The character attacks, verbal harassment and forced resignation of USDA official Shirley Sherrod last month is one more example of the ugliness and insidiousness of gotcha journalism and craven political hypocrisy and expediency. By now, it is likely you are familiar with this tragic story of deception and betrayal. While apologies have been doled out like candy since the day Sherrod was fired, the American people have been left without answers to the questions of how and why the events of this injustice unfolded as they did.
On July 19, with the intention of advancing an agenda of hate, fear, intimidation and denigration, far-right zealot and propagandist Andrew Breitbart and his corporate collaborator Fox News Channel (FNC), two notorious smear artists and purveyors of disinformation, invented a story about racial discrimination and dressed it up as factual news. In doing so they successfully duped media organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and top officials in the Obama administration. Breitbart and FNC, both of whom market themselves as paragons of truth, have a history of direct and malicious trickery. You will recall that in 2009 they convinced political leaders that White House green jobs czar Van Jones and the federally funded community-based organization ACORN were engaged in scandalous activities. The fabricated stories led to the firing of Jones and defunding of ACORN.
Shirley Sherrod is the latest victim of Breitbart and FNC and their right-wing propaganda machine. What they generated this time was a selectively excerpted, decontextualized and misleading video of a speech Sherrod gave at a NAACP function last March, effectively vilifying and railroading Sherrod with the charge that the video was not only incontrovertible evidence of reverse racism, but according to Breitbart it was “video proof” that “the NAACP awards racism”, and according to a FNC headline, it was “government discrimination caught on tape.” Seemingly, the targets of Breitbart and FNC were the NAACP and President Obama, not necessarily Sherrod. However, to incriminate and discredit the NAACP and Obama, they used Sherrod as a tool of convenience and as a means to end, utterly without conscience or a sense of responsibility.
In the manipulated video, Shirley Sherrod, daughter of Hosie Miller, a victim of racial murder by a white neighbor in the Jim Crow South, and wife of Charles Sherrod, a 1960s Freedom Rider and leading member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), is seen and heard recounting a time twenty-four years earlier when as an employee of a nonprofit land assistance agency she was initially disinclined to afford the “full force” of her job capacity to help a white farmer to save the family farm. The reason Sherrod cited for her pause and reluctance was the discrimination against black farmers she had witnessed during the span of her lifetime and career. In fact, the full anecdote shared by Sherrod that day revealed very clearly that she overcame any thoughts about permitting race to play a part in her decision making about human need. Instead, she summoned the courage and strength to confront her initial thoughts and feelings and, as a result, discovered her capacity for empathy and was guided by an unadulterated appreciation, respect and value for the impoverished, regardless of race.
Sherrod’s account of her experience while with the non-profit agency was a positive and heartwarming story about the remarkable healing and transformative power of compassion, altruism, critical self-awareness, and racial reconciliation. Among the points that Sherrod shared that day revealing profound personal insight and growth were, “We have to overcome the divisions that we have”; and it’s not about race but “about those who have, versus those who don’t”; and in quoting Toni Morrison, she said we must move toward a place where – “Race exists, but it doesn’t matter”. However, if you had believed the deceptive story manufactured and distributed by Breitbart and FNC, you may have come to a very different conclusion, as the NAACP and Obama administration did.
The witch hunt against Sherrod is a clear, representative example of mainstream media and political leaders abdicating their professional responsibilities, particularly ethical conduct, in favor of expedience and partisanship. In doing so, they ignore the wisdom and guidance of the centuries-old principles and values of nonviolence, including what is known today as nonviolent communication (NVC) or compassionate communication. NVC is about interacting with others empathetically. It involves engaging others through deep listening and observation, rather than through judgment and interpretation. NVC entails operating according to an ethic of care and responsibility and protecting and supporting one another with trust, honesty and compassion. An important objective of NVC is to seek and acquire information about our fellow human beings in order to connect with them on an individual and emotional level in the service of interpersonal and intrapersonal needs, e.g. love, care, kindness, understanding, community, belonging, support. NVC serves as an effective tool for avoiding language that may shame or humiliate others. Among the most practical functions of NVC is as a vehicle to address and resolve existing or potential negative conflict.
The misguided choices that led to the victimization of Shirley Sherrod may have been avoided if the propaganda distributed by Breitbart and FNC had been scrutinized carefully using the principles and process of NVC. It would have served as a valuable resource to facilitate communication toward a more holistic understanding of the situation and to resolve any issue specific ambiguity or strife cooperatively and harmoniously. According to NVC, it is important to authenticate evidence. This involves communicating with all parties involved in a dispute. If this step were taken in the Sherrod case, the parties who got the story so horribly wrong would have learned the true content and context of Sherrod’s speech; hence, preventing altogether the eventual behavior of proceeding from an erroneous conclusion. NVC instructs us not to operate out of fear, guilt, shame, and obligation and a language of demand, evaluation/judgment, diagnosis, blaming, and punishment. Unfortunately, this was the exact path followed by those who wrongly accused Shirley Sherrod of racial bias and determined based on false evidence that she was unfit to serve in public office.
