It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Shirley Sherrod's Method vs Organized Smearing

Readers outside the US may or may not hear about the Shirley Sherrod controversy, so I'll summarize.

Ms. Sherrod is apparently a woman of great character. As a black child in Georgia in the early 1960's, she had to cope with the killing of her father, for which the known killer, a white man, was never arraigned. Apparently, in her youth she had resentment toward white people. This is understandable to say the least. She discussed this at a talk at the NAACP which is embroiled in racial controversy with the "Tea Party". A couple of things she said were clipped out of context, leaving the casual viewer with the impression that she, in her current post as an executive in the US Department of Agriculture, currently treats black people preferentially to white people. In fact this was exactly the opposite of the point of her talk. This was picked up by a certain rightwing flak by the name of Breitbart who runs some sort of nasty right wing web site; there is no proof either way whether Breitbart himself had anything to do with editing the file. On Monday, with some cover from NAACP itself, she was summarily dismissed (stricly speaking, her resignation was demanded). It's clear that the Agriculture Secretary was personally involved, and there's some doubt as to how much direct White House input there was.

I don't need to go into any more detail. There must be a million words on this on the net already.

Another innocent career casually destroyed by the right wing, right? Ho-hum.

If you ask why the outrage of "climategate" gets no attention, why the Cuccinelli abuse of power gets a shrug, here's your answer. This is business as usual in America.

So why all the attention to Shirley Sherrod after all? Why the million words? Three reasons:

1) Ms. Sherrod did not take this lying down
2) Ms. Sherrod has some prominent friends
3) Ms. Sherrod tracked down the entire videotape

All of which led to a decisive vindication in a short time.

The first I heard of the story was on NPR Tuesday evening, by which time it was clear that Ms. Sherrod had not just done nothing wrong, but in fact had done a great deal very right. For her to be summarily dismissed by the white house on the word of an iresponsible blogger (who in fact had been responsible for the equally reprehensible, malicious, and misleading destruction of the voting rights non-profit group ACORN) is a bit baffling, but a little bit of panic at the White House and the NAACP is really not the issue. The issue is the reprehensible misrepresentation of well-intentioned human beings by a reputation-destruction industry aimed squarely at responsible decent and talented black people, especially ones from impoverished backgrounds who have had the nerve to actually lift themselves out of poverty and desperation.

Now this particular segment of the reputation-destruction industry is perhaps a bit more sinister than the one aimed at climate scientists, because it preys on old and deep wounds in American society, rather than working assiduously to create new ones.

CNN's coverage of the matter has been surprisingly solid; the first serious bit of mass media journalism I've seen in years. I think they are pissed off, though, precisely because Anderson Cooper is a personal friend of Shirley Sherrod. He said so.

But the similarity of the attack is hard to miss. So one lesson for climate scientists is to have friends in the media; not just contacts (which is easy) but friends. The trouble is, climate scientists live in college towns, not New York or DC. (Notable exceptions: Hansen, Schmidt.) Journalism is like a branch of government, with a pecking order, and the big dogs are in New York or DC; you can't affect national media very effectively from Boulder or San Diego or Woods Hole or Madison. We may have trouble on that front.

But the other lesson is to concede nothing, to take nothing under advisement, to save sensible compromise for honest and decent opposition. They will win some and lose some; when they lose one they will slither away quickly throwing a couple of distracting snarks at side issues. But they will concede nothing. At best they will choose someone else's life to wreck.

This whole phenomenon appears to be a British import, judging from the egregious Mr. Dellingpole and his ilk. Regardless, it must stop.

Human civilization is at risk directly from these people. We won't have time for climate change to destroy us if these people continue to have their way. By the time we start running out of food, at this rate we won't be much worth saving anyway. We'll just have sunk into barbarism.

In a world like this, it's such a relief to have a rare victory for the forces of civilization.

So bravo Ms. Sherrod! Congratulations! My hat is off to you!

And to the rest of the world, and to the press, and to other targets of intimidation and slander, and to the White House, and especially to responsible, rational conservatives, please, for God's sake, grow a spine. Shirley Sherrod can show you how it's done.


