Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
Anyone who watched the news this past week knows about the false attack on federal employee Shirley Sherrod, who worked in the Department of Agriculture in Georgia. A right-wing distortionist–Andrew Breitbart–published an edited video that made night out of day. It’s the sort of stunt that Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart delight in doing openly, for laughs, to politicians, actors, and other self-important personages for laughs. But Breitbart is no comedian. His work was defamation, whether he did the editing or it was done by someone else.
He used a very simple technique, not the least bit clever. A public figure says something like, “I have never taken a bribe.” Edit out the word “never,” and you have that official saying, “I have taken a bribe.” Any rube with an editing machine can perform this trick. While this may be great fun on the comedy circuit, it can be devastating when presented as news on a national cable network. Unfortunately, it is typical fare on what some call “Faux News.”
The Fox “News” network ran the distortion repeatedly early in the week, and its commentators had great fun expressing outrage and talking about Ms. Sherrod’s alleged racism. Of course, her story was not about racism, but about overcoming racism. At another time and in another place, she had considered not helping a white family that was about to lose its farm. Before she had committed a social and personal sin based in racial animosity and omission, she realized that the problem in our society was bigger than race. It was about poverty and class, with the wealthy and powerful sticking it to the weak, poor, uneducated, and unsophisticated.
The incident transformed her anger at white on black racism, and turned her into a kind of populist, who realized that the issue of economic disadvantage was based as much in top-down power as it was in racial animus, though that is a real and harmful condition that led to the murder of Ms. Sherrod’s father by a white man who was never prosecuted, in spite of overwhelming evidence of his guilt.
Many years ago, I worked for a white man who ran a social service organization, who regularly referred to blacks as “niggers.” If someone, of whatever race or ethnicity, was particularly dense about an issue or did something particularly stupid, he had a favorite saying for that person: “He’s dumber than twin niggers.” My boss gradually changed, not because he had a religious experience that showed him the error of his ways or because of anything I did to convince him that using those words was inappropriate, but because he had some real life experiences that influenced him, much the way Shirley Sherrod had been influenced by getting to know the white family that needed her help.
Before taking the job of running the social service organization, my boss’s experience with blacks had been limited to those who were farm workers, uneducated, and poor. As similar social service agencies began to proliferate in Texas, they formed an association and held regular meetings together to improve and coordinate their work. For the first time in my boss’s life, he was rubbing shoulders with educated blacks and Hispanics who were his equal in every way. Their incomes were as good. Their educations were as good as or better than his. Their homes were as lovely as his. They had new cars, just as he did. They were members of country clubs, just as he was. They liked to sip bourbon on the rocks, just as he did. They spoke as well as he did, often better. They had children in college or working as professionals, just as he did. In every sense, they were his peers. Gradually, he became friends with some of them, and that made all the difference in his life. No longer did he use racial epithets. And more important, he began trying to change the behavior of his old white friends, with whom he still associated, even when they began to call him a “nigger-lover” or a liberal.
Transformations do happen in real life. It happened to Shirley Sherrod. It happened to Malcolm X after he made a pilgrimage to Mecca and saw for himself that Muslims came in all shades of color and ethnicities. It happened to Robert Byrd, George Wallace, and to a lesser extent to Strom Thurmond. How fortunate we were to have a federal employee in Georgia who was enlightened by her own experience to recognize that many farmers need some help, no matter their race or ethnicity. How shameful it is that the Obama administration fired her before looking into the facts instead of relying on the Fox “News” propaganda machine.
But the Obama administration was not alone its lack of diligence. The NAACP rushed to condemn Ms. Sherrod without investigating the false claims. (The NAACP, Ms. Sherrod’s boss, and President Obama have since apologized, for what’s that worth.) For a time after the white farmer and his wife came to the aid of Ms. Sherrod, describing her as their hero, the New York Times, our self-proclaimed newspaper of record, failed to report their comments.
The best coverage of this deplorable fiasco was done by Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC show:
“This is what Fox News does, this is how they are different from other news organizations. This is why the White House argued months ago that Fox should be treated as a media organization but not as a normal news organization, because they don’t treat news the way a normal news organization treats news. Just like the fake ACORN controversy, Fox News knows that it has a role in this dance….
“Fox does what Fox does… What is interesting about this story is that the Obama administration inexplicably keeps falling for it…
“Dear White House, dear administration: believing conservative spin about what’s so wrong with you and then giving into that spin is not an effective defense against that spin. Just buying it and apologizing for it, and doing whatever they want you to do doesn’t make the problem of them lying about you go away. In fact, it makes it worse…
“The huge tide of negative publicity that followed these video tapes and the coverage they got on Fox wall-to-wall was a dishonest political stunt that bears no resemblance to journalism and no resemblance to the actual facts of what happened. But it worked. Means be damned, in the end it worked.”
I don’t watch any news program or commentator all the time, but among those that I occasionally watch, it is difficult to find one more reliable, intelligent, and correct than Rachel Maddow’s program. In this case, she has demonstrated the nearly complete lack of integrity of Fox “News” as a news organization. She has shown a weakness in the Obama administration–in many ways it fails to follow principle as much as any administration in our history. It is an important principle. No administration should act without having reliable information. Fortunately for the country, this mistaken episode did not lead to a (so far) $750 billion war.
To further demonstrate how bereft of authenticity Fox “News” is, compare their behavior to that of CBS News after Dan Rather hyped a story using suspect memos purporting to be written by George W. Bush’s commander when he served in the National Guard. No attempt was made to authenticate the documents before Rather aired them less than two months before the 2004 election. As a result of the incident, CBS fired the producer of the program (60 Minutes Wednesday) on which the story aired, Mary Mapes. Several senior news executives were asked to resign, and CBS apologized to viewers. Dan Rather also resigned as anchorman in 2005, having been disgraced by his failure to authenticate serious charges against the President before airing them. Don’t expect anything similar from Fox “News.”
One other aspect of the Sherrod incident was stated cogently by Eugene Robinson, Washington Post Associate Editor and Op-Ed Columnist: “A cynical right-wing propaganda machine is peddling the poisonous fiction that when African Americans or other minorities reach positions of power, they seek some kind of revenge against whites.” This kind of venal, irrational fear is peddled by elements of the Tea Party (a subsidiary of the Republican Party), the extreme right wing, neo-Nazis, skinheads, and some of my hopelessly racist relatives who are comfortable with blacks only if they see them on TV in a sports uniform. Such false fear is behind most of the venomous racist attacks spread like a virus over the internet since Obama became a contender for the presidency. It is a national shame that Obama has been sucked into this racist vortex instead of opposing such racism forthrightly and openly. To contend, as many in and out of this adminstration do, that this is a post-racial society is mendacious.
My remaining question is how long will it take for the Obama administration to correct its mistake, reinstate Ms. Sherrod (if she still wants to work for such a feckless employer), and repair her reputation? Apparently, the answer is “too long.” Of course, this may be the kind of mistake that can’t be completely undone, but someone in this administration needs to try.
© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. HankinsEmail | Print