Smart v. Stupid
The state of journalistic integrity
Lie about Shirley Sherrod teaches us something important about reporting
I’ve never met Dylan Smith, the editor and publisher of TucsonSentinel.com, but we’ve developed a pretty friendly email relationship since they started carrying my column and I’ve come to think pretty highly of him. Dylan is one of the few publishers I work with who provides any sort of constructive comment or useful criticism. That makes him pretty valuable to me. (He’s also the go-to guy for esoteric Scottish facts, but that’s another column.)
Lately, we’ve been shooting the breeze a little about journalistic ethics, particularly as it relates to accuracy, but also a little as it relates to honesty. Dylan rightfully pointed out that my column about Dave Weigel – which originally said he was fired – should say he resigned. (If you read it in the Sentinel, it did.) He was right; this seemingly insignificant distinction mattered because my original statement simply wasn’t accurate. I was lucky to have someone to point that out.
Bloggers (I’m one of those too) seldom have the benefit of an editor’s review, but one has to wonder if it would have made any difference to one Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart is the man who published the salacious snip of a speech by USDA employee Shirley Sherrod, then labeled her a racist. The next day, we all found out that she was exactly the opposite of what he’d claimed. Actually, she had been speaking out against racism at the time. Now on the defensive, Breitbart tried another whopper, saying the video indicated the NAACP audience was racist. It turns out that wasn’t true either.
I wonder how Breitbart might have fared in the old-school world of traditional journalism, where an editor might have given him the assignment, another would have fact checked it, and another would have edited it. This level of involvement was designed, in part, to promote accuracy. Would his biased and contrived conclusion have made it through the edit process of, say, The Washington Post of the Watergate era? Not likely. In the blogosphere, though, it’s full speed ahead.
Not that today’s journalists have anything to be proud of. Salacious hyping has been part of local TV news since before the internet. They know you’ll watch if they succeed in making you worry about the story. In new media, Matt Drudge became hugely successful pioneering the same model this blogger used. Drudge pedals headlines; the stories are incidental. Breitbart’s headline was “Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism—2010” Not even close – not even arguable, really.
Beyond that, cable news outlets were perfectly willing to show the clipped video, over and over, while reporting the accusation levied by the blogger. They gave it the air of legitimacy without doing their own checking: “Blogger Andrew Breitbart is reporting…” they said, although an editor – and they have them – should have suggested that “claiming” might be a more accurate word. They were able to benefit, by proxy, from the salacious nature of the claim.
Twenty-four hours later, we all knew it was entirely made up. By the time Breitbart concocted his second phony claim, both old and new media were on the job, debunking it before that night’s evening news.
The bottom line? Brietbart deserves a fat lip. The media gave itself a black eye. And Shirley Sherrod became an icon for a post-racialism. Next time some right-winger misremembers the story, make sure you straighten them out: Shirley Sherrod was actually saying the opposite of what the blogger accused. Her speech was about how she’d considered discrimination but got past it. According to the white family, she saved their family farm. All this happened twenty-eight years earlier, before she worked for the USDA.
Breitbart's deceptive “reporting” is much less likely to have originated in a traditional news outlet or an ethical reporting system like the one run by Smith and the other editors of TucsonSentinel.com. And this is the problem with thinking that blogging is news reporting. Bloggers could use a good editor, one who will challenge and vet their assumptions. They need one, but they seldom have one. Without that, they can offer opinions (like I do) but they can’t reliably report facts.
Sadly, the decline in the fortunes of traditional newspapers has moved them more in the direction of blogs than toward journalistic integrity. After 48 hours of reporting, though, the Sherrod story should give us all some hope. Neither Smith-style journalism nor Sherrod-style heroism have completely disappeared. In thousands of papers and new media outlets, journalistic integrity still rules the roost – even if it sometimes takes a news cycle or two to catch up.
Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”