The Hatewatch blog is managed by the staff of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

Shirley Sherrod and the Right: A Day That Will Live in Infamy

By Mark Potok on July 21, 2010 - 12:00 pm, Posted in Media Extremism

The entire Shirley Sherrod affair is so disgusting, such a stomach-churning episode of right-wing lies, propagandists posing as “journalists,” and craven political cowardice and gullibility, that it’s hard to know who to be most enraged at.

Andrew Breitbart, a particularly vile propagandist of the American right who presented a severely edited videotape of a speech by the Agriculture Department official to falsely label her an anti-white racist? Fox News, several of whose miserable excuses for journalists relentlessly plugged the entirely false story before and after Sherrod was fired? Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who had a minion call Sherrod on a cell phone and insist that she pull over to the side of the road and text in her resignation before any of the relevant background facts about the “scandal” emerged? The White House, which, apparently frightened of appearing in any way linked to black racism, stood by the forced resignation even when it became clear that Sherrod’s speech was nothing like what Breitbart suggested? Even the NAACP acted poorly in this sorry episode, saying it was “appalled” by Sherrod’s words and later “concurring” with her firing. (To its credit, the civil rights group quickly recognized its error, retracting its comments yesterday and saying it had been “snookered” by Breitbart and Fox’s falsehoods.)

Here’s the story in brief, for those few people who still don’t know about it. On Monday, Breitbart — the same loathsome character who publicly called Ted Kennedy a “pile of human excrement” a few hours after the senator’s death — aired a video of Sherrod speaking to an NAACP banquet in Georgia last March. In his edited version, Sherrod is shown talking about initially not wanting to help a white man who was facing the loss of his farm because of her anger toward white racists. But the tape presented by Breitbart, who was furious about the NAACP’s recent criticism of racism within the ranks of the Tea Parties, left out the crucial conclusion of what was really Sherrod’s tale of redemption — that in the course of the 1986 case she was discussing, she came to realize that “the struggle is really about poor people,” and that her anti-white feelings were wrong. She said the case changed her entire outlook. (And in fact the farmer and his wife were all over the media yesterday, saying that Sherrod had saved their farm, was a fine and caring woman, and should get her job back.)

FoxNews.com and Fox Nation, both parts of Fox News, immediately picked up Breitbart’s fairy tale and began plugging it, as did Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly (who demanded Sherrod’s resignation in taped comments run after she quit) and a number of other right-wing media outlets. (Many of these reports, following Breitbart, claimed that Sherrod’s actions in the 1986 case had occurred while she was an Agriculture employee — a complete falsehood.) That prompted Vilsack to have her thrown out of her job as the department’s director of rural development in Georgia (to the applause of an array of Fox hosts and guests) — an act that Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen rightly described today as pure political “cowardice.” Vilsack didn’t bother to hear Sherrod’s side of the story first, and he didn’t watch the full videotape. Incredibly, even as the true story began to emerge, Vilsack said he was sticking by Sherrod’s ouster, because, “rightly or wrongly,” perceptions about her comments could make her job more difficult. Then, early this morning, the Associated Press quoted an unnamed White House official saying President Obama had been briefed on the situation but was supporting Vilsack’s decision.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of wilting of White House officials under pressure from the political right. They fired Van Jones, a White House environmental advisor, after Fox’s Glenn Beck made false claims that he was a “black nationalist” and former “radical communist” who was using green jobs as a form of “stealth reparations.” They repudiated an accurate 2009 Department of Homeland Security report that was leaked and then attacked by right wingers for supposedly defaming conservatives — a charge that was patently false.

Let’s take a closer look at a couple of the other actors in this nasty little episode.

Andrew Breitbart is a former editor for the right-wing Drudge Report (which also participated in the plugging of Breitbart’s video) and a columnist for the arch-conservative Washington Times who sometimes substitutes for Michael Savage, a radio talk show host who regularly makes racist remarks on the air (and who, I should say in the interest of full disclosure, has attacked me personally many times). It was one of Breitbart’s websites that aired videos made by right-wing activists of ACORN employees giving advice concerning prostitution, and that later suggested that ACORN was destroying incriminating documents. (California Attorney General Jerry Brown investigated, concluding there was no criminal activity depicted on the “severely edited” tapes Breitbart aired.) Breitbart also has claimed that Congressmen John Lewis and Andre Carson “made up” a story about being repeatedly called “niggers” during a walk through a Tea Party rally. His evidence? There was no videotape of the insults.

Breitbart recently blogged about the “insufferable assholes” he claims populate the mainstream media. Ironically enough, given the revolting role he played in the defaming of Shirley Sherrod, John Lewis and others, he described “the racket that is modern journalism,” saying that journalists “lie when they claim to be objective.” Elsewhere, in his first column about Sherrod, he crowed that “the new media will not be silenced.”

Which brings us to Fox News, that infamous purveyor of falsehoods, wildly skewed reporting and propaganda posing as real facts (some of Fox’s “journalists” even later suggested that Fox had never plugged the Sherrod tape story). As my colleague Alexander Zaitchik wrote on this blog Monday, the network has “a long history of crude and transparent race-baiting.” And Zaitchik wasn’t even talking about the Sherrod spectacle — he was writing about Fox’s current obsession with the “scandal” of the Justice Department dismissing part of a voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party, a black racist hate group. On MSNBC last night, Rachel Maddow did a serious takedown of Fox’s rantings about Sherrod.

The United States faces many serious problems in the year 2010, from a crashed economy to the largest oil spill in our history. But no American should ignore another serious threat to our integrity as a nation and a culture: the far-right propagandists, their media and political enablers, and the political cowardice that allows complete falsehoods to destroy perfectly innocent human beings.

