MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
Important anniversaries are being marked this week. The National Urban League is marking 100 years of work as one of the country's leading civil rights organizations. We hope to talk about that with the group's current president and CEO, Marc Morial. And we will talk about the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disability Act with one of the architects of the legislation, Lex Frieden. That is later.
But first, we want to talk more about the saga of Shirley Sherrod, that Agriculture Department employee who was forced to resign last week after she was falsely portrayed by a conservative blogger of harboring anti-white sentiments. And while officials and pundits across the spectrum have weighed in about how someone could so quickly and unfairly be maligned - and it's worth noting that key administration officials have apologized for that - we wanted to get perspective from someone who also feels he was a victim of the machinations of the blogosphere, Van Jones.
Van Jones was the White House special adviser for green jobs for only six months before resigning over strong words he'd once used about Republicans in a videotaped speech, a speech he also gave years before he worked for the administration. The video later went viral. He was also accused falsely, he says, of signing a petition that suggested the Bush administration deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen as a pretext for war.
Van Jones penned a piece for The New York Times this week entitled "Shirley Sherrod and Me." And he's with us now from his office. Welcome. Thank you for joining us once again.
VAN JONES: I'm glad to be here.
MARTIN: We need to offer listeners some background on your situation, and I apologize if this is painful for you to hear this recounted yet again. But you resigned in September 2009 after being labeled a truther because your name appeared on a petition that suggested that the Bush administration may have, quote, "deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen." Now, you say now that this group never had your permission to use your name in this way and that you say they subsequently acknowledged that. 'Cause they initially said that they had.
JONES: Yeah. I mean this group came up to me at a conference, apparently, and said they were supporting 9/11 families and would I support them. I said sure. Then they'd type my name on a Web site that had this atrocious, horrible language, which of course I never saw.
No reporter that reported the story ever said, could we see Van Jones' signature. Since they didn't have it, that would've - the story would've never been reported. But I think that more importantly...
MARTIN: Well, they claim that they had your verbal - they had the verbal confirmation of some individuals, they had the personal - that they had contacted each of the people on the list. This includes people like actor Ed Asner and Janeane Garofalo and people like that.
JONES: Well, sure. But myself and Paul Hawken, the famous environmental author, and Jodie Evans and others, said that they had no idea how their names got on there and demanded that it be taken off.
But, you know, I think, again, for me the more important point is that, you know, there's a big difference between me and Shirley Sherrod, of course. I mean Shirley Sherrod is like Rosa Parks. I mean I actually am an activist with a very colorful background. There's plenty of stuff for the right wing to get upset about with me. With her, here you have literally Rosa Parks - I mean somebody who is doing her best with - having had her father murdered by a Klansman, apparently, to bring racial healing - and even she gets slimed.
I think that what we're dealing with now is a world where information viruses can be created and pumped into the body politic. And we are not equipped yet as a society to deal with that. The information system is very well advanced now. Data can go anywhere at any time. But the wisdom system to sort through all that stuff, to ask the right question, to make sure that before we unleash these kinds of media firestorms, the right checks have been done - that's what's missing now.
And so I think that these kinds of attacks are not just attacks on individuals, they are attacks on the - on democracy itself. Democracy works when you have a well-informed citizenry. When you begin to develop factions in your country that literally have as a part of their mission to create, deliberately misinform sections of the public, that's not just an attack on an individual, that's an attack on the democratic process itself. We've got to respond, I think, a lot more aggressively and be a lot more concerned.
MARTIN: Let me just clarify one point. I said the reason you resigned was related to this truther, the so-called truther petition, but the actual stated reason was a speech you gave while you were in office where you...
MARTIN: No. Right?
MARTIN: It was before you were in office, but it was during the campaign, right?
JONES: I was never criticized for anything I did or said when I was in office, which is I think very interesting. The entire time I was a part of the administration, my fiercest critics never had a concern about that. There was a speech that I made. I made an unfortunate reference and apologized for it to the Republican Party. And then there's a lot of other stuff that was just either fabricated out of whole cloth or distorted story.
MARTIN: Okay. Let me just - just clarifying, you were - there was a lecture you gave before you took office in which you used a vulgarity to refer to Republicans.
