It was the story about a vindictive black woman who works for the government and screws the white people she deals with – and then it wasn’t. The buzz was supposed to be about Shirley Sherrod, and the NAACP, being stone-cold racists, who really, really, really hate white people. But it turned out that wasn’t the case. But it seemed to be. The Obama administration fired the woman, and the NAACP excoriated her, but after about twelve hours it became clear that the videotape offered to the world by Andrew Breitbart was a carefully edited clip from a much longer Shirley Sherrod speech, about something that happened twenty-four years earlier, when she wasn’t working for the government, and in which she was explaining the process by which she figured out a way to work her way around pesky residual racism – hers and others’ – to help out some folks in trouble, who were white. She was saying the opposite thing.
The NAACP immediately reversed course and said they had been snookered by Breitbart and Fox News, which had run with the story, with segment after segment saying how outrageous this was, and reporting that all of America was outraged, or should be, or would be once they saw this tape. When the truth of the matter came to light they moved on to other issues. A day later the White House apologized to Shirley Sherrod and offered her the old job back – or something better. It was over. And the original buzz – about vindictive black folks now in power in the government out to screw all white folks – went back to the shop for retuning, new tires and a front-end alignment. A better example – irrefutable evidence, some sort of undeniable smoking gun – would have to be found.
We’re all patiently waiting for that. Someone will come up with something, and Roger Ailes will muster his troops at Fox News to flog the story. But now the bar has been set higher. When Breitbart or anyone else says see, THIS proves that black folks, from Obama on down, are out to ruin white people and take their stuff and ravish their women or whatever, folks will say let’s see about that, and ask questions. That’s a real buzz-kill – and so Breitbart actually ruined things for folks on his side. Now it’s harder to generate buzz. And now, whether it’s the black folks out to marginalize or even eliminate us – or all the Muslims, what with them wanting to build a mosque at Ground Zero from the bones of our dead and send out suicide-bombers twice a day, as seems to infuriate Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich – people will ask questions. Is that so? That mosque seems to be one room in a planned community center not that near Ground Zero – and the planned community center replaces one that already had a room used as a mosque, by a Sufi dude with no particular yen for total jihad and death to infidels. You could look it up. And maybe now people will. Breitbart screwed the pooch.
And, after that, America needed another buzz. There was a flurry of discussion about the failure of the press to vet the Shirley Sherrod story, and its eagerness to run it immediately, and on the impartiality of the press, or whether we had an ideological press, or a corporate press, or something – and that created a flurry of discussion.
But that’s boring. You implicitly trust O’Reilly and Hannity and Beck at Fox News – or Olbermann and Maddow at MSNBC – or you don’t. There’s no point in talking about it. No one is going to budge. Questioning the verity, and motives, of those who you turn to day in and day out is too scary. The idea that they could get it wrong, and be so proud and stubborn that they’d never admit they got it wrong, cannot be admitted as possible. Folks need a rock to cling to in these turbulent times, someone to tell them what is happening in this sorry world, and tell them what it all means. You cannot be all on your own – no one has the time to figure out a tenth of what is going on, or the inclination, or the energy. Camus and Sartre and those French Existentialists said that that’s the deal – the world is profoundly absurd and without inherent meaning, and if you’re a real man, or woman, you gather the courage to acknowledge that, and you create your own meaning, one hard step at a time, all on your lonesome, if you’re honest. But we’re not French. We need to know what the buzz is.
And the buzz resolved to its third wave, something everyone could agree was what was really going on – something other than the niggers is coming or the media sucks, big time, and you cannot trust anyone at all. The new buzz became how awful Obama was for firing this woman, or for not stopping his guy from firing her. This showed his weakness and foolishness and cowardice. This shows he is unfit for office.
Fox News ran with that, led by Glenn Beck – she was wronged and Obama is a coward and stupid. And whatever Obama did would then show that – Shirley Sherrod “Very Pleased” After Phone Call with Obama (showing his shameful and whimpering admission of inadequacy) – and Obama Blames Media For His Administration’s Firing Of Shirley Sherrod (showing he isn’t man enough to fess up to his own mistakes). That buzz swept America. Now we know what kind of guy he is. He’s toast.