Personal responsibility, both for our actions and for our choices we make relative to how we respond to others’ needs, is a fundamental NVC skill. NVC considers cooperation and collaboration to be essential behaviors for engaging in everyday interactions. Clearly this was not the conduct we witnessed in the hours preceding Shirley Sherrod’s persecution. Those who concluded that Sherrod was racially prejudiced were not worried about fact checking and getting it right. They were concerned only with themselves, either to justify a long-held personal bigotry or to avoid criticism. The latter being the goal of the NAACP and Obama administration, the lack of applied NVC here led to ex post facto conflict resolution: apologies and empty rhetoric about accepting responsibility.
When the true nature and scope of the video and the context of Sherrod’s remarks were finally uncovered, Ben Jealous, NAACP president, apologized for denouncing Sherrod. Jealous claimed that he had been “snookered” by Breitbart and FNC. Hours later, after a firestorm of criticism regarding the firing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack publicly apologized for his rush to judgment and the events leading up to and including Sherrod’s firing. He subsequently offered Sherrod a new job in the USDA which she has yet to accept or decline. President Obama phoned Sherrod the next day with a personal apology and has since called for a “national discussion” of race.
While apologies are important and help us move forward, it is simply not enough for our media, the NAACP and the Obama administration to verbally express regret for a major gaffe, especially one with a human cost like this one. It is insufficient to declare that you accept personal responsibility, and then move on without any accountability and repercussions. We must demand that the circumstances leading up to dreadful decisions be investigated and aired fully and publicly. This is the essence of transparency, a state of operating openly and honestly in service to the people, something that our mass media and politicians frequently promise, yet we rarely see.
The American public deserves to know who in the NAACP and Obama administration took at face value a report from a known impostor journalist and bogus news organization, and why. We deserve to know why the Obama administration failed to conduct some very basic research on the story before condemning Sherrod publicly then hastily demanding her resignation. We deserve to know why different mass media chose to run with an uninvestigated and uncorroborated story and sell it to the American people as truth.
Why aren’t these parties facing the American people and being made to answer for their indiscretions? What does this say about the journalistic integrity and credibility of our mass media who have the responsibility of keeping Americans informed about the world around them? What does it say about the ability of our elected leaders to make decisions on our behalf when they summarily believed a spurious news story put out by two entities with a documented history of making up stories and doctoring photos/video to demonize and smear liberals and progressives? If our top political officials can be so easily duped, how are we to trust them with solving problems of national and global significance that often have life-or-death consequences?
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I can understand that some people and news organizations are mean-spirited, cruel, abusive,and plain assinine. I don’t understand why so many people “buy into it” without checking sources, etc. Is there a collective stupidity? Laziness? Thoughtlessness? It’s time to wake up!
I appreciate the summary of non-violent protests around the globe. Lessons about non-violence are less useful, especially when they demonstrate a certain rigidity that not even Gandhi insisted on.
This piece is one of the most intellectually bankrupt articles I have ever read. It is a just a disjointed and rambling pile of name calling garbage.
You END your rant with rhetorical questions that a proper argument would investigate and answer. Plus, if you REALLY want an effective analysis, you could compare the Breitbart/FNC Sharrod story with some of Michael Moore’s famous intellectual dishonesty and Dan Rather’s use of faked military records in a story critical of GWB in 2004.
Alas, that seems to be too much of a challenge of the far left zealot propagandist author of this article.
Chew on this Sharrod feel good quote from the same speech: “You know, I haven’t seen such a mean-spirited people as I’ve seen lately over this issue of health care. Some of the racism we thought was buried. Didn’t it surface? Now, we endured eight years of the Bush’s and we didn’t do the stuff these Republicans are doing because you have a black President.”
I agree that NVC is a helpful communication tool in addressing conflict. I hear a lot of anger and resentment in this article at the mainstream media and the standards used to judge Sherrod in this article, but I don’t see it being applied to Breitbart and co. I wonder if it’s worth using NVC with those we can’t value or understand as well as those we agree with? I come away from this article feeling a sense of outrage at Breitbart and co, rather than understanding. Why did they go to the effort of twisting her speech in this way? What fears and anxieties are they reacting to that can be responded to?
“Why did they go to the effort of twisting her speech in this way?”
“What fears and anxieties are they reacting to that can be responded to?”
