Shirley Sherrod: Racism, politics and media

The USDA official's firing came after a conservative blogger posted her truncated comments to the NAACP that, 24 years ago, she didn't help a white farmer as much as she could have.
Mark Potok
Director, Intelligence Project at Southern Poverty Law Center
Thursday, July 22, 2010; 12:00 PM

Ousted Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod, who was portrayed as a racist in a selectively excerpted Internet video, on Wednesday achieved something almost unheard of in overheated Washington: swift and utter vindication.

Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is the department that monitors hate groups, was online Thursday, July 22, at Noon ET to discuss the Sherrod incident and the intersection of race, politics and media.

Two days after Sherrod was fired from her job overseeing rural development in Georgia, both the White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to her. Vilsack also offered her another unspecified position with the department. Sherrod said she would consider it.


Mark Potok: Good day to all. This is Mark Potok, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization based in Alabama that monitors the radical right. I'm here to discuss the explosive case of Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official who was forced from her job earlier this week after a misleading videotape was aired that suggested she was an anti-white racist. I look forward to answering your questions.


New York, N.Y.: Why do you think Tom Vilsack didn't fully investigate Breitbart's story before deciding to fire you?

Mark Potok: I think two things were going on. I think, on the one hand, that Vilsack was very concerned to put any hint of racism in the Agriculture Department behind him, given that the department had such a terrible history with discriminating against black farmers. But more importantly, I think, he was reacting the endless string of right-wing attacks on the administration for supposedly being anti-white (Glenn Beck calling Obama a racist, Fox News and others attacking the White House over the New Black Panther Party affair). Basically, he wildly overreacted -- as Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote this week, he was being a political coward. We've seen it before, with the White House caving in to pressure over Van Jones, ACORN and some similar cases.


Breitbart can run but shouldn't be allowed to hide: After the manure hit the fan (so to speak), I saw an interview of Andrew Breitbart where he challenged the interviewer about not verifying that the lady appearing with you on the recent tape of the Spooners was "the wife." Other than trying to avert attention away from his big mistakes in this nnatter, do you have any other idea why Breitbart would raise this question or say such a thing?

Mark Potok: I can't see into the man's head, but he seems willing to say just about anything. Remember, this is the guy who, hours after Ted Kennedy's death, label the Massachusetts senator a "pile of human excrement." He does not seem to me to be the slightest bit interested in truth or the facts. He's simply a right-wing attack machine. Sad to say, I think he's actually enjoying the attention he's getting over this.


Atlanta, Ga.: Can't Ms. Sherrod sue Breitbart for libel? It seems there was "reckless disregard" for the facts in this case, and perhaps Mr. Breitbart might learn a little caution if he loses his house.

Mark Potok: I'm not a lawyer, but I sure spend a lot of time around them! Seriously, it does seem possible. I say that because it seems likely that Shirley Sherrod would not be considered a public figure for purposes of libel law, meaning that it would be much easier to make a libel case stick. On the other hand, I'm not sure that Breitbart actually made claims in his own voice that were demonstrably libelous and false. Instead, he ran a severely edited tape that gave the unmistakable sense that Sherrod was an anti-white racist -- just the opposite of what the sense of her speech was. On a related note, however, one wonders what the legal responsibility of people like Fox's Bill O'Reilly might be, given that a number of such commentators virtually declared Sherrod a racist.


Arlington, Va.: Who edited the tape? Did Biggovernment edit the tape? Why did the NAACP react to an edited version of the speech when they possessed the full version?

Mark Potok: I can only tell you that Breitbart claims to have only received the edited version of the tape. That seems dubious, given Breitbart's history of defamation of his enemies. In any event, he most certainly didn't bother to try to learn anything more about the tape before making it public. It was enough for him that it would act as a blunt club in attacking the Obama Administration for supposedly being anti-white in dropping portions of the voting case against the New Black Panthers. The fact that a woman had to pay with her career, I think, meant nothing to the loathsome Breitbart.


Crystal City, Va.: Did WH criticism of the Obama administration over its failure to prosecute the Black Panther Party for voter intimidation during the 2008 election and media sensitivity for failing to adequately cover this story (see the Ombudsman column from Sunday) contribute to everyone's hair trigger reactions? Why the silence from The Post on Black Panther Party story? (Post, July 18)

Mark Potok: Yes, as I said earlier, I do think so. The same administration, when it was criticized last year after a Department of Homeland Security report on the resurgence of the radical right was leaked, caved in to bogus complaints that the DHS report somehow labeled all conservatives as potential Timothy McVeighs. I've read the report, and not only was it accurate and very much in tandem with our own findings, but it did not remotely defame conservatives. But Janet Napolitano, after being criticized by the American Legion and others on the right, immediately caved in and retracted the report. And, as it turned out, the report was completely validated by a series of later events, including the Holocaust Museum shooting, the murder of an abortion provider and a number of other incidents. As in the case of Vilsack, I think Napolitano showed a really pathetic lack of backbone -- political cowardice.