Update: Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo:
as disappointing as Tom Vilsack's first crack at this was, the idea that he or Obama is the bad guy in this story is not only preposterous but verging on obscene. It's like the NYPD as the bad guy in the Son of Sam saga because they didn't catch David Berkowitz fast enough. Or perhaps that the real moral of the story is that the woman with the stalker should have been more focused on personal data security. Not for some time has something so captured the essential corruption of a big chunk of what passes as 'right wing media' (not all, by any means, but a sizable chunk along the Breitbart/Fox/Hannity continuum) and the corruption of the mainstream media itself as this episode.
I highly recommend the TPM article. This is yet another recounting that, if you read it with climate politics in mind, goes a long way toward putting our own problems into perspective in the contemporary political/journalistic disaster.


thingsbreak said...

Yes, the parallels are worth exploring.

Similarly with reporter Dave Weigel, JournoList, and "The Daily Caller".

These are not isolated incidents, but rather are becoming the norm.

Michael Tobis said...

TB, I'm not on top of that one. A summary would be appreciated.

Dan Olner said...

It's alarming, isn't it, that there weren't already some basic truth-checking routines in place, as a matter of course, before her head was demanded. It's easier see how soundbites dominate the blogosphere, but for a soundbyte to have nearly cost someone their career in this way?

Martin said...

Not nearly good enough. Heck, she doesn't even get her job back!

Vilsack should go. Apologies are cheap. The nameless character at the WH who pressed for her resignation should be named and fired. There should be real consequences for this.

Deech56 said...

Michael, I would also note the response of the blogosphere; the defense of Ms. Sherrod also came from such places as Talking Points Memo, Crooks and Liars, Washington Monthly, etc. DailyKos has Dr. Greg Dworkin who as a physician provided excellent information during the influenza pandemic, Huffington Post (well, hmm...)

Maybe some possibilities to consider.

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...


Michael Tobis said...

Martin, I disagree. Everyone was victimized by Breitbart and/or whoever fed him the video. As I see it, nobody beyond that point is at fault. (Vlisack was misled by the NAACP who in turn messed up the initial reaction.) Sherrod will probably end up with a deserved promotion and a more political posting.

It may be possible that her previous posting is disrupted by the spotlight. I can understand this; I was worried about something like that myself when Glenn Beck cast his charming attentions my way.

In any case, the incredible rush of meaningless events in DC that disrupt long-term planning is exactly the problem as Obama sees it. I agree. The change we want is not to instantly cast blame for mistakes.

That Obama continues to act as if the opposition were more responsible than they are is not naive. It is calculated. So I am not worried on that score either.

Sherrod is not going to starve, anyway. I'm probably going to buy her book myself, and I never read Washington insider books.

Two days ago I never heard of her and now she is a hero. I think she's in fine shape.

The real issue, as with "climategate" is in using the vindication to weaken the Breitbarts of the world. That is not Obama's or Vilsack's job. The rest of us will have to pitch in.

thingsbreak said...


Long story somewhat shorter-

Ezra Klein (who you sometimes read, if I'm not mistaken) formed a private listserve for liberal and centrist journalists called "JournoList". Over the past few weeks, private emails have been leaked by right wing outlets in an attempt to take as many scalps as possible. Dave Weigel was fired from the Washington Post for literally nothing to do with his actual reporting.

Conservative Tucker Carlson's vanity mag "The Daily Caller" has been trying to squeeze every drop of outrage out of the emails as possible.

Steve Scolnik said...

If you need any more confirmation that journalism as we have known it is completely brain dead, see the exchange between Jim Lehrer and the new political editor on last night's PBS NewsHour, which should certainly know better. After some perfunctory mention of the press, they go on to blame the administration for acting on bad information:

Usually, pundits react to things quickly, and perhaps some political candidates, but not usually the White House and the administration. But it shows the change in our society. This administration, specifically this president, he goes out there day after day bashing the cable channels and all the chatter and the punditry. And he says he pays no attention to that.

This is a case in point, no, they pay so close attention to that hour-by-hour news cycle that they even made uninformed decisions about firing someone in their administration based on that cycle.

