Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Snookered: Right-wing propaganda and the truth about Shirley Sherrod


It would seem to be a question of whom to believe, but it really isn't.

Widely discredited right-wing smearmonger Andrew Breitbart posted a video, at his site Big Government, of Shirley Sherrod, the Department of Agriculture rural development director in Georgia, saying that in 1986 she didn't help a farmer because he was white. "Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism," rang his headline. In the wake of the NAACP's statement that there racist elements in the Tea Party "movement," Breitbart hit right back.

Fox News picked it up and ran with it, of course, and all hell broke loose.

Sherrod was forced by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to submit her resignation. Sherrod claims that the White House forced her out: "They were not interested in hearing the truth. No one wanted to hear the truth," she said yesterday.

While the White House denied that it had anything to do with the firing, Vilsack defended the move, asserting there is "zero tolerance for discrimination." (Sherrod stands by her claim that the White House was behind the move.)

But what is really going on here?

For his part, Breitbart is claiming that he didn't edit the two-minute video and doesn't have the full video, just edited clips submitted by a source. (This seems unlikely. What is likely is that Breitbart has, and/or has seen, the full clip and is aware of the context of Sherrod's cherry-picked remarks.)

But the NAACP, which had initially criticized Sherrod (and her remarks), is now speaking out in her defence:

The NAACP said in a statement Tuesday that it was "snookered by Fox News" and conservative website publisher Andrew Breitbart.

"Having reviewed the full tape by Shirley Sherrod, who is the woman who was fired by the Department of Agriculture, and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe that the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans," the statement from NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said.

Jealous later posted on his Twitter account that he "Spoke to Ms. Sherrod earlier today and personally apologized. Plan to meet with her face-to-face the next time I'm in Georgia."

The organization also urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to reconsider Sherrod's resignation from her post as the department's director of rural development for Georgia.

According to this, the NAACP has seen the full video while Breitbart has not. And there does indeed appear to be more to the story than Breitbart and his right-wing cheerleaders know (or would care to admit). As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is reporting:

The full, uncut video of a federal agricultural official's NAACP speech purporting racial scheming, told a different story than the barely-three-minute snippet that cost her her job.

Despite admitting in the edited version of the taping that she once withheld help to the couple on the basis of race, Shirley Sherrod was defended Tuesday by the wife of a white Georgia farmer.

Sherrod "kept us out of bankruptcy," said Eloise Spooner, 82, of Iron City in southwest Georgia. Spooner, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, added she considers Sherrod a "friend for life."

And here's where Breitbart is undone:

Recounting her dealings with the Spooners, Sherrod said she didn't help them as much as she could because of their race.

But a review of the entire 43-minute, 15-second speech -- released Tuesday on the NAACP Web site -- showed that Sherrod was giving a cautionary tale about the evils of racial separation.

"When I made that commitment (at age 17 years old to remain in Georgia and help people), I was making that commitment to black people, and to black people only," Sherrod said nearly 15 minutes into the recording, just seconds before the segment that brought her trouble. "But you know, God will... put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle was really about poor people."

Next, Sherrod would say the words that eventually led to her losing her job.

"[The white farmer] was trying to show me he was superior to me," she said, recalling the day some 24 years ago. "I knew what he was doing, but he had to come to me for help."

Eloise Spooner said as far as she's concerned Sherrod worked tirelessly to help the couple hold onto their land as they faced bankruptcy.

Where exactly is the racism there? Where is the discrimination? Where did Sherrod do anything wrong? Quite to the contrary, she appears to have been a woman of exceptional dedication and determination, and fairness.

And yet a right-wing propagandist uses an edited clip to destroy her and all that she represents, as well as the NAACP's credibility, Fox News and the sheepish conservative blogosphere play right along (wittingly or not), and a member of Obama's Cabinet, with or without pressure from the White House, goes so far as to fire her without any regard for context -- without any regard for the truth?

As appalling Breitbart's propaganda is, it's expected, and predictable. His agenda is transparent. As Steve Benen wrote yesterday (quoted at Think Progress, which has a useful overview post on the story), "The far-right site has the entire video, but only released the part that served the right's purposes. And in this case, the right's purposes are trying to spur racial animosity, taking the remarks of an African-American American official to the NAACP and removing the context, all in the hopes of generating white resentment." We've seen this before with "creative editing" of the ACORN tapes, and we're seeing it again here.

What is even more appalling is what Vilsack did, which is simply indefensible. Like the NAACP, he should rethink his knee-jerk reaction to Breitbart's clip and reinstate Sherrod -- although she may prefer to sue for wrongful dismissal. He has stood steadfastly by the firing, but, in light of what we know now, he has a lot of explaining to do, especially if he doesn't move quickly to reverse his decision. Meanwhile, questions must be asked of the White House. It will deny that it forced Vilsack's hand, but the media need to look into it more closely.

In a broader context, what is troubling here is the whole dynamic of how things unfolded, of how an edited clip by a known right-wing propagandist drove the chain of events, prompting even the NAACP to issue a premature condemnation and essentially directing a cabinet secretary and former governor to act irresponsibly and without any regard for the facts, simply accepting Breitbart's propaganda as truth. As Andrew Sullivan puts it, "[t]he virulence of the far right and the cowardice of the elites is creating a chilled atmosphere." What this whole story shows is not so much how far the right is willing to go, as we have seen all this before in one form or another, but how powerful the right is in terms of driving the media and political narrative. And, no, it doesn't go the other way. Can you imagine a conservative group and a Republican cabinet secretary acting in such a way in response to a video posted at, say, MoveOn.org (not to smear that organization by suggesting it's like Breitbart)? And can you imagine the establishment media reporting on it without really looking into it? Hardly. 

This isn't about "a new front... in the ongoing war between the left and right over which side is at fault for stoking persistent forces of racism in politics," as The Washington Post has proclaimed, it's about the right attacking its opponents with blatantly dishonest smears and both the media and government cowering in fear and doing the right's bidding. How is the left at fault here? The NAACP criticized the Tea Party "movement" for having racist elements in its ranks, but it was only expressing the obvious truth that there are in fact racist elements there. It didn't make anything up. It didn't concoct evidence. If anything, it was exposing racism, not stoking it. Contrast that to what Breitbart has done, spewing propaganda based on manufactured evidence to feed racial/racist resentment. There's no equivalency here. 

Sherrod is the victim here and deserves to be compensated. The blame rests with Breitbart, but accountability must ultimately be demanded of the highest reaches of the government. The whole appalling saga has exposed so much of what is deeply wrong with the way America works.

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