Baltimore, Md.: Mark: Maybe here's why the media at large didn't bother to "go to the tape" before letting the Sherrod story blow up. Last night, ABC News devoted about 90 seconds to the backtracking, most of it showing a flummoxed Robert Gibbs trying to deal with White House press. No interview with Breitbart or Vilsack. A short while later, Diane Sawyer did a five-minute interview with the founder of Facebook.

Here we have a major story that reflects badly both on movement conservatives and the White House and a network news program gives several minutes more coverage to a social media platform that may be culturally important today, but whose relevance pales next to the Sherrod story. I begin to understand why Sarah Palin, with whom I agree on nothing, talks about the "lamestream" media.

Mark Potok: An interesting observation that I think is right on. A big part of the nasty turn political life has taken in this country in recent years is, in my opinion, due to the near collapse of the traditional media. Opinion, often based on absolutely no facts or facts that have been grotesquely distorted, seems to have taken over. After all, who could distinguish whether or not CNN's Lou Dobbs was offering an opinion or actual "reporting" when he spouted off about Latinos and immigrants. The real point in his case was he seemed to be a newsman on a major news channel, and he routinely pumped out falsehoods that had the effect of demonizing Latinos and immigrants.


Dunn Loring, Va.: The NAACP is considering a resolution that labels parts of the Tea Party movement as racist. Can the SPLC definitively state that there are no racist elements in the NAACP? Isn't Louis Farrakhan, who has spoken at numerous NAACP events, the leader of an SPLC-recognized hate group?

Mark Potok: I know of no time that Farrakhan has spoken to the NAACP and I really quite doubt it. In any case, the NAACP has been harshly critical of Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, as it should be (we have listed both the Nation and the New Black Panther Party as hate groups for years). I think the NAACP is a very moderate organization, very far from being racist. From the beginning, it has included whites in its leadership and membership and has never been racially exclusionary. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that Julian Bond, who was the group's executive director until fairly recently, sits out our board.


Washington, D.C.: "The fact that a woman had to pay with her career, I think, meant nothing to the loathsome Breitbart."

I think the term loathsome is a little much. Yes, he was wrong about this. What about all the careers that have been ruined by false claims of racism from the NAACP, Media matters, ACORN, etc.? Look at the housing crisis, the false facts being spread about the Arizona immigration law, etc.

I wonder if you feel the same way about the NAACP, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc.

Mark Potok: I'll say it this way: The exploitation of cases like that of Tawana Brawley was also loathsome, especially after it started to become clear that her story was bogus. In fairness, I need to say that I think that Al Sharpton has grown enormously since then and actually is a very thoughtful and insightful person. One would hope the Brawley fiasco taught him something.


Laurel, Md.: A lot of conservatives leapt on this because they believe there is a zero-tolerance policy toward any white person who doesn't toe the strict pro-diversity line and expresses any kind of negative view about blacks. Can/should this be a wake-up that we need a more tolerant attitude toward mere expressions of feelings, opinions and actions in the past, without the label "racist" being an automatic career-killer.

Mark Potok: I know a lot of conservatives believe this business about whites being so hemmed in by political correctness, but by and large I think that's a false construct.On the other hand, there have been some appalling cases, like the Washington, D.C., city staffer who was fired for using the word "niggardly," which is a perfectly fine English word that has no racist connotations, the opinions of silly people notwithstanding.


Anonymous: So the Post readers have some context of your bias and history of inaccuracies, will you admit that, when the body of a census worker was found in Kentucky, you appeared on MSNC and said he was likely "killed by someone who saw him as an agent of the sort of nefarious federal government."? Isn't the truth that the man committed suicide?

Mark Potok: It is true that he committed suicide after trying to make it looked like he was killed for being a Census worker (he actually wrote the word "Fed" on his own chest before hanging himself, as it turned out). I don't have the transcripts of my MSNBC remarks in front of me, but I'm quite certain I didn't say precisely that. I wrote an editorial around that time and spoke to other reporters as well, saying the incident MAY HAVE been killed by some kind of antigovernment activist.


Silver Spring, Md.: I read that Sherrod said that would love to meet with Obama to talk about race. I hope that Obama restrains himself from doing so because it's a terrible idea. Most importantly, it would just give the story more life and it's not his job to do so. Sherrod's story is sad and disappointing, but Obama has bigger things on his plate that he needs to address. As an African-American myself I don't want to see anymore race/beer summits from our president.

Mark Potok: Actually, I kind of agreed with a comment I read from Jesse Jackson, saying that her story is so redemptive, so much about an angry person overcoming her own racism and then really coming together with the white farmer involved, that Obama should use it as the basis for some kind of discussion of race in this country. I thought her story was redemptive, too. In any event, we are certainly not in a post-racial America and our problems with race must be faced squarely.


