Politics & Society

What Really Drove The Shirley Sherrod Story?

Farmers George and Eloise Spooner

Eloise and George Spooner credit Shirley Sherrod with helping to save their farm near Iron City, Ga. Elliott Minor/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Elliott Minor/AP

More on the Shirley Sherrod story.  She’s the Department of Agriculture employee at the center of a controversy over alleged racism that dominated the political news this week.

Here at Tell Me More, we are — as journalists — interested in the media aspects of the dust-up.

That got us to thinking: Is this in part a generational story? Have all the grownups — in politics and media — left the building?

This is one of the issues we talked about today, and we asked what factors led up to the rapid acceleration of this story in a manner that just about everybody (except the original disseminator of the information) agrees is unfair. We were discussing this with Richard Prince and Andy Carvin, senior strategist for NPR's Social Media team.

After the taping — which was admittedly too short — I asked Andy to expound on the generational issue, the fact that many younger journalists are less willing to put the brakes on a questionable story because they are used to a “hear it now, say it now” environment.

Andy said — emphatically — no. In fact, he says:

I would argue that younger people on the Internet are MORE Internet savvy and can smell B.S. from a mile away. They have a skeptic button in their head when they see a picture that is Photoshopped and a video that has been edited, because they have created their own media as part of their daily lives and are able to recognize when something is purposely being taken out of context or put in the wrong context.

Here’s an example he shared with us:

BP had a photo on its website showing rather dramatically what their Gulf oil spill “war room” looked like, and it showed all these TV monitors displaying what was supposed to be going on. A D.C. blogger named John Aravosis took a closer look and figured out that the photo had been cut and pasted together. And then BP had to admit they had done this and removed the photo from the site. It was not a mainstream media organization that spotted the problem; it was a blogger who had the savvy to know what a Photoshopped image looked like. Andy says, “Because bloggers will often upload their own content, they can smell something questionable from a mile away.”

Andy also made the point that this is not a question of the grownups not doing their jobs; many of the key players in the Sherrod incident are grownups.  But they are also committed partisans, and — just like the makers of campaign ads — they don’t see fairness as their job. Advocacy is. That’s why we have groups like FactCheck.Org and PolitiFact trying to separate truth from fiction.  As Andy said, “this is not twenty-year-olds on Facebook taking down democracy.”

So what is the takeaway message here?

We were excited to reach award-winning playwright Anna Deavere Smith to get her take on this. Here is a person who has done some very hard listening on some very hard and very emotional questions and has a demonstrated ability to get all sides to open up and share their stories. But following up on a point she made in our conversation, the difficult thing is not just understanding your own truth, but what about that of someone else?

How does that happen?

Anyone? ... Anyone?

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