Monday, July 26, 2010

Wait For It... Wait For It...

I've been in Arkansas for the weekend, so I've been in kind of a news bubble. Instead of doing the work to find out what's actually going on, I figured I'd just barf up some stuff on Shirley Sherrod and call it a post.

I'm of two minds about this whole thing. Part of me wants to blame this whole thing on Breitbart and his fact-free smear on a low-level USDA employee, but that feels strangely insufficient. Because I also feel like this whole incident is mainly the fault of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the Obama administration lackeys who took Breitbart at his word and fired her.

And you know what? The more I think about it, the less I blame Breitbart. After all, why should we blame him? Because he's a sensationalist with an agenda? I hate to tell you this, you innocent reader you, but that's part of a proud journalistic tradition going back to Pulitzer and Hearst. And it's continued today not just by Breitbart but by Olbermann and O'Reilly, Hannity and Maddow. Should we blame him because he got the facts wrong? Well, even the best journalists do that - 30 years of faithful news reporting didn't prevent Dan Rather from botching a report on George W. Bush's national guard service. Viewed in isolation, this incident is little different from that one from a journalistic perspective.

So what's the problem with Breitbart? Two things, both related:

1) He's really, really, really bad at his job.

2) Decision-makers and news consumers give him far more trust than he deserves.

See, I have no problem with journalism that has an agenda. That's frequently the best kind of reporting, because it's not constrained by some imagined duty to be "even-handed." But dammit, if you're gonna be a sensationalist with an agenda, at least get your facts straight! Breitbart is now 0 for 2 on his big stories. The ACORN videos he posted have been demonstrated to be falsified by everyone from the GAO to the CA attorney general's office, and the Sherrod video was demonstrated - within hours - to be edited to give a false impression. The thing is, a talented agenda journalist would never have stooped to that level. There were plenty of skeletons in ACORN's closet that begged to be excavated, especially regarding their inner financial dealings. You didn't need the frat party pimps-'n'-hoes routine to do a good hatchet job on them. And if you're trying to make the point that the NAACP hates white people, there's gotta be a better way to do it than to smear a low-level functionary, right?

That's what differentiates Breitbart from the people I listed earlier. They at least understand how to present existing facts in such a way that it tells the story the journalist wants to tell. Breitbart's so damn lazy that he just makes up his own facts. Which leads me to the really dangerous part, which is #2.

Folks, Breitbart is what he is. He's not going to change. So why should anyone give him more credit than they give other sources? In this Sherrod incident, the point isn't that Breitbart falsely edited a video. He's gonna do that. The point is that otherwise respectable journalists fell all over themselves reporting this story, and otherwise respectable leaders fell all over themselves reacting to it, without bothering to consider the source of the story and giving it the double-checking it deserves. Fortunately for us, some enterprising journalists remembered the ACORN debacle and stopped the story before it got too out of hand, but by then the damage was done.

Which is why the biggest blame has to fall on the NAACP and Vilsack for their reactions to this whole thing. Expecting Breitbart to be honest and competent is foolish. Expecting Fox News to not run with something that makes liberals look bad is also foolish. That's why the best thing to do when faced with a story as sensational as the Sherrod story is to wait on it. Withhold judgment until the story has played itself out. Had the NAACP waited twelve hours to make its statement, this whole thing wouldn't have happened.

So the next time Breitbart says something, we should all just take a deep breath, digest the whole thing, search for context, and keep an eye out for double-checking to come in from the other side - or do it ourselves, if we have the resources. And really, the same should go for any news reports, whether they're from an incompetent like Breitbart, a respected agenda journalist like Maddow or O'Reilly, or a mainstream source like the Washington Post. (Did we learn nothing from the "Gee Dead" incident, people?)

Good journalism starts a conversation. And who makes a decision on an issue when the conversation on it is just starting?

Couldn't find the Blues Traveler song I wanted to post, so here's an awesome live version of my favorite song of theirs.

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