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By Roger Aronoff
Sometimes events converge into one of those teachable moments. That is the case with the Shirley Sherrod story breaking within a day of the Journolist scandal. This moment turned into a frenetic week of accusations, reactions, analysis and a lot of anger. The Journolist scandal revealed a dark underbelly of mostly left-wing opinion journalists acting as political operatives in ways that may have contributed to the climate which has spawned RaceGate.
When it looked like the Shirley Sherrod story was in fact one that showed Mrs. Sherrod, the USDA (Department of Agriculture) official from Georgia, boasting to an amused crowd of NAACP members about unequal treatment given to a farmer because he was white, Team Obama went to work demanding that she turn in her resignation, and the NAACP piled on with their own condemnation. A video had been posted on Andrew Breitbart's Big Government website that seemed to give that impression. But it turned out that it was also a story of redemption, of how Mrs. Sherrod got past the race issue and actually helped the white farmer save his land, and the farmer and his wife quickly came to her defense. All within a day and a half, this story emerged as one thing, and swiftly became another. The mob mentality first went after Mrs. Sherrod as an example of discrimination based on race, and then after Breitbart, now accused of starting this fire and fanning the flames.
First, there is no evidence that Breitbart "heavily edited" the piece, as a number of sources have charged. And secondly, the larger point he was making is correct. The NAACP had made a decision a week earlier to brand the Tea Party Movement as racist, and in the final draft of a resolution at their annual convention, backtracked slightly to say that the Tea Party movement should repudiate the racist elements in its midst. Ben Jealous, the head of the NAACP, was all over the airwaves, clarifying, but persisting in the charge of racism. Obama had previously made the false charge about Hispanic-Americans in Arizona, saying that "now, suddenly if you don't have your papers and you took your kid out to get ice cream, you can be harassed, that's something that could potentially happen."
And then, as former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy noted at The Corner on National Review Online, a closer look at the whole speech turns up some problems for the "redemption" narrative. First, he points out, that "Clearly, there were parts of the tape left on the cutting room floor that should have been considered in conjunction with the parts Andrew published-and knowing Andrew, he would have published them if he'd had them. (By contrast, the NAACP did have the full speech, but threw Mrs. Sherrod under the bus anyway.)"
Then McCarthy proceeds to quote from the middle of Mrs. Sherrod's speech, talking about blacks and whites, rich and poor. McCarthy notes that "For context: She is talking about how the evil 'people with money,' beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries (i.e., around the founding of our republic), created a still existing system designed to institutionalize racism against black people while simultaneously keeping poor whites and poor blacks divided." The highlighting in this quote from Mrs. Sherrod's speech is McCarthy's:
"So that's when they made black people servants for life. That's when they put laws in place forbidding them [i.e., blacks and whites] to marry each other. That's when they created the racism that we know of today. They did it to keep us divided. And they-It started working so well, they said, "Gosh, looks like we've come upon something here that could last generations." And here we are, over 400 years later, and it's still working.
"What we have to do is get that out of our heads. There is no difference between us. The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power and whether it's healthcare or whatever it is, they'll do what they need to do to keep that power, you know. [Applause] It's always about money, ya'll. [Applause and murmurs of agreement.] You know. I haven't seen such a mean-spirited people as I've seen lately over this issue of health care. [Murmurs of agreement.] Some of the racism we thought was buried-[someone in the audience says, "It surfaced!"] Didn't it surface? Now, we endured eight years of the Bushes and we didn't do the stuff these Republicans are doing because you have a black president. [Applause]
"I wanted to give you that little history, especially the young people, I want you to know they created it, you know, not just for us, but we got the brunt of it because they needed to elevate whites just a little higher than us to make them think they were so much better. Then they would never work with us, you know, to try to change the situation that they were all in."
The point of this is to show that perhaps Mrs. Sherrod is not as past the race issue as she now claims. But the bigger issue is the point of this whole controversy.
Breitbart's actions were in response to the ongoing claims that the Tea Party movement, and by extension, Republicans and conservatives who oppose President Obama's health care and other far-reaching legislation, were motivated by racism, or a problem with America having a black President.
These claims came to a head with the week-long debate over the NAACP resolution and charges. But these charges that the Tea Party movement and other conservatives are racist have been a recurring theme, particularly on the agenda-driven MSNBC.
