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After Shirley Sherrod, who needs context?

By Alexandra Petri

Until Shirley Sherrod, I didn’t realize you could go back more than twenty years, find a speech, edit it, and force people to leave their jobs! This prospect excites me.

Maybe the Declaration of Independence should lose its job. Especially after it said that “Governments long established should… be changed for light and transient causes.” Or something like that.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? What an anti-democracy screed! “We here highly resolve... that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall… perish from the earth.” How did he stay president for so long?

And just listen to John F. Kennedy in his "New Frontier" speech! “I hope that no American, considering the really critical issues facing this country, will waste his franchise by voting… for me.”

Even more shocking are these quotes I found from Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech. (True, I might have edited them a little bit.)

“Five score years ago… the flames of withering injustice… came as a joyous daybreak….

This is… time to engage in the luxury of cooling off…

The dark and desolate valley of segregation… is… solid!…

Let us… satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred....

I have a dream that one day this nation will… swelter… with the heat of injustice,… with the heat of oppression… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will… be judged by the color of their skin... I have a dream today!”

No time to check what else he said! Glenn Beck might be mentioning it tonight.

I'm not saying that Shirley Sherrod's remarks were on the level of any of these speeches -- or even that her statements about the interplay of race and class were not potentially controversial. But the least anyone should have done before endorsing, condemning, or firing her was to take stock of her remarks in their full context. You'd think.

Now, the White House has apologized. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said:

I think everybody has to go back and look at what has happened over the past 24 to 36 hours, and ask ourselves how we got into this. How did we not ask the right questions? How did you all not ask the right questions? How did other people not ask the right questions?

Who has time for that? We live in a frenzied, 25-hour news cycle. We're tweeting, opining, trying to be the first out the gate with the boldest response, the snappiest reaction. Reflex has replaced reflection. If someone had just taken the 45 minutes necessary to watch Sherrod's speech and respond to it thoughtfully, we might have been spared 24 hours of embarrassment. But no one did.

How does the saying go? "A little knowledge is a... thing." I'd look it up, but I'm on deadline.

By Alexandra Petri  | July 21, 2010; 5:50 PM ET
Categories:  Petri  | Tags:  Alexandra Petri  
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Next: 'A disservice was done' by Andrew Breitbart


"Glenn Beck might be mentioning it tonight."

It's kind of funny how Post writers keep dropping Beck's name as the villain, when in fact he spoke out in support of Sherrod. The fact that this happens in a post about not taking time to check facts is even more ironic.

Posted by: tomtildrum | July 21, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

It's hilarious how we have to "put things in context" when a liberal says something perceived as racist. (Full disclosure, I think what happened to Shirley is BS)

But when a guy like Rand Paul articulated his strong libertarian philosophy, he's a racist. Don't try to put it into context into a philosophy of limited gov't, just call him a racist.

Oh yeah what context was Harry Reid's "light skin with no negro dialect" in?

Posted by: louisp3 | July 21, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

The point is not that reflex is replacing judgment.

It's that our political class is unable to think - or even care - about the people sacrificed in the name of political advantage.

These are not just random inanities our politicians so freely spew. Each one of them, inane or not, is calculated to serve the speaker's political interests.

Posted by: Itzajob | July 21, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

From your article "Until Shirley Sherrod, I didn’t realize you could go back more than twenty years, find a speech, edit it, and force people to leave their jobs! This prospect excites me."

While the story Sherrod referred to may be 20 years old the video was recent. Your article is incorrect.

Posted by: pnav | July 21, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Fox News and numerous hosts pushed this issue for cynical short-term ratings gain but they've been caught relying on an edited, false portrayal of Sherry Sherrod's speech b/c it fits their larger political agenda, helping the right wing, damaging the left and the Obama Admin. by pushing the infamous Southern Strategy...making white conservative oriented voters stay w/in the Republican Party by arguing the Democrats will help through changes in laws and distribution of resources blacks and other "undeserving" minorities at the expense of whites.

Posted by: Civilius | July 21, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

Great work, Ms. Petri. You demonstrate context-elimination skills that could serve you quite well with a career as FoxNews anchorwoman!

Like when they presented that video of millions marching on Washington against health care expansion, and it turned out it was actually footage of the inauguration crowd. Or clips of that cold, out-of-touch-with-the-common-man Joe Biden saying "the economy is sound" in the depths of the recession - when it was actually archive footage of Biden QUOTING John McCain during the campaign a year and a half earlier.

Context - and integrity - is irrelevant on Fox if it confirms the biases of their rabidly ill-informed viewers. It's helpful for your career there to know how to "edit it out".

Posted by: B2O2 | July 21, 2010 10:50 PM | Report abuse

oh great: a Gail Collins wannabe. as if her attempts at humor weren't feeble enough.

Posted by: daphne5 | July 22, 2010 1:04 AM | Report abuse

This author apparently doesn't know what's going on with this story. The speech was from March about an event from 24 years ago. Not a 24 year old speech.

Posted by: Truthteller12 | July 22, 2010 1:54 AM | Report abuse

The Washington Post editorial board’s commentary surrounding Ms. Shirley Sherrod would have more meaning if The Washington Post editorial board actually believed it and operated under its principle. Ms. Katharine Weymouth, publisher, Mr. Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor, and Jo-Ann Armao are not in a strong position to serve as media defenders of truth and justice. They are not in a serene intellectual place to be leading conversations on ethics and doing what is right.

