What can we learn from the Shirley Sherrod affair?

My blogger friends aren’t going to like this post. I’m going to be accused of being a media dinosaur. But I can’t help feeling that the Shirley Sherrod affair demonstrates the need for all of us to go back to some of the old values of traditional mainstream media.

When I say traditional values I’m talking about values that go back to before the Internet and before cable. I’m talking about doing things more slowly and carefully. I’m talking about being skeptical whenever someone tells you that something happened. I’m talking about wanting to see the original document or the original tape yourself before writing about something that allegedly comes from it, something that could cost a woman her job and unfairly raise charges of racism in a country where race is still such an explosive issue.

In other words, old-style, traditional, skeptical and independent journalism, journalism that is concerned about being fact-based, complete, contextual, in-depth and fair.

This old journalism is sharply different from the rapid-fire, shoot-from-the-hip style popular in cyberspace where many items are written hastily and with a partisan or ideological bias, items that replace careful, independent scrutiny of facts with clever commentary designed to skewer an opponent and reinforce the prejudices of one’s own side.

In this case it was Fox, the Obama administration and the NAACP that embarrassed themselves by jumping to conclusions that later proved to be wrong, but the same thing could happen to other media, government and political organizations of all stripes. It could happen to you.

What we had in the Sherrod affair was a conservative organization, Fox “News,” jumping unthinkingly on a story based on a bit of tape provided, out of context and with great distortion, by a conservative agitator, Andrew Breitbart, who was trying to discredit the NAACP for seeing racism in the tea party, and then we had Fox playing up the story and commenting on it without checking into it more carefully. Then we had a liberal administration firing Sherrod because of all the hysteria whipped up by Fox, and we had a liberal organization, the NAACP, approving her firing, and now we have Fox finally doing more careful reporting and finding white farmers who say she helped them and is no racist, and now the NAACP is saying it was snookered, and the Obama administration is backtracking.

What a mess.

And so unnecessary.

It all could have been avoided if all of us, liberal or conservative or of whatever ideological stripe, had just calmed down and taken it more slowly and carefully instead of jumping to conclusions and seeing things through a distorted partisan lens.

Go ahead. Attack me. I know I’m a dinosaur (34 years at the Wall St. Journal, AP, Newsweek and CNN). But I think it’s time for anyone who is writing in cyberspace or appearing on cable channels to slow down, be more careful, stop and think and learn a lesson or two from the best of the old media.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “What can we learn from the Shirley Sherrod affair?

  1. Celeste Whiting

    “This old journalism is sharply different from the rapid-fire, shoot-from-the-hip style popular in cyberspace where many items are written hastily and with a partisan or ideological bias, items that replace careful, independent scrutiny of facts with clever commentary designed to skewer an opponent and reinforce the prejudices of one’s own side.”

    The best of the new guard has an impatient distrust of the slowness of “old journalism” predicated on the idea that taking the time to examine and test facts before publication often gives the “bad guys” more time to get away with bad deeds. The slow ineptness of Congress to investigate the Executive over the last nine years coincides with the growth of hasty internet “journalism.” At the same time, the best of the new guard has deep respect for the rigors of investigative journalism, yet undertakes its work with puny budgets that cannot support months and years of research required by “old journalism.”
    The best of the new guard is a response to the decline of “old journalism” resulting from media consolidation of the last thirty years. It is a call to conscience for credentialed members of the Fourth Estate.
    Unfortunately, practices of the new guard give cover to partisans who pose as clever, edgy, scoop makers.

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