Shirley Sherrod and the Social Media Fail

July 22, 2010 at 10:47 am 6 comments

Shirley Sherrod

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe performed a live radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.” It was the day America learned the perils of blind trust in a new medium as Welles’ faux news bulletins convinced many that the Martians had landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

On July 20, 2010, a leading communication technology again triggered hysteria. The racists were among us, in the form of government representatives infiltrating an organization founded to fight bigotry. Social media delivered the proof., a blog by Andrew Breitbart, posted a short video of Shirley Sherrod, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Director for Georgia, telling an NAACP audience about not applying “full force” efforts to help a white farmer avoid foreclosure earlier in her career.

The edited Shirley Sherrod video:

Orson Welles was considered a genius, but he didn’t compel FDR to send troops after the Martians. On the other hand, Andrew Breitbart managed to rock the administration of the 44th President. With no alien hordes to vanquish, they did the next best thing: they ousted an inconvenient official.

By October 31, 1938, we knew there were no Martians in New Jersey. By July 21 2010, we saw there was no racist at the NAACP podium. Social media, the great fact checker, lie detector, and collector of the crowd’s wisdom had failed. It had not saved us from our knee-jerk reactions and lack of due diligence.

Shirley Sherrod’s defense was her own words, the complete 43-minute video of her speech, a poignant narrative of her life and career. During her childhood and early adulthood, local versions of Bull Connor were sheriffs in her home county in Georgia. A white man killed her father. A group of white men burned a cross in front of her widowed mother’s home.

The complete Shirley Sherrod video:

Ms. Sherrod said that she swore to leave the fields but never did. As she took her career path after college, she admitted that her vision of helping people was originally limited to African-Americans. She explained how her attitudes began to change after handing off the white farmer to a white lawyer, “one of his own kind,” only to delve back into the foreclosure case when the lawyer failed to produce results. That part of the story didn’t make the cut in the video shown on, the video used to condemn Ms. Sherrod.

How many of us joined the kangaroo court? I read the initial story on Ms. Sherrod, watched the short clip, and posted the link to the Facebook page for my social media class at University of Denver online under the heading “social media drives the news.” Indeed. The story got heavy play in the media. The denunciations from the executive branch and the NAACP were swift. Ms. Sherrod said that she was ordered to pull her car over and resign by BlackBerry.

How many of us, chastened, watched the complete video? I did, after making  a “not-so-fast” post about the Sherrod story to the class’ Facebook page. What I saw was not Van Jones or Jeremiah Wright. This was a candid woman explaining her personal journey to racial inclusiveness in the course of her public service. For once, “taken out of context” was not a PR dodge. It was the truth.

Per the value proposition of technological marvels, we expect social media to be a labor-saving device, feeding us bite-size chunks of information screened and endorsed by experts and influencers. In the end, it is just another tool, only as good as the people who wield it. Amid modern cynicism, its free structure gives it “verisimilitude,” a term that has been used to describe the sense of truthfulness and authenticity in Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” production. A surreptitious or overlooked video has become social media’s symbol of authenticity. In contrast to Web 2.0, 1930s radio was a medium of commonality and authority. Welles achieved authenticity with the simple, grave announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program…”

Orson Welles knew he was putting on a show. What kind of spectacle were the proponents of the edited Shirley Sherrod video anticipating? More importantly, what kind of spectacles will we enable from now on? Will we take time from our busy schedules to confirm there is no smoking crater in Grover’s Mill?


Entry filed under: Crisis Communications, Leadership, Social Media. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. James Strock  |  July 22, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Great post, Jason. As you say, one can see what Welles was trying to accomplish as entertainment. What Breitbart was trying to do is entirely unclear. He has been effective in pointing out the bias of the traditional media on numerous occasions–and yet, here, he simply seems to have adopted practices of the very same kind. Was this purposeful? If so, he has forfeited claims to authority. Was it incompetence? Then it should be admitted and apologized for. What about the news outlets who picked it up apparently without doing their homework? Or the Agriculture Secretary? And White House staff? And the President? All told, one more time that various news media have failed the American public. Who will watch the watchdogs? Meanwhile….. while Americans are distracted by this kind of thing, great issues remain unaddressed, even undiscussed–from the explosion of public and private debt, to the ongoing addiction to imported oil, to the Iran situation and so on…..Where is the leadership to bring out attention where it must be, to set our sights higher than they are?…..For a great nation to turn its attention to the wrong things is dangerous…..

    • 2. jasonkarpf  |  July 22, 2010 at 8:26 pm

      Haste was the downfall of all parties who came out of this poorly. Breitbart wanted another scoop if not another homerun a la the ACORN videos. In turn, the media routinely pounces on this kind of story, certain channels and pundits in particular. The NAACP wanted to purge its ranks quickly, especially considering its racism faceoff with the Tea Party. Lastly the administration did not want to appear soft or dithering, especially after the escalation of the New Black Panther/voter intimidation case. Your points at the end are most telling–our great issues remain unaddressed as we go around “looking for trouble.”

  • 3. Richard A. Solomon  |  July 23, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Let’s take the time to get it right. Let’s not put all our eggs in one basket, no matter how useful or shiny or sophisticated that basket might be.

    • 4. jasonkarpf  |  July 23, 2010 at 10:26 am

      They’re going to be talking about this episode in PR, journalism and poli sci classes for years to come. Everyone passed the buck when it came to fact checking.

  • 5. Anthony Weiner: The Medium is the Mess |  |  June 7, 2011 at 8:06 am

    […] for his initial report on the tweeted photo. This exposé marks a rebound for Breitbart who posted an edited video of USDA official Shirley Sherrod in 2010 portraying her as racist and leading to her ouster. The complete video of Sherrod’s […]

  • 6. Anthony Weiner: The Medium is the Mess–Update |  |  July 23, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    […] for his initial report on the tweeted photo. This exposé marks a rebound for Breitbart who posted an edited video of USDA official Shirley Sherrod in 2010 portraying her as racist and leading to her ouster. The complete video of Sherrod’s […]


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