Shirley, You Jest

Shirley Sherrod during her Georgia NAACP speech.

Well, the Shirley Sherrod affair is still working itself out. What an interesting ride is has been so far.

First, a blogger posts an edited video of the USDA official, suggesting that she has used her office to discriminate against white people. Catching wind of the controversy, the NAACP first condemns her, so as not to be seen as coddling their own racists as they criticize the Tea Party for accepting racists, then USDA honcho Tom Vilsack fires her.


As they say on infomertials, “but wait, there’s more!” Turns out, if you watch the full tape of Ms. Sherrod’s speech before a Georgia NAACP banquet, you learn some interesting points.

Ms. Sherrod was not describing her actions as a USDA employee, but rather an incident from two decades ago. And the point of her story is that, while she was disinclined to help Roger Spooner at first, she later came to realize that he, as an aging, poor, white farmer, was just as much a part of the struggle against injustice and poverty as any black person is.

“White people, black people, Hispanic people, we all have to do our part,” she said.

I watched the full video, via the New York Times web site. The speech is a bit dull in parts, partly because it’s about rural development USDA programs and getting more young black people interested in a USDA career—probably not points that would draw a mass audience.

But much of the speech was very compelling. Ms. Sherrod describes losing her father in the mid 1960s as a 17-year-old high school senior; he was killed by a white man.

Yeah, former Iowa governor. For the record, when I've heard him speak, he's usually seemed intelligent and reasonable. Just as Shirley's out of context quotes should not have gotten her fired, his uncharacteristicly hasty and wrong-headed action don't make him look like a boogey man. They don't make him look good, though, either. Official USDA photo.

For her, 20 years later, to come to the realization that she needed to help a white farmer, and for her to act on that realization, well, it’s a lot. I am not sure, from the speech and what has happened, that Shirley will always be remembered as a hero, but she certainly is looking a lot better than Tom Vilsack right now.

The lessons of this sad and strange affair are many:

  •  As Minnesota blogger Heather Voorhees——points out eloquently, this case shows that blogs are not a substitute for journalism. In her “so help me blog” post, she notes how badly information can be mangled by blogs.
  • Fox News is not fair and balanced. That should be obvious to the world by now, but let me state it clearly. Merely putting the word “news” on something, and shouting the world that you are “fair and balanced” does not mean you’re reporting news, nor does it mean you’re fair and balanced. Trust me on this one. I know more than you do. I have a master’s degree, in journalism. (Sorry, Ask Dr. Science could not resist). It doesn’t take an MA to figure this one out, however.
  • Video evidence, like photo evidence, like audio evidence, is not to be trusted at faith value, part of the reason that journalism should be more important, not less, in a blog world. I have not blogged about Mel Gibson. I don’t like his recorded remarks that have been so in the news this week, but I’ m suspending judgment until more information comes out. Mel has long been a bit of a crazy right wing nut anyway, suspending judgment doesn’t mean I have a lot of sympathy for the man—it’s just that this particular story seems to have hidden dimensions. I already disliked Mel Gibson, but I will often be entertained by artists who are crazy and paranoid. Ringo Starr was oddly convinced Elvis was a part of a CIA plot due to his awkward photo with Richard Nixon, but that doesn’t keep me from liking “Yellow Submarine.” “My Year of Living Dangerously” is still a great movie, even if its star, some years later, is a raving lunatic. Anyway, I digress, as I often do. Photoshop, iMovie, Final Cut, Garage Band—images and sounds can be freely sliced and diced with the right software. Just because you see or hear it doesn’t mean you should believe it.
  •  Rachel Maddow has a clearer context for this incident than many other commentators. See her video, via the Huffington Post. Yes, I know, MSNBC and Rachel are biased too, but the point is she presents herself as a liberal commentator and doesn’t shout that she’s fair and balanced, because she’ not aspiring to be. The morning zoo on Fox is supposed to be news and isn’t. Rachel aspires to provide provocative insight from a progressive point of view, and does.

Well. The news today is that Barack Obama will speak with Shirley. As I said, this little drama is still unfolding. But I don’t think I’m jumping the gun with my conclusions here.



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2 responses to “Shirley, You Jest

  1. Cate Sheller

    Oh what’s in a name (or slogan)? Fox News is “fair and balanced.” The erstwhile oppressive government of East Germany called itself a “democratic republic.” China still calls itself “the people’s republic.” Just saying it doesn’t make it true.

    But of course Rachel is right. And hot. Oops, did I say that out loud?

  2. Cindy

    This is hardly the first time people have jumped to conclusions without checking all the facts. But seriously, I can’t believe Vilsak didn’t even bother to watch the whole video to see if it was accurate information before he fired her. She said on a morning show that she didn’t know if she would even consider taking her job back if it was offered. I don’t blame her a bit. The damage is done.

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