Assessing The Media's Role In Sherrod Scandal
TONY COX, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
For days, we've heard the story of Shirley Sherrod, the U.S. Agriculture Department worker who was summarily booted by her boss, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, last week after a dizzying string of events that began with a portion of a videotaped speech she gave at an NAACP gathering last spring.
Thirty-eight edited seconds of that speech went viral after being posted by conservative Andrew Breitbart and reposted by other media outlets. His intent, he said later, was to show evidence that the NAACP, as an organization, was racist. That followed accusations by the civil rights organization that the conservative Tea Party should disavow the racists within its ranks.
In the clip, Sherrod, who is African-American, indicated she was reluctant to give her all to a white farmer who sought her help, adding that race was a factor for her. As the video spread, she was quickly branded a racist and was castigated by everyone from the secretary of Agriculture to the NAACP. She was fired before the day was over.
But just as quickly as she had been demonized, the story took a dramatic turn. Speaking in her own defense, Sherrod explained that the video was edited to mislead the viewer and that she not only was not racist in her job performance but had indeed helped the white farmer in question and had used the speech as a lesson in personal redemption from racial prejudice. Additionally, the incident happened 24 years ago, before her employment with the USDA.
The apologies flowed in. She was offered a new job in the Agriculture Department and became the latest poster child for a media out of control, which is where we begin our conversation today.
NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel will join us in just a very few minutes on the fallout of a trigger-happy media, and later in the hour, the women of Haiti and the role they play in rebuilding that beleaguered nation. We'll talk to the minister for commerce, Danielle St. Lott.
But first: When media attacks. How did you hear about the Shirley Sherrod story? What was your reaction? Has your mind changed as the story evolved? Tell us. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
So as we said, Ted Koppel joins us right now from his home in Maryland. Ted welcome, let me say that first of all.
TED KOPPEL: Well, thank you, Tony. It's a pleasure.
COX: And secondly, let me begin by asking you this question: This was, in my opinion, Ted, a made-for-"Nightline" kind of story. How would you have I mean it. How would you have handled it on the first day that it broke if this were for "Nightline"?
KOPPEL: You know something Tony, if I had been able to get a hold of Ms. Sherrod on that first day, we would have put her on, but I can also tell you with absolute honesty that if we had not been able to check out some of the essential details of that story, we would have waited until the second night.
I think people these days, particularly our colleagues in cable television but also in the various blogs and on the Internet, are in a desperate rush to be first with the obvious. And frequently, they haven't done enough homework, spent enough time trying to figure out what is going on, and this was a perfect example.
Poor Ms. Sherrod, whose name I predict will not even be remembered by most people a month from now, was a victim of the worst intersection of the shoddiest kind of journalism and the shoddiest kind of politics.
COX: Well, you know, Ted Koppel, you and I might be considered old-schoolers in a lot of ways when it comes to covering the news.
KOPPEL: Ancient in my case. I don't know how old you are, Tony.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: I'm not saying. At any rate, my point, though, is whether or not the current-day news cycle, you know, with tweets and with online, with this instantaneous dissemination of information, is there a way around trying to be first, and what should it be, and how should we approach trying to get the news out when we know that in order to compete, whoever gets there first tends to build the audience, don't they?
KOPPEL: Well, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. Here in Washington, Tony, as you know, just last week, we had an absolutely phenomenal series by the Washington Post on what the industry that has grown up around the search for intelligence to defend the country against terrorism, and this was a series that was two years in the making.
Dana Priest, who is a phenomenal reporter, who has already won two Pulitzer Prizes for the Post, and her Washington Post colleagues were given the freedom to spend two years examining the story, doing their research into the story. And then the Post, I must say, gave it a colossal spread, many pages of its newspapers over a period of three separate days.
That is a perfect example of the best that journalism has to offer, and when I say the best, I mean spending the time to get it right. And what is happening because of, A, the technology, and B, the economics of journalism these days is that there is this desperate, desperate rush to get it before anybody else does.
And, you know, you and I have both worked in newsrooms over the years, and in television rooms, particularly at the networks, what you often have in a newsroom is an array of television sets that are tuned to all the different all your competitors.
