Kneejerk reaction to Sherrod debacle: What does it mean?

The case of Shirley Sherrod is a scary reminder of the power of the Internet, even when it's wrong.

Journalism purists have in the last couple of years publicly denounced bloggers as being nails in the coffin of journalistic integrity. While there is an advantage to having eyes and ears everywhere—like video evidence of a crime—it can also be a convenient tool for those with ill intent. This was in evidence this week in the Shirley Sherrod case, the Agriculture Department official who was forced to resign when a part of a speech she made was taken out of context. Creative editing is we call it in the business.

"Get it first, but first get it right." That was the credo of the old United Press International wire service. But with the actions of some bloggers, like Andrew Breitbart, the guy who released part of Sherrod's speech to the public, perhaps the credo should be changed to "Get it how you want it first."

In a world of "news" talking heads that blather on day and night until you want to slice your own ears off, it's pretty much par for the course to skew stories to fit the desired viewpoint. But if there is increasingly oversight going on in these "officially sanctioned" forums, then there is absolutely none in the poor man's land of YouTube and Facebook.

My question is why people who should know better (in this case, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack) are reacting instantaneously to these kinds of stories by firing people. Maybe because the latter avenues of expression are still in the formative stages? Is everyone is so overwrought with political correctness that it's more prudent in their minds to fire someone before asking the person, in this case the victim, about what he or she is accused of? Or is it just that there are still people out there who naively believe that "if it's on the Internet, it's true."

The really scary part is that anyone could purposefully lie in a blog or Internet forum about another person. The story might be proven untrue somewhere along the line, but with the all-news, all-the-time mentality of network news, the story gets out there and casts a doubt about the person who was targeted. A reputation can be tainted and spread online faster than it would be in a small-town beauty shop on a Saturday morning.  Gossip cannot really be undone. And if your boss is dumb enough to take that gossip on face value, then it's a sad commentary.


Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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