Collaboration

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.

About

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.

24 comments
HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Many years ago I had to do Jury Service. What worried me was the attitude of many of the potential jurors who had the idea that the person being charged must be guilty as the Police would never have charged them if they where not guilty. To them the Trial was just a formality before the sentence was handed down. This was before they even got near a court room to be selected for a jury. So in answer to your question the simple fact of saying something is enough as most people will believe what they want to and act accordingly. It's called the [b]Human Condition.[/b] Oh I'm nice and I know it's true because I read it on the Internet. :^0 Col

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

We've still got those other circuit boards... :D

kjohnson
kjohnson

Yes: it's known in the trade as "shooting the script." Although there is, of course, no real script to news, there are conventional formats which a camera crew will eventually shoot and send back to the studio. For example, if the council wants to demolish a house and the woman who lives in the house refuses to move, the camera crew will always shoot (1) establishing shots of the bulldozers and lorries building the road, (2) a little old lady reduced to tears by the pain and sorrow of it all, (3) an official in a bowler hat who obviously doesn't give a toss about the old lady and (4) a short piece to camera saying that the old lady has to be out of the house by four o'clock on Wednesday. The TV crew simply doesn't have time to shoot anything but the most predictable, obvious and cliche ridden report.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]"This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council," the voice continued. "As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less that two of your Earth minutes. Thank you." The PA died away. Uncomprehending terror settled on the watching people of Earth. The terror moved slowly through the gathered crowds as if they were iron fillings on a sheet of board and a magnet was moving beneath them. Panic sprouted again, desperate fleeing panic, but there was nowhere to flee to. Observing this, the Vogons turned on their PA again. It said: "There's no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department on Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you've had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it's far too late to start making a fuss about it now."[/i] At least I know what I'll be reading (again) for the next few weeks... B-)

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

As I read the above I was thinking exactly the same thing. :D Col

dinotech
dinotech

The video is damning, although the clip was taken out of context. The entire video is loaded with racial undertones, party affiliation (which is illegal for a government employee to talk about while employed by the government), and reference to whites as "their kind". That is unacceptable, period. She shouldn't be terminated on the side of the road - no employee should be forced to do that for any reason; due process is part of our Constitution and it should be exercised in this situation. We have another "wag the dog" story that will be raped in every sense because of that single clip. The video will be dismissed and the real truth that Ms Sherrod, although she stated she was wrong, still harbors some racial prejudice due to her later comments. The reference to party affiliation is more disturbing because it is illegal for an employee of the government to talk about it. I take exception with the statement "your kind". I didn't know that I was a separate species. The last time I looked I was a human being just like Ms. Sherrod. I wish Ms Sherrod the best, and I hope that she can resolve this issue in a peaceful manner. I also hope that Andrew (BigGovernment.com), who initially displayed the clip, will apologize and offer some restitution to Ms Sherrod. Toni Bowers is correct: the kneejerk reactions have got to stop. State and Government employees share something that most private sector employees don't; not being fired immediately. For State employees, there needs to be written documentation on the same issue before termination is even discussed. That can vary from state to state. I would think the Federal Government has a similar stipulation for its employees. I would also ask that Matt Louer and Rachel Maddow not contribute to the kneejerk reaction. I don't get anything of value from them - ever. Attacking the sources of the misunderstood clip isn't doing anything to resolve the issue. Bill O'Reilly apologized and he did show the tape in it's entirety. This whole issue is disgusting from the start. We need to be careful what we say, what we do, and always show respect even when others make a mistake. D

Ocie3
Ocie3

government "employees" to disclose their party affiliation?? If someone wants to know, all they need to do is look at that person's voter registration record, which is public in every State of which I've been apprised. The only thing that they would need to know is the county, or perhaps the city, in which the employee is a registered voter. Of course, that assumes that the employee [i]is[/i] a registered voter. In many states just about anything and everything that a state, county, or school district employee ([i]e.g.,[/i] a teacher) says or does is a matter of public record, including e-mail messages sent from and received at their own private account with an ISP. (In some states, that applies to city employees, too.) In effect, if someone works for a public agency or a government, they really do not have very much privacy. Some still think that their work is worth doing, nonetheless.

dinotech
dinotech

It is the discussion of party affiliation in public presentations (for or against a party). I don't have the specific law, but I will find out. It's been the standard for ages. You are correct in being a public servant; communication is a matter of public record. I don't agree that a private account is public record unless it is designated as official business. That designation is the determining factor if a private account is considered public record. Of course, a person's actions in their private life could affect their public position (c.f. a judge gets pulled over for DUI).

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

He made his remarks to a journalist. If he thought they weren't going to be published, he really doesn't have sense enough to remain a general. There's a lot of speculation there, but unless the General comes forward and outlines his thought processes, there's no way to know exactly why he said what he said.

dinotech
dinotech

True, she wasn't on duty and some of the other comments were not exactly "good will" comments. You do make a valid point, however, and it lends itself to the facebook discussion. She was at a function for NACCP where she was discussing a situation. That tape should have never been seen, and it is really none of our business. Personally, I don't have an issue at all with Shirley. I didn't appreciate the "their kind" reference, but I'm certainly not going to have her fired over it! It goes to show that you need to be careful what you say when you are a public servant in any capacity. Just ask Gen McCrystal.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I think the applicable Article of the UCMJ is pretty much a direct quote, with the usual 'good order and discipline' clauses thrown in.

santeewelding
santeewelding

That we remain aware of these distinctions. Thank you, Ocie, for your diligence.

