In the early 90s, when I was working at Channel 3 in Memphis, I got to be the weekend reporter (I was the new guy). Kym Clark had that assignment at Channel 5 and Jonathan Clarke was doing weekends at 13. Since there seemed to be less news on weekends, we’d often see each other while covering whatever the desk determined the “big” story was. Kym, of course, is still at 5 (she’s better looking than me & Jon combined, so no surprise there). JC headed north to St. Louis, where he has his own PR company. He also blogs. He and I got into a Facebook chat about politics and the incredibly stupid mess surrounding former USDA official Shirley Sherrod.
She got pushed out of her job after Andrew Breitbart posted part of a video of her speaking at an event. In the clip, the black official was heard making a comment about being reluctant to help a white farmer. She went on to say that she realized that her job was to help all farmers, so she did. The initial portion of the clip Breitbart posted did not contain the entire comment, but he called what he did post as proof of Sherrod describing how she discriminated against a white farmer, with the suggestion that the Obama Administration supported racism. Of course, cable news, constantly trying to fill the gaping maw that is the 24-hour news hole, jumped on the story, pushing at the Department of Agriculture until the Secretary of Agriculture forced Sherrod out of her job. Later that day, the network news picked up the story to that point.
It took a day, but after people started seeing the rest of the tape of Sherrod speaking, it was obvious that everyone attempting to commit journalism had failed miserably, missing anything approaching the actual context of the story. Sherrod had done her job and had told the audience at the NAACP event just that. The Obama Administration apologized for its weak-kneed overreaction and offered Sherrod a replacement job, which she has not decided on whether to accept.
Breitbart, who used to work with Matt Drudge on his website, considers himself a libertarian. Many of the items on his websites tack to a conservative point of view, which is fine. Fox News, which picked up the story, is said to tack in the same direction, particularly its prime time commentators, which is also fine. CNN, which tries to position itself as unbiased and middle of the road, jumped into the story with both feet, tracking down Secretary Vilsack to find out what he was going to do about the racism in his department. They also had Sherrod claiming she was being railroaded, but they didn’t hold the story while they checked out her claims. While I generally don’t have a problem with many conservatives, I was amused when I saw that Ann Coulter says the victim in this Passion Play wasn’t Sherrod, but was Breitbart(!) – claiming (on Fox News) that the website operator was “set up” to paint the official as a racist.
Ann, you’re a clown. Really. For many reasons, but in this case, because any journalist, or anyone who purports to be a journalist, has the ultimate responsibility for the information they gather and disseminate. If they pass along information that is incomplete, misleading or just outright wrong – that’s on them, their editors and publishers. Breitbart, Fox, CNN, the broadcast networks or anyone else who presented the half-assed version of the Sherrod story without first trying to obtain the entire tape of her remarks at the NAACP meeting and figuring out everything she said is to blame. Just because someone feeds you a video that’s supposed to be a bombshell and “blow the lid” off of anything, doesn’t mean you post it or air it immediately. I know there’s a rush to be first and that the immediacy of internet communications and reduced the available time to check out story – but the whole “getting it right” thing is straight from Journalism 101. If you only report what you know at the time, you’re bound to miss something important. And that will usually come back and take a chunk out of your butt.
I don’t claim to be some kind of journalistic oracle here. Did I make mistakes when I was working in the news business? Does the pope crap in the woods? Ask anyone who has ever edited any of my scripts. Of course I’ve made mistakes. And the news business (especially on the TV side) is predicated on taking the work of other people and presenting it as your own. I had an assignment editor who would hand out story sheets to reporters each morning with an accompanying newspaper article stapled to the sheet. The Gainesville Sun should have gotten on air credit for most of the stories on TV20 at the time. It’s not just local TV. I was reminded of this watching “Dan Rather Reports” on HDNet last night. If he and his producer had been more careful with the facts on the Bush National Guard story, Dan would still be anchoring the evening news instead of cranking out stories on a little-watched cable channel, Katie Couric would be doing celebrity interviews on Today while bantering with Matt and Al and CBS wouldn’t be struggling with the issue of whether or not to replace her as anchor of the CBS Evening News!
The White House apologized, as it should have. Bill O’Reilly apologized too (although he still managed to accuse Sherrod of being unfit to hold a government job – way to have it both ways Bill!). Many of the other news outlets, including the Fox show that first ran the tape have been doing the sidestep, pointing fingers everywhere but at themselves.
Guys, don’t be afraid to admit you screwed the pooch on this one. You did and it’s obvious. By not admitting it, you erode what little trust viewers and readers still have in the work you do. For viewers, there’s another lesson here. Beware news organizations with agendas. If you wait long enough, any governmental entity will do something wrong. That’s the nature of government. Don’t look for artificial constructs and try to manufacture controversy (New Black Panther Party & the Justice Department anybody?). Cover the real news. Ask questions. Then go ask more questions. You don’t have to be first to be right. You just have to be right.