The MSNBC lineup of Matthews, Schultz, Olbermann and Maddow have been fanning the flames of this racism charge for a long time. And this past two weeks it has blown wide open.
Both sides are attempting to present the other as the provocateur in this matter, on cable TV, network TV, in the newspapers and the blogosphere. Calling people racist who are not is as despicable as being racist. It is one of those "when did you stop beating your wife?" type charges.
And in the midst of this comes the Journolist scandal, well laid out by Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post. This is a group, a listserve as its founder Ezra Klein calls it, of some 400 mostly liberal and left-wing journalists and their pals in academia, who thought they were "chatting" among themselves with an expectation of privacy from those not allowed into the chat room. Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller website got ahold of some of the emails sent around, and released them over a few days, showing how these left-wing activists were determined to help get Obama elected president. Collectively they don't suggest a conspiracy, but rather a group of like-minded friends and associates who felt comfortable trashing anyone they saw as a threat to Obama's eventual success. One example was an email expressing a desire to brand someone like Karl Rove or Fred Barnes as racist to put them on the defensive, rather than to have to defend Obama's ties to Jeremiah Wright. Another theme was going after ABC for some tough questions that George Stephanopoulos asked Obama during a debate. One even wrote that "if Rush Limbaugh were having a heart attack, she would 'laugh loudly like a maniac and watch his eyes bug out. . . . I never knew I had this much hate in me. But he deserves it.'"
The weight of the evidence shows that these leftist opinion journalists, some posing as straight truth-seeking journalists, were clearly pushing a partisan political agenda, even when they knew they were being dishonest or disingenuous. And branding people as racist was within the limits of acceptable tactics, at least by some of them. And until this week, none had gone public with this despicable behavior. Sure, we've had admissions from mainstream journalists, like Evan Thomas claiming that the liberal media were worth 15 points for John Kerry in his campaign for the White House in 2004 (later scaled back to 5 points). But here was an actual hornet's nest of these activists.
Tucker Carlson explained the significance, and answered some critics of the Daily Caller's coverage of the Journolist scandal: "To be clear: We're not contesting the right of anyone, journalist or not, to have political opinions. (I, for one, have made a pretty good living expressing mine.) What we object to is partisanship, which is by its nature dishonest, a species of intellectual corruption. Again and again, we discovered members of Journolist working to coordinate talking points on behalf of Democratic politicians, principally Barack Obama. That is not journalism, and those who engage in it are not journalists. They should stop pretending to be. The news organizations they work for should stop pretending, too."
Keith Olbermann has called me a racist from his perch at MSNBC while misidentifying my employer. I chose to ignore that at the time, because how exactly is someone supposed to answer that vicious accusation. That was in response to a column I wrote about him and MSNBC stoking the fire by accusing the Tea Party movement of being racist.
Now Olbermann has come out with perhaps his most unhinged attack, and that's saying a lot. He crawled out of his cave, apparently while on vacation, to call Breitbart "scum" on at least four occasions, while comparing Mrs. Sherrod to Alfred Dreyfus (whose name he mispronounced), and presumably he is the J'accuse author Emile Zola (when he's not Edward R. Murrow, in his mind). Being lectured by Olbermann as some kind of moral beacon is a bit ridiculous.
Breitbart is a good man who has created a cutting edge New Journalism franchise. AIM honored him this year at CPAC, and here was his speech on the bias and corruption of the mainstream media upon accepting the award, primarily for his role in helping to expose ACORN as a corrupt organization. Watch this before judging him too harshly.
The worst behavior in all this is by Team Obama. Whether they reacted out of fear when telling Mrs. Sherrod inaccurately that the story would be on Glenn Beck that night, or just failed to do a bit of due diligence before asking her to resign, it was a major embarrassment. Mrs. Sherrod was told to pull over her car to call in her resignation by Cheryl Cook, the Agriculture Department official and someone she knew, who told her the White House was insisting on her resignation. The White House now claims that the decision was made entirely by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the USDA, not the White House. Mrs. Sherrod expresses her greatest anger at Breitbart, and is looking at a possible lawsuit. While she was grateful for his phone call to her and praised President Obama, she has repeatedly suggested that the White House is lying when they claim they had nothing to do with her firing. That seems like a reasonable conclusion.
Roger Aronoff is a media analyst with Accuracy in Media, and is the writer/director of the award-winning documentary, "Confronting Iraq: Conflict and Hope." He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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