Ten Lessons in the “Teachable Moment” of the Breitbart-Sherrod Fiasco

This week’s controvery involving Shirley Sherrod based on a video posted by Andrew Breitbart, the NAACP says, provided a “teachable moment.” Let’s list 10 lessons that might be a part of that teachable moment.

This week’s firing and then attempted re-hiring of the Department of Agriculture’s Shirley Sherrod has left many with lots of apologies.   Not the least of whom is President Barack Obama.

For background on this story sparked by a video posted by blogger and journalist Andrew Breitbart, I suggest reading  the New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s piece, which puts this all into context.

And to understand Mr. Breitbart’s side of the story, POLITICO.com has provided a thorough treatment of his response to all that has happened.

It helps to understand he believed he approached this entire story from the perspective of trying to do JOURNALISM.   Rather than to villify him (as many have done this week),  I am going to take him at his word.   (I know some will argue I’m being naive)

Now that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the White House has apologized ,my purpose in this blog post is consider the “teachable moment” to which the NAACP (and some others) refers in its statement.

As a journalism instructor, I made reference to this story in my summer class this week and most of the students oblivious to all that ‘s gone on.  So, I will be using this as a lesson planner for weeks and months to come.

What will I teach?

Lessons for Journalists

1.  Consider the Implications of Your Story

As journalists we got into this field to have an impact.  We want people to read and talk about our work.  But, do we want people to get fired over it?  Well, perhaps if  we think we’re correcting an injustice.

When we hit “PUBLISH” or save, we could be doing so without thinking about our source material and what the impact or implications of our story could be.

2.  Advocacy Journalism Comes With a Price

I believe Mr. Breitbart has particular prospective, just like some of our journalist colleagues at the Fox NewsChannel or MSNBC or CNN.   They are on the air, online and have an audience because of their viewpoints.

But, this advocacy works comes at a price.   It seemed that Mr. Breitbart received threats from many of those who didn’t know how else to respond to his reporting.   That is the price of taking your journalistic work and making it a tool to advocate for change.

3. Everyone has an Agenda and Your Story Could be Part of It

Even if we take Mr. Breitbart at his word– that he was trying to provide a side of the story that the “liberal” media ignored,  a well-meaning story can end up being used by others as part of their agenda.  This is especially true of blog posts and web-based media.   These are easily accessible and can be drawn into a political firestorm.

4. Multiple Sources Can Always Help, Not Hurt

Instead of just using the video to support his point, Mr. Breitbart might have been better served to interview others in the NAACP unit.  I am hard-pressed to find any serious, well-sourced news content that shows Mr. Breitbart did much more than post a video clip.

His comments to POLITICO.com this week are the best illustration of the journalistic work he was providing.

His various interviews are floating around the Web.  But, there is no substitute for a written narrative with multiple sources that is verified.

Even if you are doing so-called “advocacy journalism,” you need to be committed to doing it right.

5.  Check Your Motives

I believe Mr. Breitbart had a deeper political motive than just telling the story of how some civil rights organizations are themselves racists.   I think defending the Tea Party activists was probably as important as getting the story right.   Some have said there was “retribution” involved in his reporting.

If you are committed to ethical journalism, you should be about “minimizing harm”  not CAUSING harm.   Consult the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Code for more on this.     It seems Mr. Breitbart does more to cause harm than minimize it.

Lessons for Citizens,  Government Officials and Civil Rights Organizations

6.  Don’t get snookered by ANY MEDIA outlet

THE NAACP says it was “snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart”    I’m ashamed to even report this as I am  a life member of the NAACP.

After such a great 101st Annual Convention two weeks ago in Kansas City, how can the nation’s oldest, largest civil rights organization get “snookered?”

Well my gut tells me the NAACP leadership is STRUGGLING TO PUT ITSELF OUT THERE! It’s trying to be on the cutting edge, remaining relevant in this fast-paced age of Twitter or Facebook.

After all the back-and-forth battles between the NAACP and the Tea Party during the convention, the NAACP placed itself back in the news.

Instead, this organization in which I grew up as a youth council and college chapter member as well as a member of the National Youth Work Committee has a BIG BLACK EYE!

This is a shame.

But, the teachable moment is to not let a media outlet guide your statement.  Instead,  you MUST take a step back and consider the issues carefully before responding.

7. Wait before responding

As the  saying goes, SILENCE is golden.   Well, that sometimes can be the best thing to do until you have looked at the full issue and decided how to handle it.  Obviously, Secretary Vilsack got egg on his face as well.

One Chicago Tribune columnist has called Vilsack President Obama’s “Fall Guy.”

As late as Wednesday this week, I heard Democratic Party Strategy Donna Brazile on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation say how she WAITS before responding to allegations involving race or racist statements.    She does let the 24-7/instant news environment of Twitter or Facebook guide what should be a thoughtful process when addressing what W.E.B. DuBois has called “Problem of the 20th Century”  (The Problem of The Color Line)

“We shouldn’t constantly react to issues of race or racism with recrimination,” Brazile said. “We need to listen. We need to understand. We need to respect each other.”

Brazile is right and we should heed her advice.

FYI:  10 years into the 21st century and RACE IS STILL THE PROBLEM of the 21st Century.

8.   We’re not yet “Post-Racial”

A Reuters article this week pointed out how much President Obama has been plagued by race-oriented issues even as he tries to focus attention on his agenda.

Based on Ms. Sherrod’s comments in several interviews and the comments of Mr. Breitbart, we have a LONG WAY To go in the way we talk about race.

The idea that because there is a multi-racial (or bi-racial) president of the United States that we are BEYOND race as a barrier or issue is ridiculous.   A blind person can see that (or hear it from the cacophony of messages this week)

I know President Clinton called for a National Conversation on Race last century.   And, President went to Philadelphia to make his address on race after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright incidents.  But, these events do not signify that we’ve made much progress.

We learned that both in the debate over the NAACP Resolution and this week in the controversy involving Ms. Shirley Sherrod.

9.  Deeper Political Implications are ALWAYS at play

In re-reporting Mr. Breitbart’s comments and the video he posted, several people have made reference to what he has done before.  They always focus on the fact that he appears on “conservative” news outlets.

What we’re really seeing here is that there political implications for this entire debate that must be brought front-and-center.

No matter whether you are a so-called “conservative Republican”  or “Liberal Democrat”  (Both ends of the spectrum),  you have to consider the deeper political implications when a controversy like this arises.

10.  It’s about dollars and cents

I believe at the root of this is who will be in control in Washington.  If you happen to disagree with the current administration in The White House or those who are in the majority on Capitol Hill, you will do whatever you can to discredit them and those who form alliances with them.

I learned a long time ago in my Introduction to Political Science Class as a freshman at Howard University in the late 1980s that politics is about who has the the authority to allocate resources, who will influence policy and inherent those in a “fog of rhetoric” and conflict.

(Dr. Ibrahim Gambari, my Poli Sci professor would be proud of me for remembering that after 20 years– and having my textbook to strengthen my argument)

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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