Calling a Spade a Spade or a Fox a Fox

The Times minces no words on the Sherrod story

We wrote yesterday that we were mostly disappointed with the print coverage of the Shirley Sherrod story from the Times, The Post, and McClatchy. Synthesizing the details of the Sherrod saga that had sparked and flared on the Internet and the twenty-four-hour news channels, the papers wisely focused on where the incident fit into the current race debate but seemed to gloss over the most important detail: Sherrod had been vindicated.

Today’s newspapers feature more compelling pieces that unequivocally report the “innocence” of the woman who became overnight a national figure. (Interestingly, the Times again refuses to give the story a front page slot, confounding those who live in the online/cable bubble and who could be forgiven for thinking Andrew Breitbart was a threat to marine wildlife in the Gulf.)

Leading with Vilsack’s apology and new job offer—and offering a nice breakdown of how the full video and the farming couple in question vindicated Sherrod—the Times’s page fifteen report goes on to explicitly examine the role that Breitbart and Fox News played in casting Sherrod as a racist before and after she was fired:

The controversy illustrates the influence of right-wing Web sites like the one run by Andrew Breitbart, the blogger who initially posted the misleading and highly edited video, which he later said had been sent to him already edited. (Similarly, Mr. Breitbart used edited videos to go afterAcorn, the community organizing group.) Politically charged stories often take root online before being shared with a much wider audience on Fox. The television coverage, in turn, puts pressure on other news media outlets to follow up.

And later:

Fox News began its pursuit of Ms. Sherrod in prime time on Monday night on three successive opinion shows that reached at least three million people. Leading off, Mr. O’Reilly asked on his top-rated program, “Is there racism in the Department of Agriculture?” He discussed the tape, plugged Mr. Breitbart’s Web site and demanded that Ms. Sherrod resign immediately.

By the time Mr. O’Reilly’s remarks, which were taped in the afternoon, were broadcast, Ms. Sherrod had indeed resigned, a development that Fox’s next host, Mr. Hannity, treated as breaking news at the beginning of his show. He played a short part of what he called the “shocking” video from Mr. Breitbart, and later discussed the development with a panel of guests, mentioning the N.A.A.C.P.’s recent accusations of racism within the conservative Tea Party movement.

“It is interesting they just lectured the Tea Party movement last week,” Mr. Hannity said, telegraphing a talking point that would come up repeatedly on other shows.

Fox’s 10 p.m. show also covered the resignation as breaking news. Ms. Sherrod later said Fox had not tried to contact her before running the video clip repeatedly on Monday. (A Fox spokeswoman said the O’Reilly program had contacted the Agriculture Department for comment. On Wednesday, Mr. O’Reilly said he owed Ms. Sherrod an apology “for not doing my homework.”)

Times reporters Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Shaila Dewan, and Brian Stelter nail the point that bloggers and pundits have been making since Monday: that as much as this story is about race, it is also about the media. It’s about how an edited sound bite, un-vetted and aired on repeat, can ruin a career and rankle old national wounds. It’s about bad reporting—sloppy at best, manipulative and craven at worst. And finally, now, it’s about how a bit of good reporting can go a long way to uncovering truth and how lies are made.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.