The Media: Why we suck! Shirley Sherrod and fairness

July 22, 2010

Did anyone go to school for journalism ethics or crisis management? Over the past week, it seemed some of the people we trust the most haven’t had it and has led the Obama administration into one of its most embarrassing episodes.

In case you’re been on another planet for a week Shirley Sherrod, an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was fired and then apologized to by her boss for a speech she made to a local NAACP branch Freedom Fund dinner back in March.

The comedy of errors that occurred over the last week has left a long time advocate for the poor who was telling a story about her own redemption in viewing race as collateral damage. Since this is a column about journalism, I won’t dig into many of the details but focus on the media and its responsibility in this fiasco.

Andrew Breitbart of (I thought I was going to stick to journalism, but I digress) posted a small portion of Sherrod’s speech where she talked about not giving a white farmer the “full force” of her services on his Web site and peddled it to the all too willing newsies at Fox. He appeared on “Hannity” with proof that the NAACP has a double standard about viewing race. This, of course, came on the heels of the NAACP putting the Tea Party movement on blast with a resolution asking the party to denounce alleged racist elements of its group.

The problem – the description of Sherrod’s comments in that March speech weren’t accurate. In fact, they weren’t even close. She was describing an incident that happened more than 24 years ago and her own awakening about racial issues. The white family she described in her speech came out in support of her and told how she helped save their farm.

Well, by that time, Sherrod was forced to resign, news commentators were pointing the finger at the NAACP and the NAACP itself blasted Sherrod for the supposed act of discrimination.

Journalism students – including the ones I teach at Purdue University – are told to always act independently. If someone tells you something, research that fact to make sure it’s accurate. If you see a portion of the video, find the entire speech, a transcript even. If those are not available, you go to the people who were there and you don’t report until you have the whole story.

Too often in today’s frenzied world of Internet journalism, most of these are ancient relics of truth telling. Most of us as journalists failed miserably and hopefully this story won’t be just a cautionary tale but lead to us communicators taking at least a small step back and asking the hard questions about what kind of information do we have, is it an accurate reflection of events, and can it hold up under scrutiny?

Breitbart has no interest in the truth. No mystery there. He is pushing for his cause. Fair enough. He’s hardly the only one, liberal or conservative. So why on God’s green earth did the agriculture department and White House all places jump to attention when this came out. For all the money the communication folks are paid there, they failed an important rule of crisis management – get all the facts about what’s going on and until then, keep your mouth shut. It’s the old adage: “It’s better to stay silence and have people think you are dumb than to open it and remove all doubt.”

There was some criticism of the NAACP “having this tape all along” and should have known its contents. This goes into the category of people who have no clue what they are talking about. This happened at a local branch event. Covering the NAACP as a reporter, I know that local branches operate as subsidiaries of the national organization. There would have been no need for the national office to know about comments made by a local speaker at a local NAACP event unless the local branch had made them aware of it. That video would have been in possession of the local branch, not national. That begs the question, just who in the local branch is Breitbart’s snitch?  That person surely had to know this was taken completely out of context, unless it was found on YouTube or some other place.

The inability of the agriculture department, the NAACP, and the White House, to get the full story before reacting is an utter failure in crisis management communications and you would think heads would roll after this. The journalists’ willingness to jump on the bandwagon in the dawn of this story and not ask the hard questions about this video is an utter failure in journalism ethics of seeking the truth and reporting it. Granted, there has been some good journalism done after the fact and it will continue as more facts in this silliness come out.  But this is an obvious lesson for us in that fast journalism doesn’t mean good journalism. Shirley Sherrod is proof of that.

The Media, health care, and racism — bad medicine

April 2, 2010

The debate over the recently passed health care bill has been heated and passionate. As it turned out, so has the coverage of the issue by journalists. One issue that particularly caught my attention was the weekend of the vote, where it was reported that U.S. Reps. John Lewis and several other black lawmakers were called the N-word by health care opponents while walking into the Capitol.

U.S. Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver told Capitol police he was spat on and identified his attacker and later said he declined to file charges. One report said, though, Cleaver may not have been to positively identify his person to police and no arrests were made.
Conservative talk show hosts seemed to dismiss the incident, stating there was no proof since it wasn’t heard on tape. There were plenty of video cameras there to record the loud chatting of “kill the bill.”