Laurel, Md.: Mr. Potok,

Thanks for all the great work you do for the SPLC. I noticed that Mr. Breitbart was given free reign by John King on CNN to spew his lies about the NAACP audience reaction to Ms. Sherrod's story about her reactions to the white farmer. Considering Mr. Breitbart's sordid background do you feel that CNN is as guilty as Fox News by letting him go on endlessly and lie about this story and not call him to task? He was never asked about the editing of the footage or the fact that the audience did not applaud her supposed "racist" comments which of course were not racist at all but a recounting of her past feelings and how they have changes.

Mark Potok: And thank you for the kind words. I don't know that CNN is as bad as Fox, but I do notice a kind of flaccid approach to these stories. I don't know why Rachel Maddow so often has to be the one to really tackle these stories as a serious, hard-driving reporter. I've seen CNN, Fox and others put on real racist nuts and quote them as authorities. I don't think they fully understand what they're doing, but they clearly have not done their prior due diligence.


Washington, D.C.: Can Breitbart be compelled to provide the name of the person who sent him the selectively edited portion of Sherrod's speech?

Do you feel that part of this problem is perpetuated by those who blog under the cover of anonymity?

Mark Potok: I doubt they can force that information out of Breitbart unless there's a serious libel suit brought against him. On blogs, while I run one myself and like a number of them, I do think they're a part of the general dumbing down of the political discourse in this country. Now we no longer just disagree about politics and policy, we can't even agree on the basic facts -- and this, I think, is partly due to bloggers who only VERY rarely do any fact checking or reporting of their own. In fact, they're more often than not operating on third or fourth-hand information that interests them only because it seems to support their own pre-existing politics.


Chicago, Ill.: Any idea what role the White House played in the firing?

Mark Potok: I don't. The story, of course, is that the White House had no role. Sherrod is disputing that. My own hunch, and it's only that, is that it's hard to believe there was no contact between Vilsack and the White House on a story that was taking over the entire news cycle.


Alexandria, Va.: Why hasn't the Post or anyone else interviewed Cheryl Cook, the woman who fired Shirley? Seems like Journalism 101. I would love to know what she says about who gave her the order, etc.

Mark Potok: I'd be willing to bet my right arm that she isn't giving interviews to anyone.


Fox News: With Fox News' lack of an apology for their initial coverage of this story, do you think they're no longer interested in presenting their network as fair and balanced?

Mark Potok: Not to be overly partisan, but I never had the impression that that phrase was anything but a PR smokescreen. I see very little that's fair or balanced coming out of Fox, and that's been true for years. It is quite remarkable that the network has nothing to say about this fiasco. Even more incredible were the pious Fox newscasters who yesterday were throwing up their hands in mock horror because the White House was "railroading" Sherrod. My God. Talk about hypocrisy.


Burbank, Calif..: Isn't this really an example of how information is used? Given the information that the Agriculture Department and NAACP initially had, did they really act that inappropriately? Once further information came forth, didn't most parties than respond appropriately based on the additional information?

Mark Potok: Eventually, people seemed to get around to acting better. But the bottom line is that the Administration and the Agriculture Department foolishly allowed themselves to be baited by Fox -- which, as the White House has already said, is really not a legitimate news organization -- before getting all the facts. It seems to me that this was just the kind of racially charged story that they should have made extra careful to get straight before acting. I think the whole episode is more an example of a Democratic Administration that seems afraid to take the far right, even on simple factual matters.


Enough Already: I felt terrible for Shirley Sherrod Tuesday night. I felt bad for her yesterday. Today I'm fed up with her acting as though she's above taking back her job -- or a better job -- as though the president owes her a personal meeting, or that the world owes her an apology. She was wronged, absolutely. People are wronged every day but rarely did they enjoy the almost instantaneous vindication Ms. Sherrod did. Now it's time for her to behave graciously and accept the apologies of Vilsack, et. als., and move on. I have no doubt that there will be a backlash against her for her sullen behavior if she doesn't.

Mark Potok: I think it's a little hard to judge her so harshly. This was a relatively normal, private person who was going along doing her job one day, and then was suddenly thrust by malevolent forces into an incredible national spotlight. I think anyone not used to this sort of thing would have an extremely difficult time acting just perfectly. Unlike the politicians, people like Shirley Sherrod don't have PR agencies to tell how to act or when to go rehab. She just had to figure it all out on her own (no help from Agriculture, that's for sure).


Chicago, Ill.: So that your readers can understand to what extent the rightwing liars are infiltrating the public dialogue, even posting in this forum, you should know that your quote from MSNBC was "a -distinct- -possibility- that he had been killed by someone who saw him as an agent of the sort of nefarious federal government" -emphasis added], NOT "likely", as an anonymous questioner just asserted.

