Huffpost Media
Jason Linkins Headshot

Sherrod Scandal: Washington Post Finds It Impossible To Form Any Conclusions On The Incident

Posted: Updated:

The Shirley Sherrod affair is one of those stories that has absolutely no ambiguity to it. Alex Pareene basically captures what happened in the subhed of his authoritative explainer: "Andrew Breitbart lies about a USDA appointee, and a cowardly White House forces her out as a result."

That's basically it! We can all see for ourselves that Sherrod's speech, truncated to afford maximum hysteria, was actually a lengthy oration on Confronting Prejudices, and Overcoming Obstacles In Race Relations, and Personal Growth. And it's a pretty compelling story, made all the more so by the fact that when someone in the media finally had the bright idea of contacting the Spooner family -- the ostensible "victims" of "racism" -- they were quick to point out that Sherrod was a friend who saved their farm, she wasn't a racist, and that everyone saying so is an idiot.

This is, point blank, some of the least ambiguous shit in the whole wide world! But over at the Washington Post, they've been having this existential crisis of journalism, where no one knows if they are allowed to "have opinions" or "form conclusions" based on "extant immutable facts." Is it possible, really, to "know" anything anymore? Or are all the things we know merely two sides in a great debate?

That's their current mindset. And so it's not surprising that three Post reporters have conspired to craft a story in which no one is sure what is happening in America, or who is to blame.

A fuzzy video of an Agriculture Department official opened a new front Tuesday in the ongoing war between the left and right over which side is at fault for stoking persistent forces of racism in politics.

On the other hand, maybe that fuzzy video which wrongly implicated an innocent woman of racism was Andrew Breitbart's fault.

Shirley Sherrod, a black woman appointed last July as the USDA's Georgia state director of rural development, was forced to resign after a video surfaced of her March 27 appearance at an NAACP banquet. In a speech, she described an episode in which, while working at a nonprofit organization 24 years ago, she did not help a white farmer as much as she could have. Instead, she said, she sent him to one of "his own kind."

AND THEN THE REST OF THE VIDEO HAPPENED. Why aren't Post readers allowed to hear the rest of the story? This is like describing "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" as a story about a pitiless and irredeemable anti-Whovite monster.

But for some on the right, Sherrod's comments also reinforced a larger, more sinister narrative: that the administration of the first African American to occupy the White House practices its own brand of racism.

I love how this can be a "sinister" narrative but not a narrative that is entirely founded on bullshit -- from whence comes its "sinister" nature. I also love how this can be a "large" narrative, despite the fact that it only comprises "some on the right." And how "some on the right" are that "some on the right?" Pretty "some on the right," as it turns out!

Suspicions on the right that Obama has a hidden agenda -- theories stoked in part by conservative media and sometimes involving race -- have been a subplot of his rise, beginning almost as soon as he announced his campaign. They lie beneath many of the questions that conservatives on the political fringes have raised about his motives, his legitimacy and even his citizenship.

On the other hand, some of the president's allies on the left have at times reflexively seen racism as the real force behind the vehemence of the opposition against Obama's policies and decisions.

Let me pass the mic to Tom Scocca, over at Slate, to stare witheringly at this trainwreck:

Every issue has two sides. Some people believe that an Ivy-educated establishment striver who put Wall Street loyalists like Tim Geithner and Larry Summers in charge of the economy is really a Muslim Communist demagogue and a sleeper agent who used time-travel powers to forge his own birth announcement. Other people believe that those people's passion might be grounded in something other than the president's performance and policy agenda.

For God's sake. You stipulate that a "large sinister narrative" exists and go on to state that it's driven forward by people like birthers? As a reporter, how much Ativan do you have to take to miss the insanely obvious conclusion that maybe we ought not to be paying attention to this narrative?

But all of that is beside the point! This article started off with Shirley Sherrod as the subject, and determining "which side is at fault" as the task. Look how far off the map we've wandered! What are we even talking about anymore?

That's when we get to the second half of the article, which, if you are reading online, is on an entirely different page.

But in Sherrod's account, her firing was driven more by the exigencies of the news cycle -- and the administration's fear of conservative wrath. She said she was "harassed" to quit by USDA Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook, who told her to "do it, because you're going to be on 'Glenn Beck' tonight."

This is what one calls "the literal truth." Why isn't this in the lede?

A video of the full speech -- which runs more than 45 minutes -- shows that Sherrod was trying to make a very different point from the one her critics saw in her inelegantly worded account of the episode with farmer Roger Spooner. An examination of her own prejudice, she said, taught her that "there is no difference between us."

Why isn't this in the first half of the story? Why did you leave readers hanging to find out this critical detail, until way after you raised the suspicion that the truncated video may have had some truth to it?

Ultimately, she did help the farmer -- and on Tuesday, his family was among those who came to her defense. "She's a good friend. She helped us save our farm," Spooner's wife, Eloise, told CNN. "She's the one I give credit for helping us save our farm."

Why isn't this in the first half of the story? Is it because there's too much invested in tying up this elaborate Gordian Knot of journalistic whimsy to risk the possibility that the Spooners might just slice right through it, with sensibleness?

The reason is because all the actual details of the story are far too conclusive! It takes away from the vagued-up, on-the-one-hand-now-on-the-other-hand, self-indulgent "narrative" that desires, at all costs, to pretend that the ultimate concern here is that there is "ongoing war between the left and right over which side is at fault for stoking persistent forces of racism in politics." (And remember, that important war is dominated by fools and cranks, like birthers!)

This story tells me nothing about what's going on in America. And it forces me to hang around, in suspense, before it deigns to tell me about what actually happened in this specific instance. It doesn't just steadfastly refuse to assign blame for Sherrod's ouster, it refuses to admit that blame can be assigned at all. Maybe it's my fault this happened. Maybe it's nobody's fault! Maybe we're all just bouncing without control or agency within the gauzy tesseract of the media narrative, spinning evermore in complete confusion. Or maybe the Washington Post just lives in mortal fear of cognition.

At the end of the piece, you learn, "Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report." So there you have it: it took the expertise of three people to completely drain this story of expertise.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not? Also, please send tips to tv@huffingtonpost.com -- learn more about our media monitoring project here.]

Around the Web

Federal Eye - NAACP, White House respond to ouster of USDA worker ...

PostPartisan - Shirley Sherrod: Sacrificial lamb on the altar of race

Firing of USDA official highlights larger political problems ...

TPM, WaPo, Politico: WH officials deny WH involvement in Sherrod ...