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Question Video

This 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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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