With video-enabled cellphones in every audience, there is truly no such thing as “off the record,” as many a politician has learned. But what are the lessons to be learned from the Andrew Breitbart affair, where a public speech is selectively edited in such as way as to lie?

The first is sobering: we have truly entered a new age of yellow journalism, “biased opinion masquerading as objective fact.”

At the turn of the 19th century, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst “created a frenzy” among the U.S. citizenry that pushed us into the Spanish-American War. Historians accuse Hearst of trying to boost his circulation by advocating war:

When [Frederick] Remington sent a telegram telling Hearst that there was not much going on [in Cuba], Hearst replied with his famous telegram, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

This period of sensational news, during the early Industrial Revolution, occurred during the golden-age of newspaper publishing (1890-1920). (For context: the first photographs appeared in newspapers in 1890.)

Today we have “journalists” like Breitbart chasing click-throughs on their websites; before launching his current stable of sites, Breitbart — “the man behind the curtain” — helped run The Drudge Report. Click-through journalism is the modern equivalent of newspaper circulation; both form the financial basis of the enterprise. In other words, there are parallels between the lifecycle of online news and the history of newspapering. Ironically, Breitbart is being aided in his effort by a legacy medium, television, which has given him a veneer of respectability. For example, he has been a commentator on FOX News and C-SPAN.

Second, context is critical. I’ve argued for some time that the role of legacy media (traditional journalism) in today’s always-on, real-time-web is context and vetting. Context is clearly what Breitbart studiously avoided when he presented an anecdote that occurred 24 years ago (1986) as a current event.

Breitbart insists that he did not edit the videos he posted, but he also doesn’t name his source. It’s also clear that he didn’t bother talking to Shirley Sherrod before slamming her:

Sherrod, who says in the video that she was speaking on the 45th anniversary of the murder of her father [a deacon at the local Baptist Church] by a white man, said she initially committed her life to helping blacks. But then she saw how the white farmer struggled, and she broadened her commitment.

The context so obviously missing from Breitbart’s “reporting” was provided eventually by bloggers, the mainstream media and the NAACP, but not before a knee-jerk reaction from USDA. The White House denies involvement in firing Sherrod; if true, someone needs to give Obama’s strategic communications team a severe talking-to.

But there’s something else related to context, and that’s understanding.

I don’t think it’s possible for a man born in 1969 in suburban Los Angeles to understand what it was like growing up in rural south Georgia in the 1950s, to understand the depth of the racism and the second-class citizenship of the region’s blacks. Baker County, Sherrod’s birthplace, is adjacent to Dougherty County, which is where I was born; I regularly rode through it en route to Decatur County, my mother’s home. And even with that geographic proximity — as well as a rural background — I have only a faint idea of what Sherrod’s journey must have entailed. Unfortunately for Sherrod, that much more compelling narrative did not fit with Breitbart’s goal of tweaking the nose of the NAACP while garnering web hits from the faithful.

Third, if something seems “too much” … then it probably is. Either investigate or wait, but don’t forward, tweet, Facebook or otherwise perpetuate a rumor. Especially when the author is known to traffic in rumor!

If helping run The Drudge Report doesn’t convince you that Breitbart traffics in rumor, then what about his ACORN videos? You know, the ones from 2009 that purported to show ACORN employees advising a prostitute? What you probably don’t know about those videos: they were edited. Former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger determined:

The videos that have been released appear to have been edited, in some cases substantially, including the insertion of a substitute voiceover for significant portions of Mr. O’Keefe’s and Ms. Giles’s comments, which makes it difficult to determine the questions to which ACORN employees are responding. A comparison of the publicly available transcripts to the released videos confirms that large portions of the original video have been omitted from the released versions.

Notice that I haven’t talked about “partisanship.” What Breitbart did to Shirley Sherrod wasn’t partisan: it was unethical. The fact that Breitbart is presenting himself as a journalist makes this breach of ethics even more heinous.

What Breitbart appears to have done to ACORN falls in the same category: editing video in a manner that misrepresents what actually happened is unethical. When photographers for mainstream news organizations do this, they get fired.

Who can fire Breitbart? We can, by refusing to read his websites, by demanding that television “news” shows not include him as a guest or as a commentator. Only we can curtail his power, and we can do that only if we shun him, and his ilk, regardless of political orientation.

There is hope, if the the history of yellow journalism is to be a guide.

There is hope, as the much more compelling Sherrod-Spooner story shows.

The Entire Shirley Sherrod Speech, 27 March 2010, Unedited

Roger and Eloise Spooner Defend Shirley Sherrod

Timeline

  • March 27 : Sherrod speech
  • Monday, July 19, no time stamp : Big Government : Breitbard accuses Shirley Sherrod of racism as “proof” of NAACP racism
  • July 19, 1.41 pm : FOXNation.com : Timestamp of first comment on the Shirley Sherrod story (headline subsequently modified)
  • July 19, 3.22 pm : FOXNews.com : Timestamp of first comment on Shirley Sherrod story – “Video Shows USDA Official Saying She Didn’t Give ‘Full Force’ of Help to White Farmer”
  • July 19, 4.01 pm : Ace of Spades : Reports CBS affiliate is running Breitbard/Sherrod story (“Breitbart gets results.”) Timestamp on CBS story is now 20 July.
  • July 19, 4.36 pm : Twitter : Breitbard tweets that Sherrod has resigned from USDA
  • July 19, time unknown : Bill O’Reilly airs the edited clips (apology comes Wednesday).
  • July 19, 4.51 pm : Big Government : “Fox News is reporting that Ms. Sherrod has resigned.”
  • Tuesday, July 20, 11.41 am : Atlanta Journal-Constitution : Sherrod “insisted her statements in the video were not racist.” At the time, she did not work for USDA but for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, a cooperative founded to help black farmers. She said, “race is not the issue, it’s about the people who have and the people who don’t.”
  • July 20, 11.47 am : MediaMatters : On CNN, wife of farmer says former USDA official is a “friend” who “helped us save our farm”
  • July 20, 3.48 pm : TPM : Agriculture Secretary Stands By Asking For Sherrod’s Resignation
  • July 20, 6.44 pm : TPM : Glenn Beck Defends Shirley Sherrod: It’s Possible ‘This Woman Deserves Her Job Back’
  • July 20, 8.46 pm : Mediaite : Andrew Breitbart To CNN’s John King: “I Did Not Fire Shirley Sherrod”
  • July 20, 9.04 pm : The Atlantic : “Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack acted on the basis of provisional information that drew him to make a false conclusion about her views and what point she was trying to make. It was a good faith mistake based on the bad faith of others.”
  • Wednesday, July 21, 6.46 pm : LA Times : Bill O’Reilly apologizes to Shirley Sherrod for ‘not doing my homework’ . O’Reilly had aired the edited clips on Monday night.
  • July 21, 7.00 pm : AJC : Sherrod video: Misleading and partisan, some say, but libelous?
  • July 22, 6.23 pm : AJC : Breitbart: No apologies for posting edited Sherrod video. Breitbart positions himself as a victim and claims Sherrod is still racist.

Media Matters has a timeline of FOX News web postings and broadcasts.

Note: I was born and raised in Albany, GA, which is where Sherrod now lives. And I probably know relatives of the Spooners.

KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
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