Lola in The Guardian: Shirley Sherrod’s case exposes ugly media flaws

[Originally published in The Guardian]
The hasty sacking of Shirley Sherrod shows how easily we are manipulated by ‘journalism’ based on inaccuracies
When Shirley Sherrod spoke at an NAACP event and shared a 24-year-old story of overcoming her prejudices, little did she realise the same speech would come back to in a new, highly edited form, putting her at the centre of a national controversy, costing her a job at the department of agriculture and almost ruining her reputation.
Yet that is exactly what happened this week. Rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart, in cahoots with Fox News, went on a mission – which he claims was to reveal the “truth” about the NAACP – to cause controversy. He took a bite-sized clip from Sherrod’s speech, tagged it with a headline accusing her of being a racist and released it to the world.
The clip showed Sherrod, who at the time was the director for rural development in Georgia, saying that she did not use the full force of her power to ensure that a white farmer got everything he needed. “Racist!” screamed the headlines. We now all know, of course, that the clip told only a fraction of the entire story. From the full video, it is clear that once Sherrod realised that her biases – which were connected to having lived and grown up in the South – had affected her job, she sought to overcome them. Once she had managed to do that, she was able to provide great support to the white farmers – who have publicly praised her helpfulness.
That the media picked up on the story, ran with it and repeated it without bothering to check the video in full is deeply troubling. Unfortunately, “journalism” based on the regurgitation of clips, soundbites and inaccuracies has become all too common. Controversy wins the day over facts, and regardless of the cost – which can include damage to the life or career of an individual, undermining the good work of an organisation (as in the case of Acorn) and losing the trust of the public. Indeed, in recognition of the fact that controversy sells, scandals are increasingly being manufactured and manipulated by the rightwing media to push people out of jobs and to scare the government.
Sonia Sotomayor experienced similar treatment over her “wise Latina” comment. Luckily for her, she got the position she wanted. Others have not been so fortunate. Van Jones, for example, the government’s former green tsar, went through the same thing and was eventually ousted. Outlets such as Fox News are becoming more and more political and are using their influence to shape and direct – often in the worst possible way – the political debate.
Of course, that can only happen if the White House allows itself to be pushed around by overblown, or in this case false, stories. Yet, that is what the White House is doing. It seems like the White House is so afraid of conservatives now that it is constantly on high alert for anything that may come from the right and catch them off guard. But its efforts to respond quickly – hastily – often end up making the White House look foolish.
President Obama has called Shirley Sherrod to apologise. This is after Sherrod apparently received four calls from the White House earlier this week asking her to resign. While I understand that the White House wishes to protect itself and the president, its knee-jerk reactions have become farcical. This case is also a sad indictment on partisan politics and the nature of the political battle between right and left, which is being reduced to dirty tricks.
That the NAACP, itself supposed to be an organisation concerned with equality, was so fast to denounce Sherrod as “shameful” is another surprising twist – it also had to backtrack once the full video was made available. Rather than taking responsibility for not using due diligence and checking the facts, the NAACP said it had been “snookered” by Breitbart and Fox News. The truth is, the NAACP was not “snookered”; it simply failed to act in a professional manner.
Both the NAACP and the White House’s reactions also reveal sensitivities to race-related discussions in this so-called “age of Obama”, particularly since it has been suggested – again by rightwing commentators – that the president favours black people and minorities over white people. The national conversation about race is becoming skewed by rightwing scandals and by inappropriate responses from the other side. This is deeply unhelpful.
Shirley Sherrod has been offered another job at the USDA. She may decline. In the meantime, the government and the country as a whole must use this as a teachable momentand reflect on the nature of the media and politics. One thing is for sure: while we allow ourselves to be so easily manipulated, those with an agenda will continue to exert their control.

Lola in The Economist: The NAACP at 100: Much still to do

[Originally published in The Economist]

But America’s oldest civil-rights outfit is redefining its role

DURING the summer of 1908, riots raged through Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. The quiet removal of two black men who had been held in prison as suspects in two separate attacks on white people enraged the white community. They took out their anger on black residents and black-owned businesses and properties. The riots went on for two days and simmered for longer; seven people were killed and some $200,000 worth of damage was done.
The following February, partly in response to the Springfield riots, a group of Jewish, white and black activists met in New York to found the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) whose aim was, and remains, to ensure “the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination”.
The NAACP celebrated its centenary on February 12th. It has played a leading role in bringing down racial barriers, notably in overturning Jim Crow laws and in its work on the 1954 case of Brown v Board of Education, which brought about the desegregation of America’s schools. But the changes in America since then have also brought challenges. America now has its first black president; evidence, to some, that the NAACP’s work is done.
Benjamin Jealous, who recently took over as the NAACP’s youngest ever president, at 36, disagrees. “There are still a lot of things to be angry about,” he declares. “Young black people in the US are the most incarcerated people in the world. They understand, by virtue of their situation and that of their peers, that the movement for civil rights in this country is very much needed and groups that played critical roles in removing the shackles that bound our forefathers and foremothers still play a role today.” The statistics back him up. The unemployment rate for black Americans is 12.6% compared with 6.9% for white Americans; their life expectancy five years less; and black infant mortality rates are twice the national average.
Mr Jealous’s youth may help him with another challenge. In the 1960s the NAACP boasted around half a million members. Membership has since dropped to less than 300,000, out of a population of some 41m African-Americans. Many people think that a generational divide, which has seen those who have grown up in a more integrated America become increasingly estranged from the organisations and leaders who fought for their rights, is to blame.
In a segregated America, the NAACP’s role in helping the black community was undeniable. But that has changed: a recent Gallup poll revealed that nearly 70% of Americans, the highest number it has ever recorded on this issue, believe that relations between black and white Americans “will eventually be worked out”. And these days it is Hispanics, who also face big inequalities, that make up the largest minority, not blacks. The NAACP’s approach is shifting accordingly; the black minority needs allies. Mr Jealous, in fact, reckons his task is now about “organising a plurality”. If the NAACP is going to regain its former pre-eminence “the way that we talk about issues, the way that we build coalitions and the nature of the struggle at this moment” must be “in universal terms”. That Mr Jealous is the son of a white father and a black mother may help him.
The work of the organisation, though, has not changed so very much. Mr Jealous says his main concerns are still the quality of schools, the jobs market and the quality of the justice system. But activism, too, must now be colour-blind.