At ABC, we'd be watching NBC and CBS and FOX and CNN and MSNBC, and, you know, and they're all up there. And every once in a while, one of them would get a beat on a story. And the enormous pressure would begin building: How do we match it? We've got to get on the air with that.
And I would always make the point to my colleagues that very few people in this country are sitting in front of a bank of 10 television monitors. Most people either are watching ABC or NBC or FOX or CNN, and, you know, our responsibility is to get the story.
COX: Well, let me ask you it this way: Is it a problem of the speed with which this story hit the newsrooms, or was it the fact that there was a lack of research and preparation before it hit? Was there not enough time to have done that?
KOPPEL: It's both, Tony, but there's one other there's one other element that I think you have to include in all of this, and that is the political element.
As much as you may criticize the blogger who put it on his blog in the first place, and got it wrong, I might add, whether he did so deliberately or incidentally or accidentally or in honest error I can't judge, but when Mr. Breitbart put that piece of video on his site, he either knew or should have known that he was taking something so out of context that he was changing the actual meaning of what Ms. Sherrod said.
But what happened right after that was that there clearly was some kind of a panic at the White House and a fear that this story of a black woman having said something that was prejudicial toward the white farmer that she was supposed to be serving, that that would somehow rear up and bite this administration in the behind. And so the necessity to do something immediately, I think, did as much to create the ridiculous and almost tragic events of that day as anything that our colleagues in the media did.
The media did not cover itself with glory. We did rather poorly. But I must say that the political reaction and we can talk more about that if you want to, Tony, because it flows out of things that have happened over the last 10, 20 years, but the political pressure was what created that storm.
COX: I certainly do want to talk about those things with you. This is Tony Cox. This is also TALK OF THE NATION. I'm sitting in for Neal Conan. My guest is Ted Koppel, none other than, and if you'd like to join the conversation, you can reach us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com.
Ted, I've got some emails I want to share with you because a couple of them actually do speak to the very points that you just made. One of them is this, and it comes from Pat(ph) in Sierra Vista, California.
She writes: The blogger that released the edited video of Ms. Sherrod is many things, but he is not and that's capital letters, N-O-T a journalist.
Then we have another one from Keith(ph) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The White House really blew it, Keith writes. This was their opportunity, if they had been patient, to make these right-wing bloggers really look bad and show them up for the charlatans they are, but instead, the White House ended up looking bad.
And one last one from Marion(ph) in Louisville, Kentucky: It seems that whenever one of these stories, and there are many, she goes on to write, surface about the media's rush to judgment, there is a lot of self-flagellation on the part of journalists, but nothing really changes. I hope it does this time, but I am not optimistic.
That's an interesting question, Ted, it seems to me. Do you think anything will change as a result of this?
KOPPEL: Oh, absolutely not. And I think all three of those emails are right on the mark. And, you know, let's sort of go through them one by one.
First of all, is Mr. Breitbart a journalist? Yes, because as you well know, Tony, you need a license to drive a car, you need a license to be a doctor, you need a license to go fishing, you don't need a license to be a journalist.
Anybody can be a journalist by the simple expedient of saying: I am a journalist. You want to go out and write something? Now, 30, 40, 50 years ago, you could say that in theory, but it didn't help much because you didn't have access to a network, or you didn't have access to a microphone. You might have access to a mimeograph machine, and if you wanted to write something and pass out leaflets, that's what you could do.
But these days, everybody does have access, and that changed access is now imposed upon an 18th-century concept of a First Amendment and freedom of the press, and those two, I must confess, don't mix very well. You can get some extraordinarily wonderful material that flows out of it, but you can also get the most unbelievable garbage.
COX: Let me stop you there to ask you to hold on because we've got to take a short break. We will continue our conversation with senior news analyst Ted Koppel in just a moment. But again, what was your reaction to the Shirley Sherrod story? Has your mind changed as the story has evolved? Call us and let us know, 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox in Washington.
We're talking about the media frenzy, feeding frenzy that is, that broke out around Shirley Sherrod last week and the dangers of breaking a story without first reporting all of the facts.
