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From AJR,   June/July 2010

Time to Slow Down   

The lessons of the Shirley Sherrod fiasco

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

In a dark, primitive era before Twitter, texting and Lady Gaga, President Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers posed by the military-industrial complex.

Now what we're seeing firsthand is the actual danger of the journalism-political complex.

The toxic combination of the 24-hour news cycle, the ugly political climate, the partisan blogosphere, the hyperactive cable news channels and the quest for instant damage control made the Shirley Sherrod debacle inevitable.

Here's what happens: A story or "story" breaks, the blogs whip it into a frenzy, cable does its saturation thing. And in this case the Obamaites, memories of death by swiftboating vivid in their memories, moved to make all the noise go away as quickly as possible – so quickly that they ordered up a bus to throw Sherrod under without checking the facts.

This is how sensitive the reflex is: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pushed Sherrod out even before a media cataclysm had a chance to develop. The dog hadn't barked.

Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the fiasco, many have pummeled Fox News Channel for railroading the Agriculture Department staffer on the basis of an edited video flogged by rightwing blogger/activist Andrew Breitbart taken completely out of context. (The snippet suggested Sherrod was biased against white people, when in fact it was lifted from a speech in which she condemned racism.)

But as Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz points out in a valuable timeline, Sherrod was sacked before Fox had weighed in on the contretemps. While Bill O'Reilly had recorded his Monday program calling for Sherrod's head earlier in the day, by the time it ran, she was already gone.

That's how ridiculous things have gotten: Just the notion that Fox might do something was enough for the Ag Department to dump Sherrod. She says that when she was being pressured to resign, she was told, "You're going to be on 'Glenn Beck' tonight."

In fact, Kurtz reports, Fox Senior Vice President Michael Clemente sent an e-mail to the news staff Monday afternoon, the day Breitbart posted his ill-fated video, saying, "Let's take our time and get the facts straight on this story. Can we get confirmation and comments from Sherrod before going on-air. Let's make sure we do this right." Fox anchor Shepard Smith, widely known for his independence, refused to run the video.

Not to go all Pollyanna on you, but this might be one of those episodes that¯by highlighting (lowlighting?) just how absurd and untenable the current state of affairs has become¯just might have a beneficial impact.

It's a vivid reminder to journalists, not to mention the Obama administration and the NAACP (which also jumped on Sherrod prematurely), to slow down, to check things out, to get the full story before posting or publishing or acting.

There has been much momentum in the Internet age for going with stories before they are fully cooked because they are "out there," because others are running with them, because we don't want to look clueless.

But often the best way to look clueless is to go with something when you have no idea whether it is true.