  • beholder

    I am pleased to state with reasonable certainty my suspicion about the identity of “ralphie”, who is not, I believe, a democrat, but an avid and vocal supporter of the tea party. She posts as “bearded” on another blog, and we go way back on the immigration debate. She doesn’t like immigrants, but has an especially great hatred for the SPLC, and knows that I comment here.

    I say with small modesty that I am the one who taught her what a “guilt by association” fallacy is (having caught her in quite a few different kinds of fallacies, strawmen, guilt by association, ad hominem and so on), so that is what raised my suspicion. Certain terms are used frequently (smear, for example). Another way to tell is an absence of factual evidence for anything and an appeal to scorn — she will always present strong opinions, in clear and not shabby prose, and when pressed, she may provide a link to some screed on FAIR, CIS, or NumbersUSA. Also there is the masculine nickname (“Raphie” and “Bearded”, whereas she is a woman. She has claimed to be independent or a moderate, but will always defend the Tea Party. Now she claims to be a Democrat.

    Here is a quote from another blog, posted today:

    “FAIR, NumbersUSA, and CIS are all very good and valid organizations. They demonize them with the guilt by association tag. If you ever go to the SPLC site and read their blogs it is mind blowing. It is basically an anti-white blog and like minds gather there to condone their views and express their shallow views. I will give you one guess who is a regular poster there. FYI, I have been going to that site for a few years, I like to check out what the lunatic fringe left thinks now and then.”

    Now, let us compare with “Ralphie’s” comment above (elipses are mine for brevity):

    “They have labeled the Federation for Immigration Reform a hate group and smeared the Center for Immigration Studies and Numbersusa because of old, past association to one person…So, if the SPLC is going to rely on old, distant associations to attack mainstream immigration reduction groups, then they should not be surprised or shocked when the Right does the same with Van Jones, Acorn, or Shirley Sherrod. And, by the way, many people now consider the SPLC to be a leading hate group because of the way they smear anyone who doesn’t agree with their left wing agenda “”

    My hypothesis is now presented. I am open to challenge, but I am now comfortable making this association and open the topic for further inquiry.

    Good day.

  • ruben

    ralphie…. you sound just like fox news “fair and balanced” when you really are not! i believe just by reading your posts that you are a angry right winger….and of course splc is gonna rely on past associations to find out what and who these organizations are… i believe its called your rap sheet…you know…birds of a feather flock together.get pulled over by a cop or apply for a good paying job and they will also judge you by your past history….and what you are trying to say is that because groups like the splc expose these racist organizations for what they really are its ok for the right to counter with lies and slander.i believe that beholder is on to something about you.

  • beholder

    Ralphie’s post is very familiar (almost identical) to someone who posts on another blog with a different name who frequently mentions this blog with contempt. If it’s the person I think it is, they have claimed to be “independent”, not Democrat, but also are very avid about the Tea Party. It seems like after the Bush administration Republicans on independent blogs are like American travelers overseas who had to call themselves Canadians during the Bush years to avoid negative scrutiny. With that, I will conduct an analysis of the writing and get back with any relevant conclusions.

  • Ralphie

    They have labeled the Federation for Immigration Reform a hate group and smeared the Center for Immigration Studies and Numbersusa because of old, past association to one person. I have met and know the leaders of both of these organizations and am well aware of their work – and they are the furtherst thing from “white supremecists beliefs”.

    So, if the SPLC is going to rely on old, distant associations to attack mainstream immigration reduction groups, then they should not be surprised or shocked when the Right does the same with Van Jones, Acorn, or Shirley Sherrod. And, by the way, many people now consider the SPLC to be a leading hate group because of the way they smear anyone who doesn’t agree with their left wing agenda

    By the way, I’m a Democrat and am against mass immigration for environmental and economic reasons, as are many people I know. Does that make me a “white supremicist”?

  • ruben

    ralphie….you are here because of mass immigration,just thought i’d remind you of that in case you forgot.and for the record most of the leaders of the anti immigration groups have strong white supremacist beliefs….splc does there homework so that they don’t slander anyone unlike the far right people like breitbart and propagandist fox news.the truth hurts.

  • Ralphie

    Wow,

    Pretty strong editorial coming from a guy who works for an organization (SPLC) that has nothing better to do then label just about anyone and any organization opposed to mass immigration as a hate group.

    While I think the whole Sherrod incident was unfortunate, it is highly hypocritical of Potok to complain about people being unfearly smeared, when his organization has done so itself.

    If you really want this sort of behavior and tactics to stop, then be a leader and quit smearing people and organizations by using very loose “guilt by association” tactics to impugn people and organizations that have very real concerns about mass immigration.

  • Texasgomer

    I think a billion in punitive damages is not asking too much of Fox for its slander. At least, that’s what I would demand as a juror.

  • ruben

    the bigots and liars at fox news are alot smarter then people think! yeah o’reilly and his slandering colleagues apologized but not until after the damage they were after was caused.they took one for the team so to speak.when the damage of slander is so great apologies are worthless and insulting.fox news has now become the propaganda machine of the extreme right wing….you know the racists that the tea party keeps saying are not amongst them.i believe in freedom of speach but you cannot use it to create harm to any person with slander and lies.mrs sherrod should not only sue breitbart but ruppert murdoch himself for allowing this type of slander by his employees.

  • cmon

    It’s time to stop enabling the Fox propaganda channel and playing the fools by using their language. Remove “Fox News” from our lexicon by no longer referring to them using the word ‘news’, and by calling a spade a spade. They are not bad journalists, they are propagandists, plain and simple.