Politics & Government

Sherrod and WikiLeaks: Journalism confronts media frenzy

USDA official Shirley Sherrod in an undated photo from the Department of Agriculture.
USDA official Shirley Sherrod in an undated photo from the Department of Agriculture. United States Department of Agriculture / AP

WASHINGTON — Someone presents information that shows a public official in a damaging light. You're a mainstream news organization. How do you treat the information?

Journalism 101 says the first step is to ask: Who's supplying the material, why, what's his agenda and is he showing the full picture or just the parts he wants me to see?

However, when a right-wing website posted a video clip last week that purported to show an Agriculture Department official, Shirley Sherrod, making racist remarks, first the blogosphere lit up about it, and later that day commentators on Fox News Channel called for her ouster. The Obama administration fired Sherrod before the full video of her remarks surfaced, revealing that her comments were anything but racist.

The scandal mushroomed on the Internet and cable TV in its first 12 hours, then took a U-turn in Sherrod's favor when she told her story to CNN at dawn on Day Two. Mainstream broadcast networks and newspapers didn't pick it up until the evening of the second day, and beyond.

The incident offers a case study of how the "new" news media — the Internet and cable TV — operate on less rigorous professional standards than the traditional news media — newspapers and broadcast TV — historically have. The new media also increasingly set the pace and define the agenda for all news media, as new and old compete for revenue and eyeballs and the national attention span shrinks.

Journalism and communications experts said that the mainstream news media — battered by layoffs and locked by the Internet into a perpetual news cycle — were more vulnerable than ever to innuendo and incomplete information from people with partisan agendas. Andrew Breitbart, the blogger who first posted the snippets of Sherrod's speech, has been behind several ambush videos against liberal politicians and organizations.

"You've got to vet it and authenticate it, and obviously understand the motives of the people putting it out there," said Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The speed of this news cycle puts pressure on these kinds of judgments."

In contrast, speed wasn't a concern when the WikiLeaks website provided three newspapers with 92,000 classified U.S. military documents on the Afghanistan war, on the condition that they not be published until several weeks later.

The New York Times, Britain's Guardian and Germany's Der Spiegel used the time to review the material and supplement it with their own reporting, and by agreement they simultaneously published stories Sunday that placed the documents in some context and noted that they were hardly a complete account of the war.

However, the papers made a splash by devoting large amounts of space to material that revealed little or nothing new about the war and consisted mostly of low-level reports that are impossible to verify.

"It is also not known what may be missing from the material, either because it is in a more restrictive category of classification or for some other reason," the Times wrote.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs criticized the disclosure of secret military documents and pointed out that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had made anti-war statements in the past, calling him "somebody that clearly has an agenda." Gibbs also said, however, that The New York Times had "acted in a responsible way."

The newspapers "had the disposition to check what they were given," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "It was one case of journalism behaving as it's supposed to behave and contributing to the public debate."

Jamieson said that the story about Sherrod, who received a hasty apology from the White House and was offered a new job in the federal government, had "hijacked" the airwaves.

The NAACP, too, was forced to retract a statement by its president, Benjamin Jealous, who said July 19 that the organization was "appalled" by Sherrod's comments. Jealous told CNN the next evening that initially "we responded quickly because ... we're called to respond to video evidence all the time, make very quick judgments."

According to Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog group, only one blogger initially voiced skepticism over the clip. Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs at The Anchoress, wrote on July 19, "I am uncomfortable with this 'get' by Breitbart. ...

"Because it seemed like Sherrod was heading somewhere with that story, and the edit does not let us get there. I want the rest of the story before I start passing judgment on it."

Todd Gitlin, a journalism professor at Columbia University, said: "The media's job is to have some facts clear before they broadcast. That's an elementary ethical obligation. ...

"Fox News, which purports to be fact-based, is culpable, and so is anybody else who relayed the claim."

Media historians say that third parties with axes to grind have always approached journalists; the difference now is that the blogosphere gives many of those groups a voice and an audience, putting their agendas on full display.

With many news organizations operating with smaller staffs, Jamieson said, it's more difficult for journalists to guard against manipulation.

The mainstream media "doesn't have the resources or space that it once had to permit it to really tightly question things," Jamieson said. "There was always material that was suspect, but now there's more of it, more sources."


Pew Research Center chronology of how the media handled the Sherrod story


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