Ted Koppel is with us, NPR senior news analyst, and we want to hear from you, as well. How did you hear about this Shirley Sherrod story, and what was your reaction? And has your mind changed as the story has since evolved? Please tell us. Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com, and you can also join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ted Koppel, here's a question for you about this. Put on, if you will, your managing editor/executive producer/news director hat for just a moment. We know what the problem is, but how can it be solved, and how can it be prevented in the future?
In your newsroom that you have and I'd come to work for you if the pay was right in your newsroom, Ted Koppel...
KOPPEL: I'd hire you if the pay was right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: How would you prevent this from happening?
KOPPEL: The only way you can prevent it, Tony, is by living by certain rigid standards of journalism. You know, the fact of the matter is we do now live with 21st-century technology, and that does enable almost anyone who wants to be a journalist, or call himself or herself a journalist, to do that.
But, you know, there are certain standards that have to be met for good journalism. I just want to say one thing, though, Tony, before we get too wrapped up in worrying about the journalistic part of this.
This was also a case of pathetic politics, political reaction of the worst kind. And it is this kind of fear that exists in the political world right now that says if anybody is putting out a story that looks as though it may have a negative impact on me as a politician or on the policies that I am trying to get across, you cannot afford to wait even a nanosecond before you come out with a reaction.
And people are looking back, by and large, on what happened, you know, 10 years ago during the election in which John Kerry was trying to become president of the United States and was up against George Bush, and he was also up against an advertising campaign that you may remember that was launched by some former Navy colleagues of his. It was called the Swift Boat Campaign.
KOPPEL: There was a lot in that campaign that turned out not to be true. And John Kerry initially decided that he would ride the waves above that campaign, he wouldn't react to it. He got clobbered by it. He didnt react soon enough.
But the lesson that politicians have drawn from that over the years is if you don't react immediately, you're going to get swept up in the tsunami of whatever your opponents put out there. There has to be some kind of a compromise between being too fast and being too slow.
COX: Is there before we take a call is there also a lesson, Ted Koppel, in this, that if you are trying to put out or do what might be called a political dirty trick, that the thing to do is just throw it out there because by the time the other side can respond to it, you have already gotten an advantage?
KOPPEL: Well, clearly you do have an advantage right away, but that's why, I mean the fact of the matter is we tend to throw all of us together in the same giant basket of media.
We're not all the same, you know, any more than all teachers are the same or all lawyers are the same. You know, there are good lawyers and bad lawyers. There are teachers who do it by the book and who really inspire their children, and there are others who try to get away with the absolute minimum. So, too, with journalism.
If the people who consider themselves to be, in quote, "good journalists" don't remember the rules that, you know, that have been set up over the years, dont apply and live up to the standards that you and I certainly understand and I hope have used over the course of our professional lifetime, you know, it doesn't do any good to say the tweet is going to get out there before I can get my program on tonight. Yes, it can. Yes, it will. So what?
My job as a journalist is to get the information, is to test it, is to get it from more than one source, is to be sure that I put it into some kind of a context and to make sure that it is as accurate as it can possibly be.
Are there going to be failures along the route? Yes, absolutely. But I think what's happened, Tony, is that we have become so enchanted with getting it on the air immediately that we have forgotten what we're really about.
COX: I think there's a great deal of pressure to do that very thing. Let's take a call, if you will. We have Dustin(ph) joining us from Kansas City, Missouri. Dustin, you're on the show.
DUSTIN (Caller): Hi. I'm a young person, and earlier, Mr. Koppel said that he thought maybe he was old-fashioned. But I really, I don't think that's right. I think you're just right. You know, and as a young person, it makes me really angry when I hear about stories like this because I feel like it's a pattern in that this is a problem it's not just I don't think we can blame it on the blog, the blog people because I you know, the truth is is you can't regulate that.
But I think people don't know where to go for legitimate news anymore or for news that has actually been fact-checked, and it seems like the main problem here is that the big news organizations just regurgitate information, whether it be from something they found on a blog or something that they got from, you know, some political talk point or something that, you know, the White House or otherwise made an announcement.
No one checks facts anymore. No one explains situations anymore. And it's just, it's very frustrating. And it seems like all of the news organizations are trying to kind of be hip and be quick and be more blog-like, and that's I feel like there's a large group of people that don't want that.
