Infatuation with race, fear fueled Sherrod story

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 1, 2010

Competition in news is not new.

Many shook their heads last month over the Shirley Sherrod fiasco, attributing the whole matter to technology that allows “real time” reporting and a 24-hour news cycle.

But there’s more to ponder.

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In the old days — even in the day when dispatches were sent by telegraph — “getting it first” was essential. The emphasis on speed in the news business predates the Pony Express.

Admittedly, there may have been more emphasis on “getting it right.” Then and now putting out a news story or bulletin that later has to be retracted is a great embarrassment.

The Sherrod saga is more directly tied to the shift to “instant analysis” coupled with a desire to increase audiences by preying on people’s fears and prejudices. Said another way, we live in a time when the press not only wants to be the first to tell you what happened, but also feels compelled to tell you how you should feel about it. And if we can scare you, you’ll stay tuned.

An example: There was a time not too long ago when a president would deliver a State of the Union address and the major media, such as The New York Times, would take a week or so to dissect and ponder the president’s words before offering a commentary.

These days, the president starts a speech at 9 p.m. Eastern time and presses are rolling at midnight with editors all over the nation explaining the president’s reasoning and motives to people who may or may not have heard what the president actually said. And the newspaper folks are already behind the TV and radio commentators and this latest phenomenon — bloggers — who summarize and “interpret.” At one time, we felt our job, at least initially, was to tell you what the president said and let you figure out why he said it and whether he really meant it. Now we think you can’t figure that out without our immediate assistance.

Strictly speaking, the reporting on Sherrod was factual. She is a USDA official. She did make a speech to the NAACP and she did say that she, as a black woman, did consider how much help to provide a white Georgia farmer who had come to her desk.

But as everyone quickly learned, those facts were highly incomplete. It was like a history textbook that merely listed Adolph Hitler as chancellor of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. There’s a lot more to know about Hitler. And there was a lot more to Sherrod’s speech.

The selected facts were advanced on the Internet for the very purpose of distortion, which is understandable and, due to the blessing of the First Amendment, a sacred right.

They were picked up by commercial media — which is supposed to be more responsible — because they fit a marketable narrative. Only when the farmer Sherrod helped contacted the media did the script unravel. “She saved our farm,” he said. That was a convincing rebuttal to the initial implication that Sherrod had blithely used race as a criteria to exact revenge.

Reacting to the more complete story, President Barack Obama cited how unfortunate it is that we all tend to leap to conclusions based on our fears. He didn’t expressly include members of his own administration in that statement, but several, including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, conceded the president hit the nail on the head.

In matters of race, black people sometimes conclude they will not get fair treatment from a white person, no matter what. Whites have the same fear. It’s an unfortunate inheritance from our state and national history that despite the fact we usually do well with each other on a person-to-person basis, we become fearful when we engage in “groupthink.”

That dovetails for the worse with the infatuation of today’s national media to create and perpetuate fear. Watch any network newscast to verify this. Almost every story — except an obligatory report on a pig that plays the piano or something — will have fear as the central element. We get warnings about food, illness, Republicans, Democrats, foreclosure, weather that’s too hot or weather that’s too cold.

If race is involved, well, that’s just a jackpot. Where there are plenty of legitimate stories to report on all topics, including race, one that exploits our racial fears is akin to a casino jackpot. The Sherrod “story” fit that mold — and that’s why it went viral before being checked out. It wasn’t merely an issue of haste.

In a more sane world, we’d all be more skeptical. But the media world is not a sane world — or at least not as sane as it should be.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail