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The Media's Failure to Report on Pigford Hurts Black Farmers

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I'm writing this a little before sunrise at a hotel room in Jackson, Mississippi. I'm traveling with my family -- my wife, three of our kids and two cats -- and gathering facts and conducting interviews about the Pigford vs. Glickman settlement that was designed to remedy the decades of discrimination that black farmers in this country faced from their own government, specifically the USDA. The Pigford tale is one that the mainstream press has barely covered, so I've had no problem finding people close to the story who want to tell the world their side of it. My family has driven through four different states in the past 10 days, and I've videotaped more than five and a half fours of interviews, in addition to spending countless hours on the phone in both on and off the record conversations.

One thing that's emerged from every conversation I've had is that America's black farmers are this country's unsung heroes. Farming is hard enough work on its own, but when you add the additional weight of fighting the government's "good old boy" network that existed in many places, the resilience of the black farmers is amazing.

The dignity of the black farmers makes the mainstream media's blanket of silence about Pigford especially offensive. A black reporter I spoke with attributed some of that to the subtle systemic racism that exists in the mainstream media, with a bias towards covering stories that affect or are about white folks. Too often, the press is able to pat itself on the back by dealing with stories about race in a surface way. They pretend that by calling the Tea Party or a Republican politician a racist, they've done their job and scored a victory for minorities. In fact, though, all those reports end up doing is casting heat but not light. They stir up racial tensions and let the press give themselves a pass for not actually digging into a story like Pigford.

Another thing that everyone seems to agree on about Pigford is that it's a very complex story. It's not something that can be explained easily between two commercial breaks or in a couple of soundbites. That being said, it's fascinating -- a long, winding trail of outright corruption and wholesale fraud weaving itself between complicated, passionate people on all sides who have struggled to do the right thing to remedy the plight of black farmers.

The story the press wants you to hear about Pigford is an overly simple one; it's a settlement to remedy black farmers, and last week (over the racially tinged objections of a tiny group of House Republicans) the president signed the Pigford 2 extension that provides more than a billion dollars in funding for late filing farmers.

The problem with that explanation of Pigford is that it's false on nearly every level.

I'll be untangling Pigford in blogs here on The Huffington Post over the next several weeks, but you can start to see the underlying truth about Pigford if you stop and think about the optics. President Obama, Secretary Vilsack, Attorney General Holder and even lame duck Speaker Nancy Pelosi all called the Pigford 2 settlement a historic milestone.

So -- where are the pictures?

Shouldn't we be seeing photos of the president signing the Pigford 2 legislation, surrounded by a phalanx of self-satisfied politicians and smiling black farmers? Those pictures don't exist because that event never happened. No big public fanfare. Obama signed the legislation with no more ceremony than an adjective-filled press release.

The main reason you didn't see pictures of happy black farmers is that most of the black famers aren't very happy with Pigford. In fact, the reality of Pigford is that nobody is very happy with Pigford.

The Big Lie about Pigford is that it "helps black farmers."

To understand why I'm saying that, watch this short excerpt from my interview with Tom Burrell, who heads up a group called Black Farmer's Agricultural Association, Inc. He explains that most of the billions in settlement money hasn't actually gone to farmers but to people who claimed to have "attempted to farm."

Let's leave aside fraud allegations for a moment -- what Burrell describes about the difference in results between "farmers" and "attempted to farm"-ers is fundamentally unfair and unjust.

Again, forget fraud. Just picture two people -- one a farmer who struggled for years to keep his business afloat and lost their farm due to government racial discrimination, the other a person who went into a USDA office and couldn't get a loan application to even get going. Both faced discrimination and the fair result for either may be some sort of settlement... but let's get real. There's no way that the person who didn't get an application -- the "attempted to farm"-er -- deserves the same amount of compensation as the actual, real farmer.

And yet in Pigford, the "attempted to farm"-ers received exactly the same amount for a track-A claim as people who had farmed their whole lives. Both got a $50,000 check. And as Burrell points out, many, many MORE of the "attempted to farm"-ers got that check because they had less to prove than the real farmers. And all of that assumes that there are a large number of people who "attempted to farm" by going to the USDA, which is a questionable premise itself.

That's just one simple reason that the real farmers aren't happy with Pigford -- but you didn't hear that from the mainstream media.

Nope. They didn't even attempt to report.