Ocie3
Ocie3

today vary in their definitions, which can be either explicit or vague (and sometimes both) as to the distinction between "public" and "private" activities and communications not only of people who are employed by that particular State, but also by its counties, cities, villages, and just about any "public" entity which receives tax revenue, such as school districts, transit districts, etc. According to some documents that I've read which have been published by the ACLU and public-employee "unions", generally speaking, State laws [b]do not[/b] make any distinction between a "public" e-mail account and a "private" e-mail account on the basis of who "owns" it or who is "paying for it". I receive correspondence from a Florida teacher whose message usually has a warning appended that any messages that we exchange [i]might be deemed[/i] by Florida law to be a public record. It gets even more interesting: some States have laws that declare [b][i]all[/i][/b] communications between a government employee and any other person "official business" which is subject to public scrutiny. (The laws usually have some limited exemptions, [i]e.g.,[/i] communications between husband and wife, between an attorney and client, or between a doctor and patient.) That can include such things as school and college transcripts, documentation in welfare cases (including some medical records), and a host of other records that an ordinary citizen would probably believe are "private". Eventually, I suppose that most of these laws will be tested in court, but until they are, it is prudent to assume that they say what they mean and mean what they say. [b]Note:[/b] The Hatch Act applies to federal appointees, agents, and civil service employees. AFAIK, it does not apply to federal contractors and their employees. It does not apply to State appointees or employees, although most States (if not all) have passed legislation with regard to political activity. Some State laws are closer in terms and intent to the Hatch Act than others.

Ocie3
Ocie3

While writing my remarks, "the Hatch Act" was trying to emerge from some dusty memory bank but just didn't make it.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Passed in 1939, the Hatch Act primarily prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity while on duty, in a government office, wearing an official uniform, or using a government vehicle. There are some additional restrictions. Some federal employees are subject to greater limits and are referred to as Further Restricted employees. This is a list of prohibited activities for the less restricted (most) federal employees: http://www.osc.gov/haFederalLessRestrisctionandActivities.htm. None of the listed items remotely resembles "illegal to talk about [political parties] while employed by the government." Assuming she did not drive a government vehicle to this engagement, I don't see where she broke any laws: she wasn't on duty, she wasn't in the office, and she wasn't in uniform. And, to be honest, I didn't find any racial undertones other than those one would expect to find at an NAACP gathering, but then, I wasn't actively searching for them either. As for private email being public, you are correct: the emails must be related to official duties to be declared public. The usual policy in all my government employment was that if you have an official email, you will use that, and only that, email for official business. I don't expect that to have changed since I retired from the USAF. etu

Ocie3
Ocie3

Quote: [i]".... Or is it just that there are still people out there who naively believe that 'if it's on the Internet, it's true.'"[/i] As reflected in Shirley Sherrod's case, there are too many people who believe that there are too many people who [i]do believe[/i] that if they've read or heard something on the Internet, then it must be true. Personally, I quit being concerned about the reactions and opinions of idiots and halfwits a long time ago.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Apparently, they were her bosses.

Ocie3
Ocie3

and I've read a rumor that she has been offered reinstatement to her previous job, since all of the facts are apparently now in evidence.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

But I don't recall anybody ever accusing him of being a responsible journalist. If what he says is true, that he was given the edited videos, he failed (epically) by not asking the NAACP if there was more to the clips. That Sherrod was immediately fired based on video clips with no context reflects epic failure on the part of others. I'm hoping everybody learns something from this. Unfortunately, I think it's a forlorn hope...

dawgit
dawgit

...Succeeding again it seams. :( No different than what happened to Gen. McChrystal. And if the Administration doesn't start thinking before they act, will happen again. The US Media is in a sad state of mass irresponsibility.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Is that you are trying to make theoretical sense of a messy thing -- journalism -- unfolding in a big way with you smack in the middle of it. Thanks for trying.

XnavyDK
XnavyDK

All people are discriminatory racist bigots at some level or another. At my level I don't like people that wear Swiss Cheese hats. But that's a story for another time. They fired people for less trying to save face, my question is why bother, they are all ugly to me, there's no saving them. She was telling a story about how she was a racist way back when and they fired her for it. And we all know people never change. Once a Nascar Fan Always a Nascar Fan! She will sue them, and get lots of money in her defamation suit and then loose it all gambling in Vegas, then she will ask for the job and they will let her have it because she will play "The Card". Just FYI the Gambler song was playing in my head as I wrote this and now it wont go away...

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

This a typical example of people jumping to conclusions without having the entire story. The media has taken parts out of context and published only the inflamatory parts and left out the parts that really make the FULL story. Believe NONE of what you hear and only half of what you see. The media is their to sell air time and printed matter and has no real interest in really informing the public. Selling advertising makes more money than really getting out the TRUE story.

bdskp
bdskp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killian_documents_controversy Happens everywhere in all media types across all the political spectrum. Since news reporting started they've been running hit pieces on people/groups. Did we think the internet, as a new way to report news, would be any different? Bloggers aren't the problem. TV, newspaper and radio aren't the problem here. The evil things people do..that's the problem. If people are involved with it expect to find evil there.

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