– No “fear” or “anxieties” involved. If you’d like to see the use of playing to fear and anxiety, see an average Obama policy speech. THIS is fear mongering (the use of fear to influence the opinions and actions of others towards some specific end. The feared object or subject is sometimes exaggerated, and the pattern of fear mongering is usually one of repetition, in order to continuously reinforce the intended effects of this tactic, sometimes in the form of a vicious circle.):
“Premiums will go up, employers are going to load up more costs on you. Potentially employers are going to drop your coverage because they just can’t afford massive increase of 25 to 30% in terms of the cost to provide your health care.”
“The federal government will go bankrupt because Medicare and Medicaid are on a trajectory that is unsustainable and this bill actually provides us the best chance to bend the curve on government expenditures of Medicare and Medicaid”.
“If you don’t do this, nobody argues with the fact that cost of Medicare is going to consume the entire federal government”
– Mr. Brightbart’s clumsy and deceptive video appears to be simply retribution for the NAACP continuing to use phantom racism to attempt to legitimize citizens who have a wholly different view on government.
“We aren’t taking issue with the Tea Party itself. What we’re taking issue with is the perpetual tolerance for racist and, you know, and racist statements by their own folks. And they, you know, they need to just come out and say once and for all that there’s no place for bigots or– bigotry in our ranks and then back it up.”
“They use this rhetoric,‘take back our country’– as if nobody else belongs to the country… they question the nationality of people of color from the president all the way down. And it’s deeply, deeply disturbing.”
-B. Jealous NAACP President
Anyone can see how throwing racism around without factual basis is a big problem. The NAACP labels a group of people (the Tea Party folks) racist with no rational basis to do so. Sharrod was fired after the NAACP denounced her and the WH disowned her on essentially just the ACCUSATION.
Here’s a couple of articles on the subject. The first opinion piece spouts the NAACP line, then second one puts in into context. See the similarities?
In 2010 America, the race card should simply be cut up. Americans aren’t stupid, and an overwhelming majority know racism when they see it.
Brian, if I could quote just one sentence from your article:
“On July 19, with the intention of advancing an agenda of hate, fear, intimidation and denigration, far-right zealot and propagandist Andrew Breitbart and his corporate collaborator Fox News Channel (FNC), two notorious smear artists and purveyors of disinformation, invented a story about racial discrimination and dressed it up as factual news.”
A practitioner of NVC would most likely observe the situation, and look at people’s underlying needs, before working out a specific request that would enable everybody’s needs to be met.
From the sentence I have quoted above (and much of the rest of the article), I’m guessing that your need for the media to be honest and truthful was not met, and that you feel very angry and frustrated about this? If so, would you be willing to try to find a different way of expressing your anger without blaming or calling anybody any names, in order that those you are angry with might better be able to understand what you actually want them to do?
They certainly can (and will) ignore everything you’ve said incredibly easily if you start by calling them a bunch of names, and then nothing will change.
(I think that the response from D. Killion above illustrates this perfectly – he/she finds it very easy to call you a bunch of names back, and is none the wiser or any more interested in caring about what your actual needs are. Thus nothing changes, and the only thing that has happened is that an even bigger trench has just been dug between you. By now it’s well on the way to turning into Grand Canyon!)
I’m sure Andrew Breitbart undoubtedly had a need of his own which was unmet, and is probably still unmet despite publishing this story. I know very little about him (I live in the UK), but I would guess that there are a series of deeply unmet needs underlying the actions of anybody who would adopt such a life-alienating strategy in order to try and meet their own needs. I feel a great deal of sadness when I encounter people who know of no other way to get their needs met than to hurt other people.
My point is, if we don’t apply NVC to the people we “hate”, and learn to see beyond their harmful strategies, so we can look for their unmet needs and empathise with them, then we stand very little chance of creating the quality of connection needed to change anything.
I am in agreement with ChrisBE (above) about it being “worth using NVC with those we can’t value or understand as well as those we agree with”.
Despite being so simple on the surface, NVC is often rather difficult!
I haven’t yet learned to express myself fully using it, and so no doubt some of my posting here is not written in a way that is in harmony with NVC principles. However, as Marshall Rosenberg says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
Dave S, I did not call the author a bunch of names. I certainly expressed my low opinion of the piece in colorfully negative terms, and from your response you see why I did so.
The only spot where you could reasonably call name calling was simply taking the authors own words and applying them to him “far-right zealot and propagandist Andrew Breitbart and his corporate collaborator Fox News Channel (FNC)…” It was tongue in cheek.
D. Killion: “The only spot where you could reasonably call name calling was simply taking the authors own words and applying them to him “far-right zealot and propagandist Andrew Breitbart and his corporate collaborator Fox News Channel (FNC)…” It was tongue in cheek.”
That’s the part I was referring to, where you said “Alas, that seems to be too much of a challenge of the far left zealot propagandist author of this article”.
I half realised you were using the same names he had used, but not that it was tongue in cheek. My apologies for not being more specific – another aspect of NVC is being very specific about exactly what you are referring to, which I didn’t manage to do there.