With Andrew Breitbart’s death this week, one of the most persistent falsehoods has resurfaced, the claim that the original tape released of Shirley Sherrod’s speech to an NAACP Chapter was misleading or defamatory in that it did not reveal that Sherrod’s discrimination against a white farmer was long ago, that she ended up helping him, and that she had since changed her view.
The AP, in its story about Breibart’s death, gave this description:
In 2010, though, Breitbart’s credibility had been burned after his website posted video excerpts of a 40-minute NAACP speech by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod that appeared to show her making racist comments. Breitbart drew heat when the speech was published in full, showing that selectively edited video had taken the remarks out of context–and Sherrod had been fired for it. (The White House later apologized for dismissing Sherrod, a longtime USDA official, and Sherrod sued Breitbart for defamation, a suit that was ongoing when he died.)
Similarly Josh Gerstein at Politico, in discussing the ongoing defamation lawsuit, made similar claims:
While the clips and analysis posted at Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com seemed to indicate that Sherrod was racist, the full video of of Sherrod’s speech included her indicating she had learned a lesson from her earlier predispositions and had come to reject racial stereotyping.
Other times the narrative is invoked not casually, but as part of an effort to smear Bretibart as either racist or at least willing to use racism to his political advantage, as in this post by David Frum soon after Bretibart’s death:
Because President Obama was black, and because Breitbart believed in using every and any weapon at hand, Breitbart’s politics did inevitably become racially coded. Breitbart’s memory will always be linked to his defamation of Shirley Sherrod and his attempt to make a national scandal out of back payments to black farmers: the story he always called “Pigford” with self-conscious resonance.
Whether innocent or malicious, the narrative is wrong.
I originally analyzed the alleged falsehoods when the controversy first broke in July 2010, The Original Sherrod Clip Was Not “False”:
The original Sherrod clip certainly gave enough of a flavor that Sherrod was talking about something in the past, and had changed (watch the clip beginning at 1:50, where Sherrod mentions that she no longer views race as the real issue). The full speech gives an even more complete version of that supposed transformation, but that does not make the shorter version “false.”
Even Breitbart’s original descriptionof the tape — before the full tape was available, actually disclosed Sherrod’s transformation (emphasis mine):
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.
To the extent the original clip and Breitbart’s description portrayed Sherrod as having engaged in a racist act in the past, such implication literally was true, as Sherrod admits. The actions people in the Obama administration took, and the conclusions the media drew from that literal truth may have been unfair and precipitous, but that does not make the clip defamatory.
In February 2011, after Sherrod had sued Breitbart and co-defendant Larry O’Connor, I analysed the tape in even greater detail, literally frame by frame, Dissecting Shirley Sherrod’s Complaint Against Andrew Breitbart.
Once again I demonstrated that in fact each of the elements of Sherrod’s story which legend has it was not on the “edited” tape in fact was on the tape. Read the post for the full sequence, but here are some images which demonstrate that the full scope of Sherrod’s story was in the “edited” tape.
For example, the fact that Sherrod eventually helped the white farmer was on the tape:
So too that Sherrod later realized she was wrong to have those feelings:
There was a possible inaccuracy in the original tape in that it did not initially make clear that while Sherrod at the time of the speech worked for the federal government, at the time of her dealings with the white farmer she worked for state government. A correction was added to the tape soon after its release.
The reaction to the tape did not take into account what actually was on the tape. A spokesman for the NAACP denounced Sherrod and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack fired her.
When the complete video was released, everyone acted as if her redemption from her racist feelings was being revealed for the first time, and the NAACP rallied around her and Vilsack offered her her job back (which she refused).
This supposed revelation on the full version of the tape was a handy excuse, but the facts had been revealed in the original tape had anyone listened or watched carefully.
What really was going on was that the crowd reaction to Sherrod’s comments caught on the tape was very damaging to the NAACP and those who attacked the Tea Party movement as racist. The crowd cheered when Sherrod recounted her long-ago hostility to the white farmer, and that crowd reaction was the real story. Focusing the debate on the editing of the tape was a convenient distraction.
So let’s put to bed the claim that the original Sherrod tape was misleading, defamatory or reflective of racial codes or racism on the part of Breitbart.
Andrew Breitbart is not around to defend himself anymore, and we owe it to him to push back, hard.