The Shirley Sherrod he knew

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.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

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.