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Shirley Sherrod Case: Soundbites Still Pack a Punch

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, July 21 2010

USDA Georgia Director of Rural Development Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign after a two-and-a-half minute clip of her 45-minute speech to an NAACP gathering in March was circulated by Andrew Breitbart's Big Government site. The NAACP is backing away from its condemnation of Sherrod, saying now that it had been "snookered" by the edited video clip.

When then-candidate Barack Obama delivered a sprawling, 38-minute speech on race during the 2008 presidential campaign that managed to pull in millions of views on YouTube in its first week alone, it was celebrated here and in other spaces as a triumph of soundblast politics over soundbite politics, of the new appetite of the American people for the sort of longer, considered, contextualized content that found a natural delivery mechanism in the web. Obama said things in his Philadelphia race speech that, ripped from context, could be used as a cudgel against him (like his description of his beloved grandmother as a woman "who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street.") But the full video was available, watched, and appreciated, and that episode helped, in the eyes of many observers, to propel Barack Obama to the White House.

But that same courtesy and consideration made possible by the web didn't seem to trickle down to the level of Obama administration employee Shirley Sherrod.

Sherrod is the USDA's Georgia Director of Rural Development. Or, rather, the USDA's former director of Rural Development, fired after BigGovernment.com agitator Andrew Breitbart pushed out a two-minute-and-thirty-six-second video clip of a late-March NAACP awards event during which Sherrod delivered an address on race, class, and government that wove together reflections of the murder of her father at the hands of white man, her early-life misgivings about the American South, her work organizing the community in the face of violent racism, and her eventual recognition as a government official working with local farmers that class, not race, was the dominant matter. "It's not just about black people, it's about poor people," Sherrod said. "We have to get to the point where race exists but it doesn’t matter.”

Sherrod's speech was, well, Obama-esque. But the previously unknown Sherrod didn't get the same consideration that major national figure Barack Obama got for his musings on race. Her speech was boiled down to a clip about the length of a TV commercial video, the highlight of which is her saying of the white Georgia farm family "I didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough."

Sherrod, really, is collateral damage. Footage of her speech was dredged up as part of an on-going battle that, most recently, saw the NAACP accuse the Tea Party of harboring racist elements. "Sherrod immediately became the scapegoat for the embarrassed NAACP and USDA, but she was never the target," blogged Frank Ross on Breitbart's Big Journalism site, "the NAACP itself was, and the delight the audience took in the racist part of Sherrod’s speech leaves them exposed."

Harnessing selectively edited video to bring down political enemies is not a new tactic for Breitbart. He, of course, is also the force behind the ACORN video tapes that, with the help of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who voted to cut off funding for the organization, brought ACORN down. And here, too, Breitbart got the aid of the supposed allies of his enemies in bringing down his targets.

No matter whether (or perhaps, because) they were the intended target of Breitbart's fire, the NACCP reacted by deflecting the attack on Sherrod, a federal official working to benefit farmers on the local level, herself. "We are appalled by her actions," said NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous in a statement, "just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers." The USDA, it seems, pressured her to quit her post, condemning her for racism. "There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA and we strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person," said the USDA in a statement.

(UPDATE: A relevant detail -- the NAACP didn't seem to have had access to the full video footage before it condemned Sherrod; more from TPM on that aspect.)

Given the rapid-fire nature of the modern news and political cycle these days, perhaps it's not surprising, but no one in a decision-making position inside the NAACP nor the United States Department of Agriculture took the time to watch the full video footage of Sherrod's supposedly offensive speech, which would have taken less time than it took to watch a re-run of "Law & Order," before casting her aside. The NAACP is now claiming that it was "snookered" by the Breitbart tape. "The video of Shirley Sherrod released by Andrew Brietbart's Big Government Blog on July 19 didn't tell the full story," posted the NAACP to its website. "It was selectively edited to cast her in a negative light." The only editing involved, though, seems to be selecting out a clip from a longer document. There was no mangling of words, or faked voiceovers. The full story of Sherrod's speech was available to anyone who sat down and watched the thing.

The USDA is now trying to backtrack. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, until yesterday Sherrod's boss in Washington, issued a statement saying, "I am of course willing and will conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts to ensure to the American people we are providing services in a fair and equitable manner." As for the Spooner family of Georgia, the white farmer family that are the co-players in Sherrod's anecdote about her complex feelings on helping out a white family, they come down firmly on the matter -- in favor of Sherrod. "This … is a bunch of hogwash, in my opinion," 87 year-old Roger Spooner said on TV last night. "She was just as nice to us as anyone could have been. And, as far as racism and all, that's — it's just ridiculous."

For its part, the NAACP is scrambling to make amends. They've posted the full Sherrod video to their own site. That longer video has pulled in some 17,000 views on YouTube, little match, thus far at least, for the 350,000 views the selectively-edited version of the speech has attracted since it went up online on Sunday. And the NAACP put out a statement calling the Sherrod affair, "a teachable moment, for activists and for journalists." The lesson for Andrew Breitbart? That, if he gets creative enough, he can count on the alleged allies of his enemies to help him take down his targets. And the lesson for Shirley Sherrod may well be 'soundblast politics for thee, but not for me.'

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The 2:36 edited version of Shirley Sherrod's remarks at the 20th Annual NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet:

The full 45-minute version of Sherrod's speech: