Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Sherrods vs Hysteria

Last Monday, the media and the White House exploded with hysteria over the edited video clip of Shirley Sherrod of Georgia giving a speech in March to the NAACP at an awards ceremony in DC(?). The video was marketed and promoted by Andrew Breitbart, a notorious scammer, and was purported to show a black Federal worker exposed as a racist before the racist NAACP. According to Breitbart, this was "get back" for the NAACP's call on the TeaBaggers to denounce the racists in their midst.

The White House and Agriculture Department behaved very badly indeed in this instance, for they summarily dismissed Shirley Sherrod -- actually, they required and got her immediate resignation -- within hours, if not minutes, of the posting of the video on one of Breitbart's websites, even before the thing had entered common knowledge and heavy rotation on the cable channels.

But then, the cable channels didn't actually behave any better. FOX of course was leading the charge to pillory and ostracize Ms Sherrod, and most of the other "news" channels just mindlessly followed suit. Were it not for the fact that Shirley Sherrod was in Georgia, near enough to CNN's headquarters in Atlanta, the record might not have been corrected.

But she was in Georgia and she made many appearances on CNN to counter the lies of Andrew Breitbart -- who also made many appearances on all the shows, though they never appeared together -- and to denounce FOX and challenge the White House and Agriculture Department for yielding to hysteria stirred up by FOX and Breitbart.

Ultimately, CNN made a special biographical program to explain to viewers who Shirley and Charles Sherrod are in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and what they have done in the context of rural Georgia and the preservation of farmlands and farm life for blacks and whites.

Breitbart seemed like a goon and the Government seemed out of touch and hysterical to say the least.

Ultimately, the Sherrods came out of last week's media-storm -- and White House and USDA stumble-bumming -- smelling like roses, whereas Breitbart was pummeled from every direction imaginable. Yet, according to Palace wags, he'll survive, stronger than before. He did not back down. Nor, unlike the Government, did he apologize.

I've made a number of points about this incident:

  • 1) One man, Andrew Breitbart, was able to paralyze and control both media and the Government for nearly a week, by simply posting what turned out to be a misleadingly edited video clip on his website. Though the Sherrods came out of this looking very good, Breitbart was the master of what went on. Simply by posting his deceptive video clip, nearly every other story was jettisoned, a dedicated public servant was forced out of her position with the Federal Government, an action that then required "walking back" and numerous apologies for not "hearing the whole story." The media -- all of it -- was completely consumed with the saga for day after day. The media was being driven by Breitbart, and to a much lesser extent by Shirley Sherrod.

  • 2) What happened demonstrated the weakness of the Government and the mindlessness of the media. Combined, the two appear to hold nearly tyrannical power over Americans, but the facts shown here demonstrated just the opposite. In fact, it was Andrew Breitbart who controlled both. That is extraordinary, and it is very dangerous. It's not so much "who" was the controlling entity, it is that the apparatus of both media and the Government could be controlled by a single individual at all. This not only indicates weakness, it implies irrelevance. When you think about what that means in the context of the WaPo's "Secret Government" series, it should put the Dread into nearly everyone.

But the fact was that pointing out the implications of what happened was met with a chorus of denial and boos. It's very hard to recognize how weak our Government really is when we are being told over and over again that it is a tyranny. Well, yes, it is, but it is a surprisingly weak tyranny. If one man, Andrew Breitbart, can control it so easily, think what a more public minded individual might be able to do.

Breitbart used a time-honored tactic, that of the "whistle-blower" to put his evil plan in motion. He had video "proof" of racists within the Government and at the NAACP, and he was blowing the whistle on them.

For its part, the Government -- apparently in the person of Cheryl Cook, Deputy Director of the USDA and one assumes a career civil servant -- demanded the immediate resignation of Shirley Sherrod even before the "proof" was in wide circulation or in fact had circulated beyond Breitbart's site much at all. This is stunning, and there are many implications. Was Ms Cook monitoring Breitbart and FOX on the internet? Did she report what Breitbart had "discovered?" Was it her recommendation and decision to terminate Ms Sherrod with prejudice? And was that decision then made the policy of the Government? What a mess. And who, exactly, is Cheryl Cook to be making these decisions -- if that's what happened?

