is the 21st century. This is world of Avatar. Photoshop
is old hat. Everyone knows that every picture of every model
in every magazine is airbrushed thinner and poreless. The
most remotely savvy computer user knows that an e-mail message
claiming they’ve won the lottery or that their bank needs
them to enter their credit card number on this site that doesn’t
belong to their bank is bogus. We all make jokes about “Well
I read it on the Internet, it must be true!” and guffaw at
those poor rubes who get had.
Rubes, it appears, like those who populate Congress, the USDA,
and The New York Times.
Take, for example, the much-maligned anti-poverty community
organizing group ACORN. ACORN was an incredibly effective
cross-class, dues-paying-member-based organization that worked
at the local level on things like vacant lot cleanups and
school reform, and at the national level on things like fighting
predatory lending (before most the rest of the country realized
it was a problem) and raising the minimum wage. (For a detailed,
warts-and-all look at this complex group, see John Atlas’
recent book Seeds of Change.)
Plenty of congress critters have ACORN’s perfectly legal and
highly democracy-strengthening voter registration drives to
thank for their being in office (which is, of course, why
they came in for such attacks).
But even those folks couldn’t smell a rat when some right-wing
activists with a grudge claimed to have video showing them
dressed in outlandish costumes getting tax advice from ACORN
staffers on setting up a brothel of underage girls. They took
these videos as proven truth. Even today, ACORN supporters
will talk about “the few bad apples who were fired, but it
wasn’t an organization-wide problem.”
If you haven’t heard, the videos were doctored, folks. The
unedited tapes were turned over as part of an agreement to
keep their scumbag perpetrators from facing charges of violating
consent-to-record laws. James O’Keefe was wearing normal clothes,
not pimp duds. The one employee who was asking for all the
details of the prostitute smuggling turned around and called
the police to report the details of the crime, as he should
have. Unedited video shows that the employee who said “You
can do anything. . . . Don’t give up,” was not responding
to the description of prostitution, but of trouble finding
a house because of a “unique line of work” (suggestive, maybe,
but vague). Etcetera.
Every single independent investigation of ACORN (and there
have now been many) have cleared the organization of any
wrongdoing or misuse of funds. But it’s too late for the
group, which succumbed to loss of funding (including an illegal
bill of attainder that singled them out without a trial to
cut off federal funds) and reputation before being exonerated.
All of this could have been prevented if the people responsible
for reporting the news and making decisions had remembered
how easy it is to fake a video, looked at the recordings in
that critical light, and gotten the accounts of those who
had been taped before enabling the witch hunt.
And then we come to Shirley Sherrod. She was defamed in a
similar, though less complicated way—the video version of
the old-fashioned out-of-context excerpt that makes someone
appear to be saying the opposite of what they were saying,
because that’s how storytelling works sometimes.
The irony of the Sherrod firing is deep. Not only was she
telling a story of how she overcame the trauma of having lost
her father to a racist, unsolved murder and came to a place
where she understood her commonality with a poor white farmer;
she is also a farmer who was part of a massive lawsuit that
is resulting in the USDA paying out about $2 billion as an
attempt at compensation for their employees’ long-running,
widespread, persistent discrimination against black and Hispanic
farmers. And, as The Washington Post reported
on July 23, not a single person has yet lost their job over
that. Factual systematic racial discrimination proven in a
court of law, versus an inflammatory video clip being hyped
by someone with a known agenda. What to trust? Who to fire?
Is this a trick question?
On The View, President Obama blamed the media for hyping
the Sherrod controversy. This may be true, but it also smacks
of deflecting the blame. It’s his administration that is so
terrified of the right-wing echo chamber that they took a
right-wing blogger’s account of what Sherrod said at face
value and rushed to fire her. Just like they threw Van Jones
under the bus. Just like the president distanced himself from
ACORN and its chapters’ long-running support of him.
Perhaps if this administration trusted themselves and what
they know to be true about the people and organizations they’ve
chosen for good reason to work with and were willing to stick
up for them rather than capitulating instantly in the face
of fabricated/distorted propaganda, they’d find themselves
in a stronger, less defensive position in the long run. At
the very least it would help the rest of us to remember to
extend our tech-savvy skepticism to those seductive moving
pictures on the screen.