Mark Potok: Thanks for looking that up. I was quite certain I wouldn't have said that, given what the facts of the case were at the time.


Arlington, Va.: Do you believe Ms. Sherrod will eventually accept the re-employment offer at USDA? Is there any reason for the hesitation?

Mark Potok: Honestly, I have no idea. And I don't know what her hesitation might be. I'm reading the same newspapers you are and I just don't think it's clear.


A Real Hi-Tech Lynching (corrected): I always thought that Clarence Thomas overhyped the term "hi-tech lynching" even though it caught on and seemed to work for him at the time. But wasn't what Andrew Breitbart, Fox News and others on the Right did to Shirley Sherrod on Monday a real hi-tech lynching? And for a day the Obama Administration joined the mob by requiring Sherrod's resignation from the Agriculture Department. Internet and cable technology combined with hyperbole were used to create, loop and spread a heavily edited video tape falsely insinuating that Sherrod is a "racist."

Mark Potok: I think that's exactly right.


Washington, D.C.: How about another apology?

Now that the Obama admin has rightfully apologized to this woman, what about apologies to the people of Arizona for slandering their immigration bill without reading it and promoting untruths about it? The biggest one Obama slung around was that people could be stopped on the street for no reason. This of course isn't true, you have to be stopped for another crime first. Also, if you are here on a visa or work permit, you are required by federal law to carry those papers on you all the time.

Now that Obama has apologized for this, I expect to him apologize for the Arizona situation.

Mark Potok: Well, initially the bill did say that (thought I'm not quite sure how this really relates to this discussion). Then Arizona amended it say, basically, that only once police had made "lawful contact" with individuals (traffic stops, etc.) could they ask the immigration status question.


Washington, D.C.: Mark,

Is there any group that didn't act badly in this situation aside from Ms. Sherrod? It seemed like you had a blogger with an agenda, coupled with a media and White House that were all too willing to give him immediate credence without bothering to check facts.

Mark Potok: I think you're right. Even the NAACP, which I greatly admire, got, as they later said, "snookered" on this one. This kind of thing comes largely, it seems to me, from the emergence of a 24/7 news cycle (due to cable) and the proliferation of other forms of media (Internet especially, obviously).


Reston, Va.: Broad question: Isn't the underlying theme of the right in attacking Shirley Sherrod, ACORN, the New Black Panthers, Van Jones, etc., to show that now that we have a black president other people of color are emboldened or otherwise want to seek revenge against white people and thus cause Mr. Obama's approval to sink in that demographic?

Mark Potok: Yes, I do think that's right. I think behind the animus of people like Andrew Breitbart is a feeling that the country has been stolen from white people and a distress about the coming loss of a white majority in America. I do believe that much of the right-wing media, Fox very much included, repeatedly plays on these kinds of racial fears. I mean, the New Black Panthers, whatever one thinks of the voting suppression case, are a completely tiny and powerless group. They're loathsome, that's for sure, but they are hardly coming to a town near you. Playing that tape about killing "crackers" again and again seems more like a scare tactic than anything. Believe me, we've got hundreds of tapes of white supremacist ranting about killing Jews and blacks and gays, but Fox doesn't play those all day long.


Washington, D.C.: I'm very glad to see that everyone is trying to look at the big picture now and listen to Sherrod's whole speech. Sherrod was trying to make a much larger point, and her comments were certainly taken out of context. BUUUUUUT, if the races were reversed and a white guy said he had discriminated against a black farmer, he would now be in jail for civil rights violations and wouldn't get out of jail for a decade.

Mark Potok: I don't believe that's true. I do think the White House and Vilsack probably would have reacted in the same way, rushing to judgment and a firing, but I also think that the story of the real victim would have emerged quickly. In any case, he certainly would not have been sent to prison.


New Mexico: How interesting, you are so willing to take Fox News to task, but you do not do the same for all the misguided and in some cases nasty comments and news that is spewed by NBC, CBS and ABC. Fox News may not be fair and balanced but I do not believe the others are either -- you should be spreading your angry around to all the media.

Mark Potok: I take Fox to task because it is so clearly the worst offender in this category. But I should tell you that SPLC fought a very long battle with CNN over Lou Dobbs and his defamations of Latino immigrants that only ended with Dobbs being forced out last year at a reported cost to CNN of $8 million. As to the "nasty comments" you say are "spewed" by the networks, I'm not sure what you're talking about.


Mark Potok: I want to thank everyone for joining in this interesting discussion, and I hope it was enlightening. I'd also like to thank the Post for inviting me to do it. I'm sorry I didn't have time to answer every question, but I can only type so fast! Thanks again, and very best to all our visitors.

Mark Potok


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