And where, pray tell, did that bad information get traction without the slightest sanity check? The identity of the original source should have raised ginormous warning flags.

Martin said...

Michael, I strongly disagree. Folks in Vilsack's position owe a duty of due diligence to staff whose career is on the line. That includes skill to judge evidence.

This isn't about 'blame', it's about accountability. And it wasn't a 'mistake', it was a major cock-up -- or should be in a society that values practical justice. And note that the evidence is in: he has bloody confessed and tried to apologise!

No damage done is no excuse. Let Vilsack be the one doing the non-starving.

Andy S said...

You may find this post by conservative blogger David Frum interesting:

When people talk of the "closing of the conservative mind" this is what they mean: not that conservatives are more narrow-minded than other people — everybody can be narrow minded — but that conservatives have a unique capacity to ignore unwelcome fact.

There's also mention of the self-defense justification and the tendency to attribute even their own mistakes as somehow the fault of the other side.

But you’ll never guess who emerged as the villains of the story in this second-day conservative react. Not Andrew Breitbart, the distributor of a falsified tape. No, the villains were President Obama and the NAACP for believing Breitbart's falsehood.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"a little bit of panic at the White House and the NAACP is really not the issue"

No, it really is, and I couldn't disagree with TPM more strongly. Breitbart was smearing people in an effort to destroy their reputations: in other words, he was doing his job as a GOP operative. Obama is supposed to be able to handle this. Incompetence is blameworthy in a politician -- every netroots blogger knows not to trust something from the likes of Breibart, so why don't Obama's people?

You write that you think that Obama made a calculated decision to throw Sherrod under the bus. I fail to see how this is any better. It's stupid and dysfunctional, and encapsulates all the ways in which this administration has failed. Why is it good for Sherrod to fight back, but not for Obama to?

The political atmosphere is set by those at the top. Sherrod can fight back for herself, but she can't change things more broadly. Obama can. He, and you, are seemingly under the delusion that he can get things done if he isn't bothered with that old-style, partisan, loyalty towards people. Well, judging by success is valid, within politics.

Well, where are his successes then? He was pretty forced into getting RomneyCare; his financial reform bill changes nothing important. Where is climate change? Hippie-punched, along with his sterling decision to open up coastal drilling just before the BP spill.

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...


"That Obama continues to act as if the opposition were more responsible than they are is not naive. It is calculated."

Rich Puchalsky:

"It's stupid and dysfunctional, and encapsulates all the ways in which this administration has failed."

Like Puchalsky, I call bullshit on the assertion that the move to dump Sherrod was "calculated". There are some things you can sacrifice, and there are some things you cannot sacrifice. The White House was sacrificing the core values of facts, justice, and integrity ... for what? For merely an apparition of bipartisanship?

This is not calculation, this is losing yourself!

Michael Tobis said...

That's silly. Obviously the Sherrod thing was a mistake and a revealing one. I didn't say it wasn't.

I said that all the messages to Obama that these Republicans are not to be taken at face value are pointless. Do you think he hasn't figured that out?

manuel "moe" g said...

John Marshall, in quoted TPM piece:

"It's much easier to focus on Obama or Vilsack or 'what it says about race in America' or whatever other nonsense."

It is easy for me to focus on Obama, because I voted for him. And Vilsack, because Obama picked him. I am not surprised that known skunks acted like skunks.

I thought I was voting for someone who would not dance to the GOP's tune. It was the haste of the demand for resignation that is most disappointing. The haste has no easy comfortable justification. The haste displayed is unsettling.

Michael Tobis said...

No argument, as I said, this mistake is revealing of the DC mindset. But it's never the fault of the victims of the noise machine, even those who should have known in this instance. It's the fault of the noise machine.

Anyone making hundreds of decisions a day will get some wrong, take some too quickly and some too slowly. This will get worse if the information gets worse. This is a case in point. The blame goes to those who deliberately pollute the information.

EliRabett said...

Eli believes that Ms. Sherrod grew up in TX.

Rich Puchalsky said...

It's always the fault of the noise machine, sure -- to a point.

