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Clear it with SidneyHow our blog got its name >

Notes on journalism for the common good
by Lindsay Beyerstein

How our blog got its name

Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”

Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.

It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.

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Does anyone at The Times own a Television Set?

 Above the Fold

L'Affaire Sherrod

    A completely discredited right-wing blogger posts an edited video which seems to convict a black Agriculture department official of racism.  Fox News runs the distorted clip continuously on all of its shows Monday.  Before giving Shirley Sherrod a chance to tell her side of the story, the Agriculture department demands and receives the resignation of the head of its rural development office in Georgia.

    Sherrod said the final call came from Cheryl Cook, an undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture.  White House officials, she said, told her to pull her car off the road and offer her resignation -- because the controversy was "going to be on Glenn Beck tonight."

    No one with any sense would credit anything posted by the blogger in question, Andrew Breitbart, after multiple investigations have revealed that the ACORN videos he posted last year were heavily edited and completely misleading. 

    The fact that the Obama Administration jumped to fire its own official on the basis of evidence provided by Breitbart and exploited by Fox is as shameful as it is inexplicable.

   Wednesday afternoon, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs apologized to Sherrod:

   "Without a doubt, Miss Sherrod is owed an apology," Gibbs said at his afternoon briefing. "I would do so on behalf of this administration."

[Second Update: an hour after Politico reported that apology, Times White House Correspondent Sheryl Gay Stolberg hadn't bothered to add that to her story either.  Third Update: by 4:15 PM, it was finally in her story.]

    In the edited version of the video, Sherrod appeared to say that she had not given her full support to a farmer facing foreclosure because he was white.  What Breitbart left out were the facts that 1) this took place twenty-five years ago and 2) the full video makes it clear that after struggling with herself, Sherrod realized that the white farmer deserved just as much help as the black farmer.

    By mid-day yesterday, Breitbart’s allegation had been completely discredited by CNN, after the white farmer in question, Roger Spooner, and his wife, Eloise, said that it was only because of Sherrod’s intervention that they had been able to hold on to their farm a quarter century ago.

    Breitbart, the idiot right-wing blogger, responded to the CNN interview by attacking John King for accepting the farmer’s “purported story” and questioning whether Mrs. Spooner was really Mr. Spooners wife.

    All this was the subject of one of the most incompetent stories FCP has ever read in The New York Times.  Written by Sarah Wheaton many hours after the farmer had appeared on television, it should have led with the farmer’s repudiation of the allegation of racism.

    Instead, it never reported anything about what the farmer had said on television.  Inexplicably, the story led this way: “The president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People apologized Tuesday to a black civil servant whose ouster the civil rights organization had originally cheered.”

    It is true, of course, that the N.A.A.C.P. behaved as badly as the Obama administration by excoriating Sherrod before it had investigated the allegation against her.  But it is also true that by far the most important news of the day was the fact that the farmer Sherrod had supposedly discriminated against was now describing her as a hero.

    Wheaton also identified Andrew Breitbart as “a conservative blogger known for promoting videos that emerged last year and ultimately brought down ACORN, the community organizing group” – without mentioning that those videos had been completely discredited after it was revealed how Breitbart had edited them.

    The person who owned the story last night was Rachel Maddow, who exposed Breitbart’s fraud, interviewed an embarrassed Benjamin T. Jealous, the head of the N.A.A.C.P.–and put the blame for the whole catastrophe squarely were it belonged:

    This is what Fox News does, this is how they are different from other news organizations.  This is why the White House argued months ago that Fox should be treated as a media organization but not as a normal news organization, because they don't treat news the way a normal news organization treats news. Just like the fake ACORN controversy, Fox News knows that it has a role in this dance....

    Fox does what Fox does, that is dog bites man, that is not interesting. What is interesting about this story is that the Obama administration inexplicably keeps falling for it...

    Dear White House, dear administration: believing conservative spin about what's so wrong with you and then giving into that spin is not an effective defense against that spin. Just buying it and apologizing for it, and doing whatever they want you to do doesn't make the problem of them lying about you go away. In fact, it makes it worse...

    The huge tide of negative publicity that followed these video tapes and the coverage they got on Fox wall-to-wall was a dishonest political stunt that bears no resemblance to journalism and no resemblance to the actual facts of what happened. But it worked. Means be damned, in the end it worked.

    Partly because of Maddow’s show, by the middle of last night the White House had realized how badly it had behaved, and just after 2 A.M. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement saying he was reconsidering Sherrod’s firing.   On the morning chat shows, Sherrod said she wasn’t sure if she would take her job back if it were offered to her.

    Vilsack’s statment was reported in an e-mail alert from Politico’s Mike Allen at 7:03 this morning:

    BULLETIN -- Yielding to a late-night phone call from the White House, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reversed himself early today and said he will reconsider the abrupt firing of Shirley Sherrod, a Georgia-based Agriculture Department official who was the victim of a media frenzy over comments that turned out to have been distorted by video editing.

