One crisis of the Sherrod story: when journalists scramble to publish, vital facts, context can be ignored


United State Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod’s inspiring words, spoken at a recent event, and about a 20-year-old lesson in humility and equitability, were taken out of context.  The 7-second excerpt vilified her.  Or rather those pundits and journalists who leaped on the incendiary story did that.

Shirley Sherrod

In doing this, that rush to judge and punish Mr. Sherrod tainted the department’s reputation and the Obama administration’s – for a “moment.” The Today Show’s Matt Lauer hyped this segment, emphasizing how wrong it is to jump to conclusions without being well informed.

A different angle of story, and the hypocrisy, is that this is common. The conduct is so common that it’s banal.  Viewers see these embarassments so often that they must decide when it’s worthwhile to complain.  That doesn’t make it acceptable.

A separate point makes this worse.  “Race,” bias, and bigotry worked as rhetorical and political kindling for conservative pundits to indulge the prospect of reversed bias, while an honorable professional was forced to eject and deject herself from her position.

The CBS’ Evening News invited Jeff Greenfield to remind or admonish viewers and journalists to watch it; to get the story, but “get it right.”  His points were candid, well informed, and worth a concentrated listen.

Why would the pundits across the network and cable channels make this rush to judgement the crux of their segments?  This effectively punished Ms. Sherrod.  It would be more valuable to ask how many of those who leaped on the story had watched the entire video, and then ask how that would change their segment’s agenda.

Jeff Greenfield

These questions are in the same family of this one: “should Sunday panel show pundits’ sound bites be fact-checked; and then should those pundits be confronted, and pressed to explain when they’ve erred?”  Certainly they should.

A difficult question is why the U.S. media chose to broach this self criticism in the wake of the Sherrod affair.  Her story was worthy of it, but many prior and more high-profile stories were too.

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