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, on his March 28 edition of his CNN show “Reliable Sources,” a program I often reference in my media ethics class, took on the mainstream media in a discussion on if it were adopting Democratic talking points that Republican rhetoric against the health care was sparking death threats and violence.

Kurtz had three guests on the panel to talk about the pros and cons of the subject. He challenged one on how can he could make a jump from one Republican’s passionate opposition to the bill to violence and death threats and brought up that the media didn’t seem so interested in civility in the heated criticism of George W. Bush during his presidency.

Kurtz, though, found the wrath of Bill O’Reilly and Bernie Goldberg on O’Reilly’s No-Spin Zone March 29, when Kurtz took a shot at a fellow Fox talk show host.

“Where I was concerned was where you had Sean Hannity on Fox News openly doubting, remember the rally at the Capitol last weekend and all the protesters showing up before the health care bill passed. You had people like Barney Frank, John Lewis and Emmanuel Cleaver show up and having the N-word yelled at them, and anti-gay epithets hurled at them. Hannity said how do we know it even happened because there’s no video of it. That is where I would have a problem.”

On O’Reilly’s segment with Goldberg, O’Reilly said he had not seen the show but went on to say, “What they were doing on that show is saying if you question of voracity of what was reported, without any tape, any arrest, cops said they didn’t hear anything, if you question it, what are you? Evil? Stupid? What was the theme?”

Goldberg answered: “What do you say when you crossed the line, I want to know you crossed the line from what to what? From being a decent human being to being a bigot, I assume? . . . We live in an age, and I’m on thin ice again here, we live in an age where if you criticize Barack Obama about anything, you take a big risk in being called a racist.”

He followed with random headlines from newspapers from the debated incident to prove his point about the media’s siding with Democratic rhetoric, one headline stating, “Tea Party turns into Klan Rally.”

Wait a minute. Did I miss something? Kurtz didn’t call Hannity a racist. Not even close. What he seemed to be calling for is holding everyone, even Hannity, to the same journalist standards we all are held to. Did the racial name calling that day happen? It’s up for reporters to do their research and find out, but we should never blindly accept it, nor instantly dismiss it until that happens.

I went back to look at the newspaper coverage. The McClatchy News Service seemed to be the one most prominent in the reporting here. The article quoted lawmakers who said they heard the slurs. A reporter from the Huffington Post said he heard the anti-gay remark against Barney Frank. The newspaper report also added comments from Republicans, as well. I doubt if I would have changed anything about those stories except maybe talking to some people in the crowd, but that may have been done as well. We report on stories based on interviews with people involved in such events all the time. It’s routine. Video or audio confirmation would have been great, but we are trained to also make judgments on the credibility of our sources. Again, that’s a routine part of journalism. That credibility has a very high standard because, in the end, we want our stories to be stand up to scrutiny and accurately reflect the event we’re covering.

Hannity openly doubting what happened? Well, that’s what he does. Frankly, I’m surprised that Kurtz would be so worked up about it. Big deal. It’s the end of journalism as we know it. That’s if Hannity actually practiced journalism, but I digress.

Goldberg, though, who is a solid journalist, is comparing apples and oranges. Yes, you can make the argument that some will see any negative comments about Obama as racist. The media’s coverage of this incident specific simply doesn’t rise to that level – either directly or indirectly.

We in the media tend to look for easy, quick definitions for groups. We have limited space and airtime – not to mention the nano-second attention span of our audience. It’s a job requirement. That’s why getting our journalistic arms around the subject of health care has been such a media nightmare and at times all over the place. Throwing in other complicated hot button issues – like, uh, race – will bog down things even more. Liberals, conservatives and the media should be careful and cautious about mixing the two or we’ll find ourselves far away from the original subject. The media connecting the entire Tea Party movement to racism is as misguided as blindly dismissing claims of race without doing the work journalists routinely do to get at the truth.


March 31, 2010

Welcome to Clyde Hughes Freedom of the Press Blog. I teach a media ethics class at Purdue University. I have 23 students in the class and we address current media ethics issues each class. I will blog about some of the issues we address in class here among other issues. It’s been interesting to watch them grasp the things I’ve been showing them since January. I’m looking forward to hearing other comments as well. Looking forward to sharing some of those discussions inside and outside the classroom.