Shirley Sherrod And the Rush to Judgment

When I was a young reporter, we adhered to a strict moral code. The motto was: get it first but first get it right.

Opinion was relegated to the editorial page and the columnists. Reporting was supposed to be based on an unbiased pursuit of facts. Faking a story -- we called it “piping” a story -- was considered beneath contempt.

Now, the journalistic world is shaken by the disclosure that Shirley Sherrod, a black official with the Agriculture Department, was booted from her job because of a doctored tape. She was depicted in the fake tape as having made a speech in which she said she was biased against a white farmer who needed help. On the contrary: -- she helped that farmer.        

The phony tape was put out on the web site of a conservative blogger named Andrew Breitbart and it caused an uproar. He was called a liar, a propagandist, a race baiter. He didn’t deny the charges specifically but said the Democrats had a strategy of falsely accusing their opponents of being racist.

The saddest part of this whole affair was the rush to judgment by the White House, the NAACP and others. They acted like the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland.”  “Off with her head……Sentence first,  verdict afterward!”

 As soon as the phony news broke on the air, the White House phoned her twice. They asked her to submit her resignation immediately. She pulled her car over to the side of the road and did so on her Blackberry.  Such is the power of phony news in this era of the 24-hour news cycle.

As Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote: “The woman was thrown to the wolves without even the courtesy of a conversation. Her side of the story?  The truth? The administration wasn’t interested.”

A call for Ms. Sherrod’s head came also from the NAACP. She had made her speech at a meeting of that civil rights organization.

Professor Barbara Selvin, who teaches journalistic ethics at Stony Brook University, told me: “There was a rush to judgment here, a failure to check the facts, blindly firing this woman.

“It’s hard to believe that the NAACP demanded she be fired when the speech was made at their gathering. It’s hard to fathom how journalists from the old, so-called established media don’t do more to fight back against the distortion of basic journalistic ethics that took place here.”

Indeed, it is hard to believe. The anchors of cable news, both on the right and left, spew out their hate-filled rhetoric and pretend they are giving people facts. Checking facts is becoming a lost art.

 It would be good if some legitimate business would give this woman a position that suits her talents. Don’t expect that the people who demanded her resignation or the pundits who distorted the facts will apologize -- sincerely -- or change their ways.

This episode has damaged the credibility of journalism and caused great harm to a decent, honest  public servant.

Contact Us