[Update: an even earlier alert was sent out by Politico at 4:21 A.M.]

    It was on the Washington Post’s website by 9:07 and the Wall Street Journal’s at 9:18–but as of 11 o’clock this morning, The New York Times had still reported nothing about Vilsack’s reversal.  After multiple e-mails from FCP to Times reporter Wheaton, and Times national editor Rick Berke, inquiring about this omission, the paper’s Washington Bureau finally woke up  at 11:59 A.M., and posted a new lead on Wheaton’s story:

    “The White House intervened late Tuesday night in a racially-tinged dispute that prompted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to fire a black civil servant, and Mr. Vilsack is now reconsidering his decision.”

    But more than twenty-fours after the farmer had been on CNN to repudiate the central allegation, the Times still failed to include that fact in its updated story.  Wheaton did not respond to an e-mail asking whether she had omitted the farmer’s comments because she didn’t know about them or because she didn’t think they belonged in her story.

    As Kurt from Astoria  pointed out onthe Times website,

    Where in this article does it say that Brietbart [sic] severely edited a video to change a woman's story from one about overcoming personal prejudice through personal experience, to one that brags about acting in a prejudicial fashion?  You missed the story. It's not about the NAACP. It's about Brietbart's [sic] manipulations.

    And another reader added,

    Poor reporting. You don't connect the dots between the highly edited video circulated by the teabaggers, the "conclusions" of racism announced by Fox "News", and Vilsack's decision to fire Sherrod. This was an orchestrated, racebaiting smear job designed to dupe millions, raise the overall fear and hate quotient, make white people feel victimized and resentful, and destroy a decent person's life. You don't report how the farmer in question came out against the Fox story yesterday...

    The article in The Washington Post by Karen Tumulty and Krissah Thompson at least managed to include the essential facts that the Times had omitted – but its lead was just as off-base as the one in the Times:

     A fuzzy video of a racially themed speech that prompted the ouster this week of an Agriculture Department official has opened a new front in the ongoing war between the left and right over which side is at fault for stoking persistent forces of racism in politics.

    What that "fuzzy video" actually proved was that the Obama administration was so intimidated by a disgraced blogger and a completely dishonest television network that it jumped to fire a wholly innocent employee, without bothering to investigate any of the idiotic allegations against her.

    And what the whole mess proved was that Rachel Maddow is frequently more thorough, more intelligent, more sophisticated, and more reliable than all of her competitors in the mainstream media put together.



CORRECTION: It is not true that Fox ran the distorted  Sherrod clip on all of its shows Monday.   The first two references to the Sherrod story on Fox were in the evening, on the Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity shows.  By the time they aired, she had resigned.  Both of them did, however, convict her of her alleged crime before they had gotten her side of the story--even though an e-mail from a Fox executive earlier in the day had specifically counselled caution before convicting her on air.

Hannity reported Monday night, "This is a FOX News alert: an Obama administration official resigned just a short time ago after a she was caught on tape appearing to tell an audience that she had used her position to racially discriminate against white farmers." also reported the story Monday night, saying "The clip adds to the firestorm of debate over the NAACP's decision to approve a resolution at its convention last week accusing some Tea Party activists of racism -- a charge Tea Party leaders deny."

Tuesday morning on Fox and Friends the story was treated this way:

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  This is outrageous.  I mean, it‘s outrageous.
And perhaps everybody needs a refresher course of what racism looks like.
I mean, that is -
DOOCY:  Exhibit A.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Exhibit A - to do it so publicly as though she‘s proud of her actions. 
DOOCY:  Right

At 9 A.M. Tuesday, a reported piece on Fox by James Rosen did include Sherrod's version of the story, as well as the exculpatory part of Sherrod's speech which had already run on another network, which Rosen said "appeared to corroborate her claim that she was trying to unite her audience in racial tolerance."  The same piece said Sherrod would be appearing on Fox 90 minutes later, but that never happened, apparently because Sherrod decided not to do an interview there.

FCP regrets the errror.




Once again, bravo to you, CK. I watched the Maddow show last night and looked for the story in The Times this morning. It was as lame as you described. Perhaps the paper's editors were preoccupied with a different article that took up a good chunk of today's front page: A 1,278-word piece with a four-column head and a three-column photo about a man who pitches horseshoes.

You can't make this stuff up. What a great story line for The West Wing, if it were still being produced. Your two most recent posts are a perfect pair: the need to hit back when the right attacks and what happens when the Obama administration caves in. I am disheartened, but thanks for keeping me informed.

great hard hitting post, more people need to keep pounding the keys about the m.o. of fox news and right wing bloggers


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