This editorial board, through the literary bloodstream of Ms. Armao attacked me in a previous editorial, “School Daze”, for filing a request for investigation of DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee for possible conflict of interest violations to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance (as well as the federal Hatch Act). The issue is not the editorial attack on me, which was wrong and misinformed, but rather the action of the editorial to print a reply I did not write or approve over my name.

The editorial board of The Washington Post further aggravated the issue by failing to print a retraction or correction. The failure of the editorial board of The Washington Post to print an apology for attributing to me in print and on-line something I did not write attacks the principle of decency in journalism.

The editorial board of The Washington Post has printed numerous opinions questioning the integrity, veracity, ethics, and actions many people. It often writes to politicians to just admit the mistake, tell the truth, and the cover-up is worse than the original sin. Today, the editorial board is critical of President Obama and US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Too bad The Washington Post will not follow its own admonition. Too bad “reputable” journalists at The Washington Post have been silent on its own egregious violation of journalism ethics.

Ms. Katharine Weymouth, Mr. Fred Hiatt, Mr. Andrew Alexander, and Mr. Howard Kurtz, fail or refuse to hold The Washington Post to the same standard of judgment it criticizes in others.
Elsewhere within the pages of The Washington Post columnists are weighing in with their views. This collective intellectual hypocrisy of journalism, offers great weight to why District residents and readers of this newspaper have low expectations The Washington Post is a credible newspaper.

The editorial board’s indifference to my repeated requests for a retraction and correction speak volumes about the corporate culture of The Washington Post and its values.

Robert Vinson Brannum

Posted by: robert158 | July 22, 2010 8:03 AM | Report abuse

How about when:

MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer laments over health care reform protesters legally carrying guns: "A man at a pro-health care reform rally...wore a semiautomatic assault rifle on his shoulder and a pistol on his hip....there are questions about whether this has racial overtones....white people showing up with guns." Brewer failed to mention the man she described was BLACK!

Or how about Lee Fang, a writer for the far-left blog Think Progress, who recently posted a EDITED OUT OF CONTEXT video purporting to show racism at Tea Parties. The video, a total fraud, took statements out of context, claimed racism where there really was none (and failed to show TEA member asking a racist to leave the rally), claimed liberal plants were authentic members of the movement, and even used video from 2006, three years before the movement existed.

Or how about how out of context the entire Sherrod debacle has become? The fact the audience cheered Shirley Sherrod when she confessed she may not do as much for the poor white farmer? That she took him to his “own” kind.

Or how about WaPo taking FOX reporting out of context? Beck rallied for Sherrod and for media to always make sure news is reported in context. Neither O’Reilly or Hannity reported on this until AFTER the WH had Sherrod fired.

Why not try some CONTEXT on WaPo for a change?

Posted by: stvjo | July 22, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

No, the real problem is that Andrew Breitbart and his ilk are trolling around for stuff to smear people with (and to smear organizations like ACORN with), and they are completely unscrupulous and completely vicious, and the "mainstream media" and even the White House are running scared and still too naive to check the whole story before reacting.

Maybe this time they'll learn a thing or two.

Posted by: herzliebster | July 22, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

The comment that sticks with me is from Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Keith Olbermann last night: The NAACP, at least, should have recognized the name Sherrod,googled her, and found that she and her husband have a long and distinguished record in civil rights work. That would probably have prompted them to wonder if the video was accurate. Why didn't they, or anyone, take the 90 seconds or so that would have given them this information?

Posted by: MaineWoman | July 22, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

The truth is in this case Breitbart corrected the story as soon as he found out, but the WH jumped in fright and fired Sherrod.

Posted by: stvjo | July 22, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

stvjo: "MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer laments over health care reform protesters legally carrying guns: 'A man at a pro-health care reform rally...wore a semiautomatic assault rifle on his shoulder and a pistol on his hip....there are questions about whether this has racial overtones....white people showing up with guns.' Brewer failed to mention the man she described was BLACK!'

So why are conservatives so upset about a black man carrying a night stick in Philadelphia? Doesn't he have 2nd amendment rights too? When night sticks are outlawed, only outlaws will have night sticks!

Posted by: sjpatejak | July 22, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

The following is the introduction to the video from Big The video was not just about Shirley Sherrod. It was about the response by the NAACP members in the audience before they learned that Shirley eventually did help the farmer.
"We are in possession of a video from in which Shirley Sherrod, USDA Georgia Director of Rural Development, speaks at the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner in Georgia. In her meandering speech to what appears to be an all-black audience, this federally appointed executive bureaucrat lays out in stark detail, that her federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions.
In the first video, Sherrod describes how she racially discriminates against a white farmer. She describes how she is torn over how much she will choose to help him. And, she admits that she doesn’t do everything she can for him, because he is white. Eventually, her basic humanity informs that this white man is poor and needs help. But she decides that he should get help from “one of his own kind”. She refers him to a white lawyer.
Sherrod’s racist tale is received by the NAACP audience with nodding approval and murmurs of recognition and agreement. Hardly the behavior of the group now holding itself up as the supreme judge of another groups’ racial tolerance."

Posted by: djslaughter | July 22, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Let's hope this new-found call for "context" from left/liberal journos takes root and is applied evenly.

Posted by: sladenyv1 | July 22, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

San Francisco Examiner:

Posted by: djslaughter | July 22, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I hope she sue's the daylights out of Breitbart. The purpose of his site is to defame people he doesn't like. If the victims of the defamation machines at Drudge, Limbaugh, Fox, Breitbart, et. al. start suing them right and left they might well be out of business. They can preach all the hate they wish but their victims should sue them for every act of defamation.

Posted by: orange31 | July 22, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

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