Oddly, there was little buzz about Andrew Breitbart – the man who started this all with a scoop that turned out to be as wrong as wrong could be. It was in fact, a total lie, and Shirley Sherrod could easily sue him for defamation, defamation that cost her dearly, as she was immediately fired, based on his lying. But he was generally ignored. Those on the right could do nothing but thank him for setting up Obama to look like a punk and a coward. And those on the left were circling the wagons to defend Obama – addressing Breitbart’s flat-out lie about this woman would have to wait. So the story wasn’t about him. It was about Obama.
One exception, on the right of all places, was Ron Radosh arguing the wrong person apologized:
The simple reason Andrew Breitbart owes an apology is this: He alone released the edited video – that did not include the rest of Sherrod’s story, in which she shows how her original reaction was wrong and how she moved on, and then helped the white farmer as best as she could- thereby indeed saving him from foreclosure and saving his farm. He and his wife have been Sherrod’s friends since then. Breitbart now says over and over “They made it about her,” as he did on a TV interview. No, HE made it about her, by releasing the misleading video. If he refuses to own up to his mistake, he has then squandered any credibility he may have had. So, I repeat: Andrew, apologize to her and to all of us.
But that was a voice in the wilderness. Jonah Goldberg offered this:
I generally think Andrew is on the side of the angels and a great champion of the cause. He says he received the video in its edited form and I believe him. But the relevant question is, would he have done the same thing over again if he had seen the full video from the outset? I’d like to think he wouldn’t have.
Yeah, well, isn’t it pretty to think so? Some of us like to think of alternative universes where we’re young, thin and rich, and tooling up to Lake Como in our spare Ferrari, for a quiet weekend with Audrey Tautou or some such thing.
But some prefer this universe and Kevin Drum notices a pattern here:
There have been three big conservative outrages that have choked the airwaves over the past couple of weeks. #1 was about a bunch of scary black men, the New Black Panther Party. #2 was about a bunch of scary Muslims who want to build a triumphal mosque on the sacred soil of Ground Zero. #3 was about a vindictive black woman who works for the government and screws the white people she deals with. The running theme here is not just a coincidence.
This is a note to the guys on the right:
Honest to God, someone on the right needs to start talking about this. Not David Frum or Andrew Sullivan, who have long since been purged from the ranks of real right wingers. Someone that conservatives actually listen to. Pronto. Who’s going to start?
No one is, of course. See Matthew Yglesias:
At some point conservatives need to ask themselves about the larger meaning of this kind of conduct – and Andrew Breitbart’s – for their movement. Beyond the ethics of lying and smear one’s opponents, I would think conservatives would worry about the fact that a large portion of conservative media is dedicated to lying to conservatives. They regard their audience as marks to be misled and exploited, not as customers to be served with useful information.
Actually Yglesias is discussing the Journolist scandal – Journolist was an email listserv made up of hundreds of liberal commentators and journalists. It was shop talk, but its very existence infuriated conservatives, because they were not allowed to join it. And of course it was hacked, and Tucker Carlson’s new site, the Daily Caller, received all sort of dribs and drabs of personal and private emails, and published them verbatim – to show the press rigged the election so that Obama would win, by distorting the news, by lying about what was really going on. It was the scoop of all scoops.
Yes, maybe he shouldn’t have violated their privacy – David Weigel lost his job at the Washington Post over a personal email to a friend – but Carlson did this for the good of the country. People should know the truth – the press not only has a liberal bias, they’re actually plotting against conservatives and deceiving the American people.
Maybe so, but Ann Althouse called the Daily Caller’s releases “weak” and “pretty mild stuff” – and Clive Crook offered this – “The idea that 400 journalists, academics and assorted hangers-on could plot to do anything, even if they agreed they wanted to, is laughable.”
