A peculiar cultural moment occurred at my house this past Christmas season. I was chatting with my friend Andrew Breitbart when his phone rang. As the conservative web-meister took the call, I occupied my time by idly paging through my son’s nearby Mad Magazine—and was startled to find a caricature of Andrew in there. “Right wing smear merchant” Breitbart, announced the Mad takedown, had contributed to the unfair firing of Shirley Sherrod from the US Department of Agriculture. Breitbart, said Mad, had posted a video of Sherrod that was purposely edited to make Sherrod’s anti-racist remarks seem racist.
It is, of course, no crime that an antic satire rag got its facts provably wrong, but what’s disturbing is that Mad got the mainstream narrative of those facts exactly right. For some eight months now, Breitbart has been generally deemed by the news media to have acted dishonestly and unfairly in the Sherrod affair. A man who made his career exposing the left’s dishonest manipulation of the news has now ended up, as it were, in the belly of the narrative tiger he rode.
The pugnacious Breitbart posted the Sherrod video on his Big Government website last July in the midst of a war of words with NAACP President Ben Jealous. Jealous, among others, was bruiting about wholly unsubstantiated accusations that Tea Party ralliers had shouted racial slurs at two black congressmen. Breitbart responded, in effect: You wanna see racism? I’ll show you racism! He then posted the video, which depicted Sherrod speaking to an NAACP gathering about her urge to treat a white farmer unfairly when he came to her for help while she was employed at a private aid firm. Members of the audience clearly expressed their approval of this racist reflex before Sherrod—as Breitbart noted in his original post and showed in the video itself—went on to tell them how her sympathy for the farmer’s poverty overcame her first impulse. Ultimately, she said, she referred the farmer to “one of his own,” a white lawyer, for help.
Breitbart says his purpose was not to attack Sherrod but to reveal the racist approval of the NAACP crowd. When the story broke, however, White House and USDA officials quickly pushed for and received Sherrod’s resignation. When the larger context became clear shortly thereafter and Sherrod was rehired, it was Breitbart who got blamed for Sherrod’s ouster—and not just by Mad magazine and the left-wing media either. After being condemned by several Fox News commentators and contributors, Breitbart virtually vanished from the right-leaning cable news station’s talk shows, among the few TV venues where he’d previously been allowed to speak his piece.
Breitbart, with typically belligerent transparency, keeps the original post and video available to all on BigGovernment.com. They demonstrate clearly that he was not trying to disguise the context of Sherrod’s remarks. A media operator as canny as Breitbart might have acted more carefully to insure hurried journalists got their facts straight, but any error he made was logistical rather than moral.
The moral problems seem to be on the other side.
A yen for vindication and a curiosity as to why the White House and USDA moved to fire Sherrod so quickly has led Breitbart to investigate further and unearth Sherrod’s role—and President Obama’s role—in a billion dollar scandal. It seems distinctly possible that Sherrod’s firing over a small matter might have been intended to keep the larger affair out of the news.
What Breitbart’s Big Government site has christened “The Pigford Shakedown,” is a disturbing tale of how a legitimate legal ruling against the USDA for mistreating a small group of black farmers was hijacked, with then Senator Obama’s help, by thousands of black activists and other scam artists. What would have been a relatively small but fair payout ballooned into what looks very much like a billion-plus taxpayer ripoff—with a company formed by Shirley Sherrod and her husband receiving the single biggest payday of an astounding $13 million.
This changes the Breitbart-Sherrod story. In fact, it is the Breitbart-Sherrod story. And in the name of journalistic integrity, it’s time Breitbart’s actions were reconsidered in its context.
The sliming of Andrew Breitbart was, to some extent, inevitable, part of the price of doing journalism these days—especially conservative journalism in an industry whose leftist establishment routinely treats conservatives with the genteel thuggery of narrative distortion. But the man who helped build both The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post—and who is now helping to build a new journalistic paradigm through his several “Big” sites—deserves a fairer hearing from honest news sources than he got in Mad magazine.