.