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Why Anderson Cooper Botched the Billion Dollar Pigford Story

12/03/2010 11:18 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Anderson Cooper is certainly capable of doing good journalism, but in many cases he simply can't overcome the clichéd convention of what passes for news reporting on television. Here's the scenario that nearly every news show on TV uses -- get two talking heads that are supposedly on different sides of an issue and let them duke it out like Rock Em' Sock Em' Robots.

A recent example of this was Cooper's embarrassing but typical-for-TV piece about the recent passage of billions to settle more claims in the Pigford v. Glickman settlement. Pigford is about black farmers who were discriminated against by the USDA in the 1980s and 1990s. There was a consent decree on the case years ago and over a billion dollars in claims were paid, most for a straight settlement of $50,000 that required a lower standard of proof than the average civil case. Many black farmers claimed that $50,000 was chump change while some, mainly on the right, claimed that many of the claims were fraudulent.

Just this week, Congress passed another billion or so to pay for even more claims so Anderson Cooper did the He Said / He Said thing and brought on longtime black farm activist Dr. John Boyd to represent black farmers and Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King to argue against Pigford based on the fraud charges. Ding! Let's get ready to rummmmmble!

This was after a couple of days of the liberal blogosphere calling King a racist because he said that President Obama is urban, even though the context of King's speech made it clear that 'urban' was opposed to 'rural'. But no matter; simply playing the race card was good enough to eat up a couple of minutes of airtime while Boyd got to chime in on whether King was a racist, too.

In the Rally To Restore Sanity, Jon Stewart (an Anderson Cooper fan) actually covered this racism stuff a little. He said...

If we amplify everything we hear nothing. There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats but those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate -- just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe not more.

There's a reason Stewart said it -- a lot of my fellow liberals throw around the term 'racist' way too much.

If you're a progressive and you think the right tosses out the term 'socialist' like an odd form of Ayn Rand Tourette's Syndrome, just take a look at the comments section of your favorite left wing blog (including HuffPost, to be fair) and see how often the word 'racist' gets used as pretty much the sole argument against someone.

"Not being able to distinguish between the real racists and Tea Partiers" accurately describes how the left wing pundits and commentators have wasted of the last two years. It didn't win the midterm elections because the cry of racism flung endlessly doesn't really convince independent voters of anything except that they are correct to stay out of both political parties. And by the way, if your only response right now is 'but the Tea Partiers ARE racist!' then you're missing the entire point.

One of the worst things about the racist charge is that too often, it's a distraction. A sideshow.

The USDA must have been thrilled with Anderson Cooper's segment because while CNN viewers watch King and Boyd bicker over the racism charge, Secretary Tom Vilsack was able to get with telling the American people a hugely ballsy whopper -- namely that of the 15,000 paid Pigford claims, only three of them (3!) were fraudulent. Anderson Cooper 360 even had his production team make a graphic out of Vilsack's lying by statistic -- because look! See how small three is compared to fifteen thousand. It's itty bitty!

This claim of only three cases of fraud is absurd and the USDA knows it. It's a lie. Anyone doing a little bit of Internet research can figure that out. Three? Really? Three?!? That's a number that takes cojones to put on a press release -- or maybe Vilsack is media savvy, since Cooper didn't question it.

Was there fraud? Even my extensive journalism training at Birchland Park Middle School gave me enough training to know how to track it down. Stick to the facts. Ask for proof.

Let's break it down. Rep. King is making a charge that there's fraud in Pigford. King claims to have seen a box full of claims and that a USDA employee said 75% of them were false.

So -- ask about the box, Anderson. Or the USDA employee. Instead, we got a quick "Where's the proof, Congressmen" and then a bunch of crosstalk.

King is making a factual claim. Why not follow that line of inquiry? Why go down the racist rabbit hole? Show me the box and the dude. If you can't show them to me, explain why you can't. The box is either real or not and it either proves that there were more than three (3!) fraudulent claims or it doesn't.

And even a few fraudulent claims add up. Let's do some simple math. Each Pigford claim paid a minimum of $50,000. If there were only 20 fraudulent claims, that's a million bucks -- enough to do a little tiny bit of reporting on. If there are two thousand fraudulent claims, that's a hundred million dollars of misuse of tax money and cash that won't get to the black farmers who actually were discriminated against.

Is it Anderson's fault? Maybe not. The format hardly allows Cooper to ask about the box or even a simple follow up like 'tell us more about that employee, Congressman?' Nope. Cooper needs people arguing. He's supposed to have conflict at the top of the hour. Facts seem dull in this context.

But what about when both sides have valid points to make?

That's the truth that the Bickering Talking Heads School of Journalism makes it virtually impossible to uncover. In constructing their dumbed down, hyped up news segments, the mainstream TV shows like Cooper's miss the actual story -- which is the entire point of the exercise for the corrupt USDA. In the case of the King v. Boyd fight over Pigford, Anderson Cooper is letting the USDA get away with telling a massive and easily disprovable whopper.

The USDA wants to cover up three separate but valid truths here.

The first one is that fraud did occur in the Pigford settlement and it was a lot more than three cases.

The second is that the settlement was a lousy one for black farmers who faced real discrimination by the USDA and ended up losing their land, settlement or not. This issue of land loss is major, and the black farmers who originally filed never were able to get their stories out about their treatment by the USDA.

Finally, both conservatives and black farm advocates decry the fact that the USDA has never actually been called to account for their actions that caused the settlement in the first place. Even the money for Pigford wasn't taken out of the USDA budget. Instead it came out of reserve money for food stamps.

But doesn't expect mainstream media types like Cooper to tell you the real story of Pigford. The truth doesn't fit neatly between two commercial breaks.