MARTIN: I'll just play it so that people know what we're talking about so they do have the facts at their disposal. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARTIN: I know that he has a strong interest in bipartisanship, but when the Republicans are voting with him, how are the Republicans able to put things through when they have less than 60 senators, but somehow we can't?
JONES: Well, the answer to that is they're assholes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Now, you - so you say you in fact chose to resign as opposed to being forced to resign as Shirley Sherrod was. Why?
JONES: Well, because, you know, once you are in this sort of media firestorm moment, you have a decision to make. I didn't go to Washington, D.C. to fight for myself, I went to fight for other people. The president of the United States was about three days away from making a big speech on health care, trying to reset the national conversation on health care. And for the first time you had a U.S. president who was trying to get doctors to babies.
And the question is, am I going to be the banana peel that he slips on to where he's no longer able to have the conversation he wants to have? I did not want the president of the United States to try to defend my colorful past, including silly things I said long before I was in office or even thought I would ever be in office. I wanted him to be able to talk about America's future.
And so I - and I have no regrets about resigning, because I think it did make sure that he was able to have that conversation. But I think what is regrettable is that we are now in a situation where a midlevel White House staffer, whose, you know, job it was was to work on green jobs for poor people, can have the experience of, you know, mistakes from his past become the subject of national discourse, including, you know, things that are just not true. And the way that dynamic works, it becomes very, very hard to get the conversation either back to the truth or back on the subject at hand.
Now, that is not to say that I didn't do things that I regret and have apologized for. I think the bigger question for the American people as we go forward is, how do we deal with this reality now, where all of us are imperfect? People are going to say silly thing and do silly things. There are going to be photographs on Facebook from people in college and all this data is going to be out there showing us in all of our flaws and imperfections.
And yet how do we hold all of that? We've got the information. Now, how do we get the wisdom to say no person on the right or the left can be defined by a single moment in time?
Glenn Beck, for instance, who is somebody who a lot of people on the left are concerned about, did something great last week. He refused to go along with this whole Shirley Sherrod thing. You would expect progressives to then stand up and cheer for him. But you've seen silence from progressives, even though he did the right thing in this instance, because things have gotten so partisan and so polarized that we can't even see the good in each other when the good is there. That's my concern.
MARTIN: There's been a lot of talk this week about the teachable moment. And there have been a number of people weighing in with what lesson they feel should be learned. Some people say, you know, that the White House needs to learn a lesson, to not be so reflexively defensive about racial matters. Other people say it's the media that needs to learn a lesson about not being so vulnerable to agitation by partisans and activists.
You also say in your piece that the big breakthrough will come not when we are better able to spot the lies, it will come when we are better able to handle the truth about people. Who's the we in that sentence? Who is it that you think needs to learn a lesson? And what lesson do you think needs to be learned?
JONES: Well, I think all of us need to learn a lesson and I'll tell you why. Every one of us has a laptop or a computer where when some salacious rumor comes across either as an email or you see something on a website, we can choose to forward that on or not. We can choose to rush to judgment and become a part of the digital mob or not.
And so I think it starts with each individual all the way up to, you know, the people at the top of government and the top of the media system. But I think that what I am hoping comes, again, I understand how people, you know, how could, you know, these different organizations make these mistakes?
We are in a situation now where the media system moves so fast that, as I said in piece, it's like a combination of speed chess and mortal combat. You have to make a million decisions in a short period of time, but any one of them can get you killed. And so people are learning to adapt to the speeded up, or sped up media environment.
What can get lost, though, number one, is the need to make wise decisions, and number two is a level of concern about people who are deliberately trying to game the system.
JONES: And that is really where the danger is, I think, for America. Not for individuals. I had a job - before I went to the White House, I have a job now. The danger is for the American system as a whole when we are no longer are able to count on the fact that we will have a well-informed citizenry.
MARTIN: Van Jones is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a visiting fellow at Princeton. In 2009 he was the White House special adviser for environmental jobs. If you want to read the piece that he wrote that we're talking about, we'll have a link on our website at NPR.org, the TELL ME MORE page.
Van Jones, thank you so much for joining us.
JONES: Thank you.
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