By Michael Jonas
It is a mild understatement to say there is plenty that initial media reports and the Obama administration had wrong about Shirley Sherrod. But the lessons involve more than just the unconscionable failure to conduct even the most basic vetting of the story, which was peddled by a right-wing blogger with a history of loose attachment to facts and balanced reporting.
Neither the leaders of the media mob nor the Obama functionaries who carried out Sherrod’s summary execution bothered to assemble the most basic biography of the target of their feeding frenzy. The same apparently was true for the national NAACP leadership that joined the rush to judgment.
Even the most cursory review of Sherrod’s background — the context that any good reporting should include — might have given some of the parties pause before jumping the gun, for she was not just a career agriculture department bureaucrat shooting off her mouth at a local NAACP dinner. Sherrod was veteran of the civil rights movement who had much more than just a passing familiarity with issues of racial justice and the struggles of poor farmers in the South. That is the Shirley Sherrod that Boston activist Chuck Collins met nearly 30 years ago, as he recalled this week
That history certainly doesn’t preclude the possibility that she might have made discriminatory remarks, as the original reports based on a brief video clip of her speech suggested. But it provides the kind of background that reporters should be gathering as they ask questions, make judgments, and check the plausibility of stories, knowing from experience that things aren’t always what they initially appear to be.