If you were anything like us yesterday, your computer screens were tabbed up with reports and opinions on Georgia USDA official Shirley Sherrod’s resignation. You might have also craned your neck to the nearest TV to catch CNN’s Tony Harris’s deft coverage of the case, where Sherrod eventually defended herself against twenty-four-year-old charges of racism.
The initial story was a bit of a balloon boy in the end—Sherrod was not boasting about discriminating against a white farmer, as the edited video posted to conservative Web site biggovernment.com and played heavily on Fox had suggested. The fully unedited video of the speech Sherrod made at a March NAACP event soon came out and showed she was, in fact, telling a parable about reconciliation. After considering giving a white farmer at risk of losing his farm less than her full effort while working for a nonprofit farm aide group—she told the audience he was acting “superior”—she eventually helped him because she realized the injustice was not a matter of color, but of rich and poor.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided some illuminating coverage early in the day, bolstering Sherrod’s defense. The paper interviewed the wife of the farmer at the centre of the controversy, who said she considered Sherrod a “friend for life” who kept the couple out of bankruptcy.
Still, the balloon had not burst before the USDA ousted Sherrod—in a move anonymous sources have said was backed by the White House—and the NAACP released a statement condemning her statements. In light of a little reporting from the not-Fox set, everyone’s been backtracking. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he will reconsider his department’s decision to ask Sherrod to resign; the NAACP apologized to Sherrod, claiming it had been “snookered” into its condemnation. Today, Robert Gibbs apologized on behalf of the administration in a White House briefing that CNN aired with Sherrod watching on in split screen.
The story developed quickly and furiously online and on cable—and bloggers on the right and left continue with their takes (Newsweek’s The Spectrum blog has some of the best here). But for those not strapped to their screens, those who live and breathe that fresh out-of-the-bubble air, it was up to the nation’s papers to make sense of it all this morning. Rightly, most cast the Sherrod incident as the latest chapter in a conversation about race that’s seen accusations of racism levelled against the Tea Party (the original posting of the edited Sherrod video was a response to that) and a brouhaha over a dismissed case against members of the New Black Panthers Party accused of intimidating voters.
But in detailing the partisan, highly energized nature of the race debate surrounding the Sherrod incident, many reports this morning shifted the focus from what needed clarification at this particular juncture of that debate: that the accusations leveled against Sherrod were verifiably false. While talking about the race debate, they missed the opportunity here to step in and adjudicate it.
McClatchy’s Judy L. Thomas considers the debate in a report on the events that was widely circulated this morning—“The week-long debate over racism in politics took a strange turn on Tuesday,” Thomas begins. She quickly outlines the case, and Sherrod’s defense, before contextualizing yesterday’s story.
The whirlwind developments were the latest in a turbulent week that began last Tuesday with the passage of a resolution at the Kansas City convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The resolution called on all people — including tea party leaders — to condemn racism within the tea party movement.
Tea party leaders quickly responded that the movement was not racist, although some acknowledged racist elements might be found on the fringe.
Four days later, the National Tea Party Federation, a coalition of tea parties across the country, expelled the Tea Party Express and its spokesman, Mark Williams, after Williams wrote a racially charged blog post.
The debate shifted gears on Monday, when the video clip surfaced of Sherrod.
Conservative website publisher Andrew Breitbart originally posted the two-and-a-half-minute video clip at biggovernment.com, calling it “evidence of racism coming from a federal appointee and NAACP award recipient.”
The piece then offers an effective rundown of how the story developed and changed online and on cable. However, after detailing that development, quoting from the original edited video and quoting Vilsack on the matter, Thomas does an injustice to the woman at the center of it.
Sherrod told the AP the issue was manufactured. She said the incident took place in 1986 when she was working for a non-profit agency that provided assistance to farmers and that she was telling the story to drive home a point about racial reconciliation. She said not all of it was included on the video clip.
“My point in telling that story is that working with him helped me to see that it wasn’t just a black and white issue,” Sherrod said. “It was about those who have and those who do not. That’s why I take the time to tell that story, is to tell people we need to get beyond it and work together.”
It’s an accurate account, and includes the details of why Sherrod was vindicated. But whether that vindication is justified is left to the reader. At no point does Thomas quote from the full video to support what Sherrod tells the AP about its contents, leaving the reader who is unfamiliar with the story to believe that this is merely her side of it. But it is more than just Sherrod’s take. Sherrod didn’t just say that the incident took place in 1986—it did. She didn’t just say that the video clip omitted significant parts of the story she was telling—it did. And she didn’t just say now that that story was about working together; a look at the full video shows that it was.
The Times focused on the NAACP’s flip-flopping in its page eleven story today, reporting on the way in which the organization waded into the controversy, then changed its mind; and noting Sherrod’s argument that the organization courted the problem by labeling the Tea Party a racist group. The piece makes passing mention of the video in question, and notes that the story Sherrod told in the longer video was indeed about “people overcoming their prejudices.”
But like other major print reports, the weight of the story is given to the debate and not to clarifying the accusation here driving it. The report ends with this final comment from Breitbart:
“They’re trying to make this about me and Shirley Sherrod. This is about the N.A.A.C.P.,” he said by phone. He said that the civil rights group had “spent an inordinate amount of airtime trying to brand the Tea Party as racist” while tolerating racism itself.
The Times seems to agree that this is about something bigger than Sherrod, and so do we. It’s about a debate on race—replete with unfounded accusations and name-calling—that has picked up steam this week. But in order to temper that, it is the responsibility of outlets like the Times to first and foremost make clear what is true and false about what’s being said in that conversation. It has done this on its Web site, but this story doesn’t do enough.
The Washington Post did a better job of giving Sherrod her due in a piece that is similarly framed by the race debate. Karen Tumulty and Krissah Thompson’s front-page story backs Sherrod’s account:
A video of the full speech — which runs more than 45 minutes — shows that Sherrod was trying to make a very different point from the one her critics saw in her inelegantly worded account of the episode with farmer Roger Spooner. An examination of her own prejudice, she said, taught her that “there is no difference between us.”
“The only difference is the folks with money want to stay in power. It’s always about money, y’all,” she said. “God helped me to see that it’s not just about black people. It’s about poor people. I’ve come a long way.”
Ultimately, she did help the farmer — and on Tuesday, his family was among those who came to her defense. “She’s a good friend. She helped us save our farm,” Spooner’s wife, Eloise, told CNN. “She’s the one I give credit for helping us save our farm.”
The vindication comes a little late in the piece—561 words into an 827 word story—but we applaud the Post for making the point that McClatchy did not and which the Times story glossed over. If we’re going to talk about the current race debate, we need to engage with the claims made on either side of it. Anyone following the story online and on cable yesterday would be clear on Sherrod’s vindication; many newspaper readers this morning would have been less sure.Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.