We don't know. Ms Cook has been in seclusion from day one, unaccountable and inaccessible. Is she a factional player? We don't know. All I can say is that I have seen this sort of thing happen in Federal service. Without a fair hearing -- or any hearing at all in some cases -- employees will be forced out, either through resignation or firing, on the accusation of some impropriety or other without evidence or proof, or as I have seen happen, when the actual evidence contradicts the accusations. It happens suddenly, without warning, and sometimes with such determination that the victim has no chance to respond until after the events have transpired. I was one of the ones who intervened when this situation developed in my agency. So far as I knew, it was not a partisan issue, but it was an issue of hysteria ginned up by someone with a grudge who then was able to convince a supervisor to act in ignorance and haste.

The first time I saw it happen, I thought it was an aberration; then I saw it happen again. And then I realized this behavior was part of the institutional culture and that, when there was no intervention, the perpetrators could be handsomely rewarded, even if the victim eventually sued and won.

Ultimately I realized it is a self-protective action by the institution itself. Although there are real people involved, and there may be personal issues at the bottom of it, the process is often so mindless -- literally -- that it is not a personal matter. It is the Institution reacting to some perception of threat.

Based on what I've seen in the past, my suspicion is that Shirley Sherrod had been targeted and was being monitored prior to this incident, probably due to her history and her apparent newness to the Agency as an employee, as a "potential threat." Knowing something of who she was (she had pressed and won an enormous discrimination suit against the very Agency that now employed her) I'm sure close tabs were being kept on her and her activities. Although I have no idea who Cheryl Cook is or if she is a factional player in the USDA (wouldn't surprise me if she were), my instinct says she acted on her own to "protect the agency" from potential harm once she saw that Sherrod was being targeted by Breitbart. How she learned of that becomes a matter of some interest. I would guess that she was contacted directly by... someone. But I'm noodling here. What really happened will probably never be investigated let alone known, and Cheryl Cook will probably get an award. That's how these things work.

-- To be continued


  1. Dear Che,

    Thank you for writing about this and looking deeper under the surface of this incident.

    The last two paragraphs caused me to gasp in recognition! You've described, probably perfectly, exactly the experiences my husband has had. I won't bore you with details (but since you understand this phenomenon it's probably not necessary anyway). My husband is a gentle, quiet, humble man who is quite intelligent and well educated (he really is, this isn't just his doting wife's view of him ;)). He is very, very good at his job (as measured by institutional criteria: raises, promotions and also job performance measures, e.g., nearly zero turnover in his department, increased sales, etc.) and yet over and over again he's been pushed out of positions and this has been a source of a great deal of frustration and anger (mainly frustration, "what am I doing wrong??"). The first time we thought it was just incompetence on the part of his superiors. The second time we started thinking a little more about it. My husband is black and I broached the subject of racism. He said he'd thought about that but that his daily dealings with these people didn't lead him in that direction. After the third time he became resigned to this sort of treatment (to the extent that you can) and we actually began looking for signs of it. (By the way, he's in retail, an industry that allows for somewhat fluid movement from one job to the next, plus we've been relocated a couple of times across the country.)

    I'm guessing that what is threatening to any given institution is probably unique to that institution. In my husband's case his competence and respect and loyalty from his staff seems to be a red flag for them. The other red flag is very likely the fact that he isn't a yes man nor does he kiss posteriors. He's not outwardly rebellious or looking for an argument - he's much more diplomatic. But I guess if you're used to having someone smooching your behind you'll probably notice when it isn't happening no matter how diplomatic the non-smooch is. So far in his current position he doesn't seem to be in the bullseye (knock on wood, although he was - long story). Unfortunately his boss seems to be in the bullseye - for what? She tells the superiors what they need to know, not what they want to hear.

