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26 Jul 2010

Guest Commentary: Sandbox Logic

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July 26, 2010 Category: Local Posted by:

By Denise Clay


ABOVE PHOTO: Fatahma Odebe, left, joins a rally outside the Department of Agriculture building in Washington, in support of Shirley Sherrod a former Agriculture Department’s director of rural development in Georgia, demanding that Sherrod be reinstated to her job, Wednesday, July 21, 2010.

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)


Where I grew up in New Jersey, there was a park nearby that me and my friends would spend hours playing in.


Among the swings, sliding boards, monkey bars and other things to play with and on was a sandbox. Most of us kids would climb in and get sand in our sneakers, socks, clothes and hair by taking our Barbie dolls, Gl Joe action figures and Tonka trucks through various sand-based adventures.


As long as everyone played by the rules, rules that included no throwing sand, no using sand to suffocate someone, and no fighting, everyone had a great time hanging out in the sandbox.


But every once in awhile, the sandbox would be visited by some knucklehead who would try and violate the rules. Since the job of policing the sandbox was something we all took pretty seriously, said knucklehead would learn very quickly that there were consequences and repercussions for that.


I thought about my hometown sandbox this week as I saw the saga of former Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod unfold. She found herself in the sandbox I play in: the media sandbox. Unfortunately, two of the kids in that sandbox,Andrew Breitbart and Fox News, decided to violate rules one and two: they threw sand, and they tried to bury her head in the sandbox.


But now that she’s been dug out, I have a piece of advice for Sherrod: get yourself a good media attorney and show these kids that just like in the sandbox of my youth, there are consequences and repercussions when you don’t “play right” in the media sandbox. The loss of a couple of million dollars and any reputation these two kids ever had in the media business should be enough.


Who knows? You might even clean up the rest of the blogisphere while you’re at it.


In case you missed it, Sherrod, a public official that you probably never heard of before now, was allegedly caught on tape being racist at an NAACP meeting. Breitbart, a conservative blogger, put the tape up on his website as a way of getting back at the civil rights organization for condemning racism within the Tea Party Movement.


(A brief note for the Tea Partiers: if a big-time White Supremacist group like Stormfront is among your Facebook friends, you have a racism issue. Deal with it, don’t shoot the messenger.)


But there was one problem with this video: it was incomplete. While the piece of tape that Breitbart (and Fox News) trumpeted as gospel did feature Sherrod talking about the racism that she had to overcome to help a white farmer keep his land, it didn’t show the fact that she did overcome it and that this farmer is still indeed working his land.


(By the way, the farmer Sherrod helped did that himself on CNN. He also said that calling her a racist was “stupid”.)


But because everyone from the Obama Adminisration (who should freakin’ know better by now) to the NAACP took what Breitbart (and Fox News) said as gospel, Sherrod was asked to resign.


Once the other part of the tape made its way through the media transom, however, everyone had to backtrack.


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack held a press conference that made my best bud say, “I’ve never seen a white man apologize so much in my life!” Sherrod has been offered another job at the Department of Agriculture, and the NAACP has also apologized for throwing a longtime member under a very large bus.


But true to his code, neither Breitbart (nor Fox News) has apologized for smearing this woman’s character. Breitbart says he stands behind his “story” while Fox accused everyone else of jumping to conclusions and not getting their facts straight.


Now neither of these entities has ever played well in the media sandbox. In fact, both Breitbart and Fox are kinda proud of their ability to misrepresent facts and ruin lives in the process.


But as my childhood sandbox goes, so does the media sandbox. You throw sand. We warn you the couple of times. On the third time, we throw you out of the box.


Now what does this mean in this case? This means that if Sherrod were so inclined, she could walk into any court in the nation armed with a first-year law student and thetape of her entire speech and get whatever she wanted in damages from Breitbart and Fox News.


That’s because one of the first things that you’re taught in journalism is the following: If your mama says she loves you, have that verified by at least two sources. If you get a piece of bad information, but can prove that you got it from more than one person and that you tried to check it out as thoroughly as possible before you sent it out into the world, you stay ahead of a libel (printed falsehoods) or slander (broadcasted falsehoods) charge.


To do anything else can get a reporter taken to court. If a person like Sherrod, someone that we in the business refer to as a limited purpose public figure because few people beyond their sphere of influence know who they are, can prove that someone printed something that they knew was false because they didn’t do their homework, a person like Sherrod can walk out of court with a lot of a news organization’s money.


(Since Breitbart is his own news organization, this means that Sherrod could walk out of court with the deed to his house.)


While I don’t want to see anyone homeless, I think that the libel suit that I hope Sherrod files would be a teachable moment for the blogisphere.


Since the inception of so called”citizen journalism”, bloggers have argued that they should be allowed to play in the journalistic sandbox without observing the rules. The first thing that comes out of their mouths is the phrase “We’re not journalists”… that is until something like the Democratic National Convention comes up. Then they believe that not only should they get press credentials, but that they should also have their own section of the convention center.


But that’s not the way it works. If you want the perks (and I use that term derisively) of being a journalist, you have to play by our rules. That means going out, doing interviews and getting your own information instead of borrowing it from stories I’ve done without crediting me.


That means making sure that your fact are right before you put them in your blog.


And that especially means making sure that you follow a version of the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm.


Like I said, I’d hate to see Breitbart or anyone else in the blogisphere living in a box over something like this. But there’s a lesson that needs to be learned here: be factual or be gone.


If you can’t do that, find another sandbox to play in. Ours is full.

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