More Lessons from the Sherrod Ethics Train Wreck

Gordon Peterson, venerable host of “Inside Washington” and long-time Washington D.C. news anchor, began the show’s segment on Shirley Sherrod this way:

“Some of you may remember the good old days of newspapering and TV and radio news when you had hours to work on your story, and your editors and producers had plenty of time to sift through your stuff for accuracy. If you remember that, you’re a dinosaur. Welcome to the blogosphere, the burnout pace of online news and the 24 hour instant deadline. Which brings me to the story of ousted Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod who was let go on the basis of a single piece of internet video that was edited out of context, posted on a conservative website, picked up on Fox News, and bought lock, stock and barrel by the Obama administration.”

That’s right, Gordon. And, as Charles Krauthammer immediately pointed out on the show, you have succumbed to the blogosphere’s unethical standards, because you didn’t check the accuracy of that statement. So eager has the media and the Obama Administration, the NAACP and Sherrod herself been to blame Fox, the all-purpose scape-goat (along with Rush Limbaugh) for everything that’s wrong in Obamaland, that none of them bothered to check the time-line. As has been pointed out by several sources and now Krauthammer, Fox didn’t run Andrew Breitbart’s incomplete video of Sherrod’s remarks until after she had been fired by USDA. [Fox anchor Sheppard Smith justly criticized his network for running the misleading tape.] The Obama Administration was not misled by Fox News. Sherrod was mistaken to say that Fox was involved at all. And the N.A.A.C.P., which knew about the full, unedited speech before it released its statement endorsing Sherrod’s firing, was not, as it said, “snookered” by the cable news channel that both it and the Administration has repeatedly said it doesn’t trust anyway. The N.A.A.C.P. was not and could not have been “snookered” by Fox, because it didn’t depend on Fox for its information—and it had the full Sherrod speech before Ben Jealous condemned her actions. Yes: the N.A.A.C.P. lied. There is no other way to call it.

Here was Krauthammer’s indictment of Peterson and his fellow panel members, Colbert King of the Washington Post, Nona Totenberg of NPR, and Mark Shields, all of whom also attacked Fox’s “irresponsibility”:

“Speaking of apologies, perhaps you ought to apologize for saying that Fox News had [Sherrod] on the air before the administration had fired her. In fact, she was fired in the late afternoon. She appeared on Fox, her story appeared on Fox News later. And I would tell you that the next day, at a time when she remained fired, Secretary of Agriculture…repeated his intention to have her fired. The main news show 6:00 had her on, and I called for apology, restitution and reinstatement, as did the entire Fox News panel. So, if we’re going to put all this in context and speak about the context, I think it ought to be universal.

Indeed, Fox’s first call for a resignation, made by Bill O’Reilly just before 9:00 pm on Monday, came roughly an hour after Sherrod had actually resigned. Krauthammer continued:

“Talk about selective editing. The main news show on Fox is 6:00 with Bret Baier. I am a commentator on that every night. I know what happened. We didn’t touch the story on Monday because we had no background…This is not a Fox News story. This is an administration story. This is an NAACP story. And it’s a Shirley Sherrod story.”

And it’s a lazy, biased, journalism story. Like Peterson, most of the media, so used to sneering at Fox News, didn’t bother to check the sequence of events once Sherrod, USDA, and The N.A.A.C.P. shouted “FOX!” As  Krauthammer said, “In the universe of my colleagues over here, the root of all evil is Fox, everything else is derivative. The administration and the NAACP acted first.”

The value of ethics train wrecks, of course, is that they expose the ethics fault lines in our culture and institutions. The leadership of the N.A.A.C.P. and the USDA were exposed by the Sherrod wreck as irresponsible, politically driven, unprincipled cowards. Breitbart, who unfairly jeopardized an innocent woman’s career to pull of a tit-for-tat strategem in response to the N.A.A.C.P.’s  “racist elements” resolution (or indictment) against the Tea Party movement, showed that he is without scruples when it comes to ideological warfare. And the news media showed its bias and lack of professionalism by uncritically accepting and reporting, once again, an “it’s Fox’s fault!” talking point that was not supported by easily checked facts.

So what have we learned? We learned that we can’t trust videotape to be self-explanatory, as if we didn’t know that already. We learned that we can’t trust Andrew Breitbart not to mislead us. We learned we can’t trust our government to act fairly, responsibly and with due process when political concerns loom, and that we can’t trust it to take full responsibility for its own errors. We learned the same about the N.A.A.C.P., and also that its leadership will lie to the public when it thinks the media will allow it to do so.

We learned that conservative talk radio doesn’t have the integrity, courage or fairness to abandon a story it got wrong, as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others in the cabal continued to argue that Sherrod deserved to be fired as a “racist element” (Vengeance for the Tea Party! An eye for an eye!) in the USDA. And we learned that we can’t trust the mainstream media, since it doesn’t bother to check stories if they reflect badly on those they don’t like—such as Fox News.

We knew that already, too, just like most of us know we can’t trust Fox News. Just because a channel is untrustworthy, however, doesn’t mean it can’t be unfairly smeared. In this instance, Fox was.

You can see the video of Krauthammer calling out Peterson here.

UPDATE: Sure enough, Frank Rich, in his column in the Sunday Times, made Fox News the headline villain of the Sherrod affair, as did several of the Sunday news show talking heads. Fox shouldn’t have run Breitbart’s tape at all, it is true. But will any of the reflexive Fox-bashers, like blogger Josh Marshall (who wrote that Fox caused the flap, which it didn’t, and didn’t have the decency to apologize for running the video—which it did, on the air, several times—recognize the central irony and hypocrisy of their commentary? By blaming Fox for getting Sherrod fired without checking the facts, they are doing precisely what they condemn Fox for doing.

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