COX: Dustin, thank you very much for the call. You know what, Dan? What would you say to him? I mean Ted, excuse me. What would you say to him?
KOPPEL: What I would say is he's doing the right thing: He's listening to NPR, for starters. And I think it's permissible for you and me, since neither one of us is on regularly, to say it's really a phenomenal outfit.
And NPR still does an old-fashioned, albeit in a modern style I think, and an always entertaining and informative style. NPR still puts out a first-rate product.
My old friend Jim Lehrer still puts out a great newscast. You know, you have to be patient. You have to be willing to spend some time on it. But if you do, if you spend that hour with him every weekday, you're going to learn a lot about what's going on.
You can watch BBC America. I do some work for them, too, and I'm proud of it. I think there are days when I watch the BBC news, and I see stories, important stories, from parts of the world that don't even get 10 seconds on an American network newscast, don't get 10 seconds on one of the cable news networks.
We are so obsessed now with entertaining the American public, we are so obsessed with feeding into their existing prejudices. You know, it's all part of what I call the, you know, the era of entitlement. We now feel that we're actually entitled, if we are conservatives, to hear the conservative point of view expressed. If we're liberals, we only want to hear the liberal point of view expressed. And more and more, particularly the cable channels are catering to that, and it's a tragedy.
COX: You're absolutely correct about that. When I am not sitting in for Neal Conan here at NPR, which I love to do, by the way, I teach journalism at California State University. And one of the things that I tell my students is you don't want to get your news from just one source. In the same way that a reporter can't rely on one source to break a story, you have to have some variety. You have to go to places like you mentioned, the BBC. You have to look online. You have to look at some radio, at some television, and you are able to get a sense, a better sense perhaps, of what the actual news is by looking at multiple news outlets during the course of the day.
Here's another one, Ted, that we got, an email I want to share with you, and then we'll take a call. Hey guys, he says, this is a very interesting topic. This is Patrick(ph) in Oklahoma.
I've grown more and more disheartened by the 24-hour news networks, and the reaction of the White House really startled me. I suppose the question that always worries me is whether there is any possible way to hold these alternative media outlets accountable. Also, why is it that traditional news sources like CNN or NBC use stories from blogs?
Ted, I suppose the argument from the media side you tell me if I'm wrong about this is they just feel that if you don't like it, just turn the station.
KOPPEL: Oh, I hope that's not all it is, Tony. I'm sure that, you know, in your professional life, you - well, I'll just speak for myself. I never took the position that if you don't like it, just turn to another station. I felt that we had an obligation to inform, at the same time, to do it in as appealing a manner as we possibly could.
But part of what has happened, Tony, over the last 30 or 40 years is that the economics of our industry have changed so radically and the amount of money than an advertiser is willing to pay for a young audience is so much more than they will pay for an older audience, that all of these networks, all of these cable channels tend to skew toward a younger audience.
And we end up - that's why the Shirley Sherrod story ended up getting so much time on cable television. I mean, it was an interesting story, an important story. Is it truly one of the most important things that has happened in the world over the last couple of weeks? I don't think so.
But, you know, viewers were just gobbling it up. And the networks, I mean, particularly the cable networks, simply could not churn out enough trivial and sometimes totally irrelevant information on the subject because they knew that people were interested in it.
We have an obligation not only to provide information that people find interesting, but also information that people need. And sometimes, they have to be induced to come to that material that they need because if the only thing we give them is what they want, it's gonna be like feeding a child nothing but cotton candy all the time.
COX: I can say that...
KOPPEL: That's what will happen to them nutritionally.
COX: I can say that I have heard that debate in newsrooms many, many times, as I'm sure you have as well. How about a couple of callers? Here's Dana(ph) from Portland, Oregon. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
DANA (Caller): Hey, thank you very much.
COX: What's your question?
DANA: Well, my question is the media probably did wrong here. But on the other hand, the media self - centered itself and within 24 hours was quick to point out that it had mistakes, that it had jumped too quickly. And lots of media sources I'm looking at were saying, okay, we did wrong, this is the new story. In some ways, is this not a good news story about media understanding when it blows it?