    Another problem with this institutional behavior is that nearly no one who works there notices it. And trying to explain it to others is nearly impossible, too, unless you've been through it.

    Anyway, much too long and more detail then necessary. But I wanted you to know your post will be the source of dinner conversation tonight. :)

  2. Hi Gwen,

    And trying to explain it to others is nearly impossible, too, unless you've been through it.

    Indeed. You try to explain -- especially try to explain it to someone inside the institution! -- and you'll be lucky if a blank stare is the only response.

    The institutional instinct for self-protection and self-preservation leads to so much grief and gross unfairness, discrimination, and just plain monstrousness, but trying to explain it is very difficult, and intervention -- as I found out -- is... strongly frowned upon.

    The more I think about it -- and the more I learn -- I'm more and more convinced that Shirley Sherrod was targeted when she was hired (which I understand was sometime in 2009, as opposed to what I had previously assumed, that she was a career civil servant.) I suspect, but I haven't been able to confirm, that Cheryl Cook was her appointed "monitor," and that Cook is the career person who is looking out for the agency and the department, and she was riding herd on Sherrod all the time.

    What you say about your husband:

    In my husband's case his competence and respect and loyalty from his staff seems to be a red flag for them. The other red flag is very likely the fact that he isn't a yes man nor does he kiss posteriors.

    is what I suspect what the USDA found threatening in Sherrod. She obviously is no suck up, she commands immense respect through her indomitable character, and given her background, I suspect she's threateningly competent in the field. Can't have that.

    I wish your husband well. I certainly sympathize with his dilemma. You never can know just how to deal with these situations -- except in crisis, and that's when character really shines through.

    Thanks for sharing some of the story of what you and your husband have been through.


  3. Che,

    You said this,

    "...Though the Sherrods came out of this looking very good, Breitbart was the master of what went on. Simply by posting his deceptive video clip, nearly every other story was jettisoned, a dedicated public servant was forced out of her position with the Federal Government, an action that then required "walking back" and numerous apologies for not "hearing the whole story."

    I agree with your point here, that the non-vetted activities of this guy hijacked the media, beat down the gov. institutions responsible, where they did something they quickly came to regret, and the "news" was taken over for a week...?...

    I have been wondering about the why's of this.

    It seems to me that the news people are looking for great catastrophes that will generate conflict mostly because it will sell papers, or ads. They are so focused on the thought that blood will sell that they most times, or, in this case, spend little time checking out the credibility of the story.

    It has seemed to me that the "news" is not about long term underlying issues. It's mostly about what can be made sensational about the moment. This is "news." If it happened yesterday, or always happens so that it might be expected, it's not news. So, being superficial is very strong bait to these people.

    I also think there's a very strong incentive to avoid the deeper issues and so to avoid looking too closley at the underlying crdibility of claims made by acceptable ideologues. So if Breitbart says it, it must be good...! The reason they will not go deep is that they cannot do anything that might stop people shopping. Since the underlying is so bad that exposing it can't but stop shopping, that part of journalism cannot be done.

    There's also a tit-for-tat. The right has to get payback, and sometimes they have to go far out on a limb to get that.

    But, yours is a good discussion.

  4. Che,

    I thought this might be interesting to you,


    (via Leiter Reports)

    It talks about why the right wing is able to be such an effective thought police.

  5. Hey steven,

    I think your insight into how the "news" works is mostly right. "If it bleeds, it leads" is not just cliché. In the summertime, the "news" is all about sharks and missing white women. Or other shiny objects.

    The contrast between the way WikiLeaks was treated (changing now, though) and the way Breitbart's Sherrod smear was treated continues to be fascinating. In both these cases, there's an element of propaganda, agit-prop in fact. This isn't just about profit, it's about "moving the discussion."

    I liked your link a lot. Thanks for including it.