And see James Fallows:
In the other listservs I know – about China, software, aviation, defense, cyber security, etc – some people’s careers could be gravely damaged if their least judicious single sentences were used against them out of context years later. I really, really hate to see that done to young people now. “Have you no sense of decency?” is the right question for Andrew Breitbart. It’s also the right question for the Daily Caller, whose editor (Tucker Carlson) asked for membership in the dreaded Journolist – and was turned down – just before it began seriatim publishing of damaging and out-of-context quotes against young writers.
But Carlson was just trying to reveal the truth, and generate the appropriate buzz.
James Joyner is not impressed:
As I’ve noted many times, I largely stopped watching and listening to broadcast news and political talk years ago. Not only do I get almost all my news and commentary online these days, I’ve almost completely abandoned sources that I consider too polemical or predictable. So, I mostly judge those other sources based on what bubbles up into the blogospheric discussion, which may not be representative of the whole.
But both Drum and Yglesias make excellent points. Far too much of conservative media seems to be a nakedly propagandistic exercise, designed to manufacture outrage. To be sure, the general direction of media, period – see Politico and Huffington Post, for example – is to do whatever’s necessary to generate traffic or ratings. But outright manipulation and distortion is qualitatively different from mere hype.
It comes down to this:
Most of the Outrage of the Day stories on the left and the right are based on some combination of assuming the worst of opponents and not understanding how the system works. … And Yglesias’ point that conservative media outlets are, at the end of the day, in the business of lying to conservatives is worth underscoring.
Joyner thinks it’s just sad:
Tucker Carlson, who’s trying to create a conservative Huffington Post with his upstart Daily Caller, has always struck me as harmless enough and rather close to me politically, hovering somewhere in the centrist conservative – mild libertarian territory. My sense is that he’s just trying too hard to make a splash with this Journolist story and banging the drum too loudly. To the extent there’s an outrage there, it’s the one Andrew Sullivan has been pointing too – the clubbishness of media elites – rather than some conspiracy to set the news agenda. Certainly, it’s not that a bunch of liberal journos were excited that Obama won the election.
But there is that other matter:
Andrew Breitbart, on the other hand, became well known as a result of the fraudulent ACORN sting operation and has been trying to replicate that on a regular basis. There’s simply no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt at this point.
But there is no buzz these days about flat-out lying. Andrew Breitbart is safe. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in a July 21 blog post that Breitbart will “survive, and undamaged” and that “There will be no apology or statement of regret for distributing a doctored tape to defame and destroy someone. There will be not even a flutter of interest among conservatives in discussing Breitbart’s role.” Frum also noted that “Breitbart continues to defend his own ‘ends justify the means’ bending of the truth.” Lying is fine.
And Adam Serwer suggests why it seems fine:
For all the sound and fury, Breitbart’s video was nothing more than an alibi, an attempt to collectively exonerate the right from a charge of racism by turning it back on the NAACP. This is the precise origin of the oppositional culture developed by some conservatives in the aftermath of the 2008 election. It is broadly premised on convincing conservatives they face a similar kind of institutional racism black people have faced throughout history, while maintaining that the sole obstacle to black advancement is the same culture of grievance they’re so desperate to imitate. Glenn Beck saying today’s America is “like the 1950s except the races are reversed,” isn’t an observation; it’s a demand for absolution. This is the same selfish white guilt rightly mocked when possessed by liberals, curdled into a bitter stew of defensive anger and epic self-pity.
And E. D. Kain suggests this was inevitable:
I’m tired of both sides lobbing these race-grenades. The Tea Party movement – whatever that means – is not racist anymore than the NAACP is racist. There are racists in the very fragmented conservative grassroots movement cobbled together under the title Tea Party just as there are racists in every other big organization. I don’t like it when cynical political entertainers like Glenn Beck play on this theme. I find it exceptionally disingenuous to say that the Tea Parties aren’t racist but progressivism writ large is.
The whole race conversation has imploded in the past two years, and perhaps that’s to be expected. Did we expect anything less with the ascendance of our first black president?
