Questioning the Sherrod affair

The White House jumped Fox News’ gun by firing Shirley Sherrod.

Julian Switala

After watching the first season of MTV’s Jersey Shore, I was convinced that the level of corruption, gossip and backstabbing displayed on the show could not be matched. However, there is a reality show which has existed for hundreds of years and which has finally beat out Jersey Shore in both ratings and sleaze: the White House.

Yes, the White House — the executive office of the president of the United States, the former residence of some of the world’s most celebrated historical figures, the summit of the American political topography and the Mecca of the U.S. federal government. To be fair, it isn’t just what the residents of the White House did that is cause for concern. It is also the manner in which certain events were disseminated, publicized and consumed by spectators.

Before I begin, let me say that I’m pessimistically confident that the majority of American citizens form their political philosophies — or lack thereof — from diatribes of clinically insane political pundits, nonsensical interpretations of canonical texts in political theory (of course, I’m assuming a degree of literacy), and generous doses of parental brainwashing.

Given this rather bleak state of affairs, journalists and media outlets should adhere to well-reasoned ethical principles that provide guidelines for conducting their specialized work. Although objectivity is an impossibly lofty goal, this doesn’t entail that reporters should disregard standards of respect and civility.

I don’t take my job as a columnist lightly. This isn’t because I think there’s a high probability that I will change someone’s mind, nor is it because I think my opinions are particularly important. Rather, I believe that my job mandates me to convey to the readership, as best as I can, the reality of a certain situation. Shirley Sherrod’s story is a manifestation of why this journalistic obligation is imperative.

Sherrod, who is black, recently gave a speech as a U.S. Department of Agriculture official to a local Georgia chapter of the NAACP. In a brief 38-second snippet of that speech, she said she didn’t give a white farmer “the full force of what [she] could do” after he had asked her for assistance. In a predictably boring move, Fox News jumped on the sound bite and played the suspiciously short clip numerous times claiming that she was racist. Fox News film producers are immeasurably more skilled than most Hollywood directors, and by conveniently removing the context of Sherrod’s statement, she was subsequently fired. But they didn’t even bother to call her for a comment on the video, which is a basic journalistic principle.

In this regard, Shirley Sherrod was the Snooki of the White House. An innocent yet potentially naïve target, Sherrod being fired from her job was like a drunken punch in the face: overflowing with pain, unpredictable and irrational.

Now here’s the problem: I don’t know where to stand. Should I blame Fox News for doing what it does best (fabricating stories to serve absurd ideological interests) or should I blame American citizens for doing what they do best (uncritically accepting the television’s proclamations?)

I believe the philosopher George W. Bush said it best when he declared, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” If only the Obama administration had learned this invaluable lesson from its wise predecessor.

Julian Switala welcomes comments at [email protected]