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.

Who’s the racist, Rupert?

By backing Glenn Beck’s wild rant that Barack Obama is racist, Rupert Murdoch is as incendiary as his Fox News pundits

When watching the likes of Glenn Beck (or other pundits of his leanings) on Fox News, I’m not just alarmed by the man himself. It takes a big team of people to sustain a daily TV show, so there are producers, writers, researchers and executives who decide there is value in him saying the things that he says. I’m often left wondering who those people are, and how it is that they feel comfortable with trying to pass such divisive and often bizarre ranting off as journalism. It has become clear that the support for Beck’s rhetoric goes much higher than just those involved in his show. In fact, Beck has support all the way from the very top – and it appears that the guy at the top is equally as misguided and ill-informed as he is.

Just this week, Rupert Murdoch, the proprietor of News Corp, which owns the Fox network in the US and so many other news entities around the world, told one of them – Sky News Australia – that Glenn Beck was “right” in his assertion that President Obama hates white people. The announcement that President Obama has a “deep-seated hatred of white people and white culture” is one of Beck’s most inflammatory and eyebrow-raising statements to date. This incendiary pronouncement, which was followed by a number of advertisers withdrawing their ads from Beck’s show, came after President Obama criticized the policeman in the Henry Louis Gates saga for having acted “stupidly” in arresting Gates just outside his own home.

Murdoch’s interview has, unsurprisingly, caused controversy, with civil rights groups like now demanding that Murdoch – whose position on whether or not Barack Obama is racist has changed a number of times this week – settles once and for all whether he agrees with Beck.

Murdoch’s words are indeed troubling. But it’s not even necessarily troubling that he believes that Obama is a racist. He is, after all, entitled to his opinion. In any case, Murdoch’s disdain for Obama is no secret: earlier this year he also described president’s policies as “dangerous”. What is most problematic here, however, is that he is the owner of influential news outlets, which are supposed to provide their viewers with facts, information and the truth about what’s happening in the world. This is an issue of journalistic standards and the future of the media.

When the White House denounced Fox News for acting as a “wing of the Republican Party” many conservatives saw this as the president using his power to silence his critics. However, it cannot be coincidental that News Corps’ news outlets – such as Fox News or the New York Post – seem to appear at the centre of racist or sexist controversies, that their pundits engage in race-baiting, or that the man who runs the company has now come out in public support for the views of the organisation’s most alarming pundits.

This isn’t just about media output but the very culture of at the heart of Murdoch’s News Corp. Currently, Sandra Guzman, a Latina who worked as a senior editor for the New York Post, is suing News Corp and the Post. She alleges that she was fired after she objected to a controversial cartoon published in the Post earlier this year, which made a thinly-vielled reference to President Obama as a crazed chimpanzee. She claims that the Post is a “hostile work environment where female employees and employees of colour have been subjected to pervasive and systemic discrimination and/or unlawful harassment based on their gender, race, colour and/or national origin.” While conspiracy theorists have their own conclusions about what Murdoch is aiming to do with his media empire, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Murdoch appears to be consciously fostering an organisation which has ugly practices and the propagation of a certain kind of ideology at its root.

It is also clear that Murdoch has little regard for the truth. Not only did he misrepresent the president’s remarks in his TV interview – saying that Obama “did make a very racist comment about blacks and whites and so on” but was unable to explain exactly what it was – but at several points he also made inaccurate statements. One of these was his denial that Glenn Beck or anyone else had compared the president to Stalin when there are a multitude of video clips available in which Fox pundits do just that. This is more than just one elderly man’s perspective. It is an issue of journalistic integrity that, it is becoming clear, News Corp’s oputlets appear to sorely lack.

Deliberate distortion of the facts, bias and partisanship in the media are serious issues, especially considering how powerful the media can be in shaping our perceptions and ideas. While some silppage is to be expected, a line must be drawn somewhere. Fox News, in particular, cannot continue to pretend that it is a neutral entity when the very man who owns it is far from neutral in his views.

Just last night, Lou Dobbs stepped down from his position as a CNN presenter, an event long encouraged by protests from civil rights groupsupset that he was using his platform to voice his anti-immigrant statements as though they were truth. The public demands better of its journalists and news organisations. Murdoch owes that much to the public. If he continues along the same path, his staff can expect more reaction of the Lou Dobbs variety.