And finally there’s Andrew Sullivan, saying that things will work out:
I’ve learned over time to respect the canniness of this president’s restraint. His gift is patience and perseverance and allowing his enemies to destroy themselves. And I suspect this Breitbart racial smear may be a moment when, once again, you see how Obama outsmarts his opponents. I mean: when you examine it, you see that a woman who actually exemplifies honesty about race and overcomes prejudice was cynically and recklessly used to create a false notion that this administration is racist toward whites, an old and disgusting canard devised by the Becks and Hannitys and Limbaughs in the tradition of Wallace and Atwater and McCarthy.
But – and here’s the thing – to the credit of many on the right (and, of course, good old Shep Smith of Fox News), this episode has led to the first real rift in the lock-step of the right-wing noise machine. I know this was so egregious a smear it was indefensible. And I know, as David Frum has noted, that many conservatives tried to deflect blame onto Obama, and the media – led by the cynic Lloyd Grove – has joined the pack. But nonetheless, many on the right took Breitbart on, from NRO outward. This great injustice has, to anyone with a fair mind, deeply damaged Fox News, deeply discredited the Breitbart noise machine, and will render every new sound bite and video issued by FNC more suspect.
It was, in other words, an over-reach from hubris. And I suspect that this over-reach is not just in the rightwing media but in what’s left of conservative political activism.
Do you buy that? If so, try this:
I do not believe, for example, that the blatant religious bigotry shown by Palin and Gingrich on the Cordoba complex near Ground Zero will wear well with Americans. George W. Bush rightly insisted in distinguishing all Muslims from the Jihadist mass murderers who claim to represent them. That distinction – a core element of basic fairness – is vital not just for domestic peace but for success in defanging Jihadist nihilism. And respecting the overwhelming majority of American Muslims who seek only to worship their God in a land dedicated to religious liberty is something, I believe, that will outlast the cheap demagoguery of the current far right that has captured the GOP.
The public may be frustrated by the lack of progress in the economy, and who can blame them? But they are still looking for solutions more than someone to blame. And most are fair enough to understand that Obama has no magic wand, that these problems are bone-deep, and that he has passed actual, substantive legislation that fulfilled clear campaign pledges in an election he won handily. Yes, they are queasy about government growth. So am I. But only government can rescue a free-market capitalist system that destroyed itself – and millions of jobs; deep recessions require short-term fiscal boosts; the health insurance reform was moderate and centrist and you have to have a heart of stone to sit back and watch so many suffer with such waste and cruelty; and there is a steadiness in Obama that no one should under-estimate. Here we have a black president presiding over 10 percent unemployment and his ratings, in a deeply polarized polity, are still above Reagan’s at this juncture in a similar long-term economic crisis.
People are looking for solutions more than someone to blame? The Republicans and their Tea Party cohort do not seem to believe that’s true. They are counting on the opposite.
But Sullivan sees Obama’s situation this way:
He avoided a second Great Depression. The bank bailout, however noxious, worked. GM may soon be returning a profit to the government. Health insurance reform will stick and, with careful oversight, could begin to curtail runaway healthcare costs. Financial re-regulation just passed. Two new Supreme Court Justices are in place after failed attempts at culture war demagoguery. Crime – amazingly – has not jumped with the recession. America is no longer despised abroad the way it was; torture has been ended; relations with Russia have improved immensely; Iran’s regime is more diplomatically and economically isolated than in its entire history; even the Greater Israel chorus has been challenged. Moreover, if the House goes Republican this fall, it renders a second Obama term as likely as Clinton’s became (how many Independents would want to hand over the government to Palin and the current GOP in Congress?). On the economy, the employment outlook remains bleak – but not desperate if you look at the long run…
And against this, what do the Republicans have to offer? Not much:
They want to slash long-term spending, but Obama will have the initiative on this after the elections with his debt commission. Will they really obstruct debt reduction because any reasonable deal will need to increase revenues? Do they really want another war, this time with Iran? Are they really going to run on more commitment to Afghanistan? How much will they propose in slashing Medicare and social security? Do they have anything substantive to propose on ending our addiction to carbon energy?
They’ll always have lying. Lying is something that works just fine – although the setback with Breitbart is a bother. You’re not supposed to get caught. That’s a buzz-kill. And Americans need a buzz.