COX: That's an interesting question. What do you say, Dan? Thank you for that call.
KOPPEL: Well, it...
COX: Ted. Ted. Why do I keep calling you Dan? I apologize. I apologize.
KOPPEL: It's the senior (unintelligible).
COX: Senior moments, yes. That's true.
KOPPEL: The older guy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KOPPEL: I'll tell you what. If you never call me by any other name but that, it'll be just fine.
COX: I apologize.
KOPPEL: No, no, no, no. Not at all. I would just say, yes, there is a certain a self-correcting and that's an important element of journalism. But I would disagree with the caller only to this extent. For the most part, I didn't hear a lot of our colleagues out there saying, yes, I made a mistake or, yes, we made a mistake. It was, yes, they made a mistake. It was the media on the left side of the spectrum saying the guys on the right have made a mistake and they were perfectly willing to concede.
You know, CNN and MSNBC, for example, were perfectly willing to concede that Fox might have made a mistake or that the original blogger who is a conservative had made a mistake. I didn't hear a whole lot of them confessing that they had mistakes themselves. I think, to his enormous credit, the one who did was Bill O'Reilly.
COX: Yeah. Shepard Smith also did, if you remember, Ted. You remember hearing about that, Ted?
KOPPEL: I know - yes. I know that he - yes, I do. But I'm not sure that he apologized for something he had done, but rather for what was done, you know, that people on Fox had moved on a little too fast.
COX: Good point. Absolutely.
KOPPEL: But in any event, I think it's a point well worth making that there is - you know, when you have all manner of journalism in the country, there is a certain self-correcting aspect to it. But it rarely happens quite as easily and quite as cleanly as it did in this case.
COX: Absolutely. Jane(ph) from Corte Madera joins us now. Jane, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JANE (Caller): Oh, thank you very much for taking my call. Good afternoon, I guess it is there, to both of you. And, Ted, I would just like to say one thing before I say what I want to say. I just finished reading Wilbert Rideau's book, "In the Place of Justice."
KOPPEL: Oh, sure.
JANE: Oh, it was marvelous and I highly recommend it. Now, what I...
KOPPEL: Well, he's an amazing guy. Yes, he is.
JANE: He is an amazing guy. What I'd like to say about this is when I first read that article, my first thought was I want to see some follow up and I want to see some follow through, and there was neither. And I find that in today's print media, particularly in the newspaper when the bylines are Associated Press or other presses where I can't even get a hold of the person who wrote the article, I'm finding that the - there's a deterioration of syntax. There's misspellings, there's misplaced modifiers.
They - I begin to wonder how I can trust what I read? Is it really true? Am I reading the truth? And after this story, it even made me feel stronger about this whole thing than I do now. And I wonder how you - I think everybody who was in - who are journalists should be required to sit down and read Strunk and White at least every six months.
KOPPEL: Absolutely. Absolutely.
COX: Thank you for the call.
KOPPEL: Listen, you belong right in this elderly club of ours here, whoever you are. And I love what you're saying. I have been dying for years now to call a friend at The New York Times and say, why don't you guys just get a who-whom editor? Someone who will explain to you what the difference is between who and whom, because The New York Times is full of misuses of that all the time. I'm afraid things have gone so far beyond simply syntax and bad grammar that I'll settle for good journalism and bad grammar.
COX: That is so funny. I should share with the audience - Strunk and White, that is the - those were the authors of the book "The Elements of News," and it's been in circulation for a half a century. "Elements of Style," thank you very much. I'm making all of these mistakes today. I guess I'm a little nervous. "Elements of Style," I do know this about that book, it is an outstanding textbook. And I use it in my own classes, and she's right. And, Ted, I'm sure that you probably have one of those on your desk somewhere right now, don't you?
KOPPEL: It's probably propping the desk up at this point.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: Ted Koppel, we appreciate your coming on. Really briefly, I've only got about 10 seconds or so, should we be optimistic that things are going to get better?
COX: Hmm, that's scary. Ted Koppel is NPR senior news analyst joining us from his home in Maryland. Ted, once again, thank you. It's a pleasure to talk with you.
KOPPEL: It's my pleasure, Tony. Thanks so much.
I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.