One of the wonders of Andrew Breitbart was how many personas he could fit into a single hide. Though a product of liberal west Los Angeles, he became one of the right’s leading crusaders. And when prompted, he could recite the catechism of the citizen-journalism advocates that have crowded every journalism conference I’ve attended.
In the clip above, Ken Vogel of Politico interviews Breitbart about a number of topics, including Rachel Maddow and James O’Keefe. The conversation shifts toward trends in Web journalism (see Vogel’s question at 3:43). Breitbart goes off:
We’re minting new people every day.... Anybody can do it. Anybody can take their camera and expose a light on corruption that exists out there.... People are watching. And so what they’re realizing is that new media means — it’s a populist media — it means you can do it, too. Creativity exists, the means of distribution exists. And, yes, this is a great moment in journalism history where it’s being democratized.
Breitbart is right: Anybody can indeed do journalism. That’s one of the glories of the First Amendment — you cannot bar citizens from gathering information and publishing it on their platform of choice. Yet Breitbart’s almost dismissive preaching on journalism skips over an important point that’s very much part of his own legacy.
Yes, anybody can do it. Anybody can screw it up, too.
That’s the lesson of the Shirley Sherrod story, the famous case in which Breitbart posted video of USDA official Sherrod speaking at an NAACP awards ceremony about her racial considerations in helping a white farmer. High up in the story is this allegation:
In this piece you will see video evidence of racism coming from a federal appointee and NAACP award recipient and in another clip from the same event a perfect rationalization for why the Tea Party needs to exist.
It turned out to be wrong; a longer version of the video revealed that Sherrod had come through for the white farmer. No racism here. The episode upended Sherrod’s life, to put things charitably.
In a civil suit against Breitbart, Sherrod alleged, among other things:
Defendants made no effort to contact Mrs. Sherrod to verify the accuracy of the video clips or whether they accurately reflected her views and conduct, made no effort to contact the NAACP to obtain a copy of the full, unedited tape, made no effort to contact the local television stations in Georgia to obtain a full, unedited tape, and made no effort to obtain the full speech from other sources.
Breitbart’s response to those allegations:
Breitbart admits that he did not contact Sherrod, the NAACP, or local television stations in Georgia regarding the Speech before the Video Excerpt was posted to BigGovernment.com
Journalism is hard and painstaking work, and people who’ve been practicing it for a long time make some enormous mistakes (present company included). Bring on the citizen journalists, by all means. But when they come with agendas — from either side of the spectrum — they can do some impressive damage.