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.