Thursday, July 22, 2010


Dan Rather pictures

The Wall Street Journal

"[White House press secretary Robert] Gibbs said people in the administration and outside of it acted without all the facts," the Associated Press reports. Alas, he wasn't referring to ObamaCare, the stimulus or the new financial regulation law but to a personnel matter: Shirley Sherrod's forced resignation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart on Monday falsely reported that Sherrod said at an NAACP event, in Breitbart's words, "that her federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions." As we noted Tuesday, the NAACP swiftly denounced Sherrod for racism, and the USDA demanded her immediate resignation, which she tendered.

Oops! The NAACP has now renounced its condemnation. Politico quotes a statement from the organization's president, Ben Jealous: "With regard to the initial media coverage of the resignation of USDA official Shirley Sherrod, we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias."

Fox News reports that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has offered to rehire Sherrod, in "an outreach position that would deal with discrimination matters." Sherrod says she's mulling the offer but is inclined to turn it down.

Breitbart has posted a correction atop his Monday post: "While Ms. Sherrod made the remarks captured in the first video featured in this post while she held a federally appointed position, the story she tells refers to actions she took before she held that federal position."

On the website of the magazine This Week, David Frum weighs in with a post titled "Shirley Sherrod and the Shame of the Conservative Media":

You'll never guess who emerged as the villains of the story in this second-day conservative react. Not Andrew Breitbart, the distributor of a falsified tape. No, the villains were President Obama and the NAACP for believing Breitbart's falsehood.
Breitbart went almost universally unmentioned. . . .
When people talk of the "closing of the conservative mind" this is what they mean: not that conservatives are more narrow-minded than other people--everybody can be narrow minded--but that conservatives have a unique capacity to ignore unwelcome fact.
When Dan Rather succumbed to the forged Bush war record hoax in 2004, CBS forced him into retirement. Breitbart is the conservative Dan Rather, but there will be no discredit, no resignation for him.

Frum's reasoning is extraordinarily slipshod. As far as we know, Rather insists to this day that the crudely forged documents to which he "succumbed" were, or at least might have been, genuine. Yet it doesn't seem to dawn on Frum that the Rather example disproves the assertion that conservatives have a unique "capacity to ignore unwelcome fact."

More to the point, though, Frum's description of Breitbart as "the conservative Dan Rather" is silly. We interviewed Brietbart for The Wall Street Journal last year, and here is a key passage of the resulting profile:

Although Mr. Breitbart practices a form of journalism, as an independent operator he moves freely across boundaries that would constrain a traditional newsman. He makes no pretense of impartiality and openly engages in political activity. On Sept. 12, he took time off from the Acorn video roll-out to travel to Illinois, where he spoke to a tea-party rally. . . . You might say he's something of a community organizer.

In the same piece, we observed that Breitbart has a "flair for publicity"; that his work on the Acorn story "has centered on a sophisticated public-relations campaign" devised "with politics in mind"; that he describes himself as having " 'planted traps' for Acorn and its defenders"; that in developing his tactics, he took inspiration from Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals"; and that the methods his collaborators used in gathering information about Acorn were "grossly unethical by the standards of institutional journalism."

Dan Rather obviously was not the liberal Andrew Breitbart. Imagine if someone had written a profile in 2003 that included a sentence beginning: "Although Mr. Rather practices a form of journalism . . ." If such an assertion made any sense at all, it would have been part of a very snide hit piece. Rather is--or rather, was--simply a journalist. His critics had long charged him with bias, and his conduct in the 2004 "Memogate" affair strongly suggested they were right. Unquestionably, his work on that story was incompetent. CBS dumped him because he had fallen spectacularly short of his profession's standards.

Breitbart, by contrast, makes no bones about being a political activist, and our profile of him was not a hit piece. He has not disputed any element of the way we characterized him and his work, and we remain on friendly terms with him. Our point of view in the interview was that of a mainstream-media journalist who is ideologically sympathetic to Breitbart and agrees with much of his critique of the MSM, but who also adheres to the ethical standards and professed ideals of traditional journalism.

It is entirely fair to observe that Breitbart's Monday report on Sherrod was journalistically shoddy. He misinterpreted a quote whose meaning was at best ambiguous. He should have sought out the full speech (the NAACP has posted it here), and he should have given Sherrod an opportunity to comment.

But the NAACP's defense that it was "snookered" by Breitbart--and Frum's implication, in turn, that Breitbart is the only "villain" of the piece--is laughable. Are we to believe that Ben Jealous thought Breitbart was what Dan Rather, before his fall, claimed to be--an impartial and reliable purveyor of facts? In the unlikely event that the answer to that question is yes, doesn't his failure to know better reflect a stunning incompetence?

No, you can't cheat an honest man. Breitbart set a trap for the NAACP, and the NAACP walked right into it. He was able to do so because he correctly identified the organization's moral weakness. Confronted by a video showing apparent racism at an NAACP function, its leaders appear to have panicked and made a snap decision to denounce one of their own so as to pre-empt the charge of employing a double standard.

It was a very effective bit of Alinskyite political theater, and in a way more so for Breitbart's having gotten the story wrong. As it turned out, the NAACP condemned Shirley Sherrod based on a false, secondhand accusation of racism. Members of the Tea Party movement know just how she feels.

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