Imagine that you were in a town that had a gang that routinely committed crimes. Despite everyone knowing who these criminals were, and their modus operandi, imagine that the police never took action against them.

Imagine further that whenever one of these criminals committed another crime, people like you rushed to say "Don't blame the police! It's not their fault. It's the fault of the criminals. They are the ones committing crimes, after all."

That is nonsensical, at best. Ordinary people have no power to tell criminals to stop committing crimes -- they are criminals, after all. Ordinary people do have the power to call their elected and appointed officials to account if they aren't doing their jobs. The call to condemn the criminal is a meaningless distraction from political reality.

Michael Tobis said...

Again, in retrospect the decision was awful.

We do not know how many other decisions were made or how they turned out. You know the one which turns out badly will be the one that gets the attention later, but you don't know which one that will be.

I agree there is a legitimate question about Vilsack's conduct.

It is not as important as the question of why these bastards get away with what they do nine times out of ten, and the tenth time with hardly a consequence anyway.

dhogaza said...

"I said that all the messages to Obama that these Republicans are not to be taken at face value are pointless. Do you think he hasn't figured that out?"

He's focused on November, as he should be. Perhaps *too* focused, but crap, when he ran for office he had no idea he'd be facing 1) the biggest recession since the depression and 2) the BP spill.

He's totally figured it out. He's acting as a party politician sitting as President, while meanwhile doing quite a bit quietly using his executive powers.

He's not as good as Clinton was after his first mid-term disaster, but IMO he's doing quite a bit better than Clinton did *before* his first mid-term disaster.

dhogaza said...


These are paleocons, not neocons. W saw the rise of neocons regarding foreign policy, and the strengthening of the paleocon far right that helped elect Reagan.

dhogaza said...

"Again, in retrospect the decision was awful."

Yes, it was, no doubt about it. However there are doubts about how high up the chain of command it went. "The White House" covers a fairly broad set of people. Did it go to Obama? I see no proof of that.

Of course, he's still responsible for have hired those who did the dead, but the federal goverment's huge. Those of us who've hired and fired people know that we all make mistakes.

Deech56 said...

It is interesting that with the death of the Senate's climate bill, the circular firing squad is setting up again.

Obama's mistake is thinking that Republicans would try to do what is best for the country (heh, the world). IMHO, his sin is not standing up to bullies, but it is for the bullies I would reserve the greater condemnation.

There are just so many battles one can fight against an entrenched foe.

Good analysis, dhogaza. That reminds me that the administration still has the EPA's endangerment finding.

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...


"It is not as important as the question of why these bastards get away with what they do nine times out of ten, and the tenth time with hardly a consequence anyway."

What? The answer to that question is staring at you right in the face!

Why do the crazies get away with the crazy things they do? Precisely because the decision-makers who should know better -- Obama, Vilsack, Democratic Senators, reasoned conservatives, etc. -- have time and time again allowed the crazies to get away with it!

To use Rich's analogy, it's as someone keeps defending policemen who repeatedly let criminals go scot-free, and then later asks why the criminals now have so much power. Yeah, yeah.

* * *

"I said that all the messages to Obama that these Republicans are not to be taken at face value are pointless. Do you think he hasn't figured that out?"

What he has not figured out is that he should stop trying so hard to appease the neocons/paleocons/glibertarians, in pursuit of the illusory dream of "bipartisanship". Obama and his cabinet have apparently not figured this out at all.

I say, fire Vilsack. And bring back Van Jones.

-- frank

Rich Puchalsky said...

"It is not as important as the question of why these bastards get away with what they do nine times out of ten, and the tenth time with hardly a consequence anyway."

They get away with it because Obama is unwilling to confront them. If the President made it his business to use the levers of power, these people could be squashed. Journalists are ridiculously sensitive to political pressure, because they work for large companies that always want some kind of obscure-to-us regulatory reward.

Which is exactly why TPM is wrong, with "Shame on Obama?" answered in the negative. It's why your apparent belief that Obama is doing well with his calculated policy is wrong. This exact syndrome destroyed the climate change bill and is going to destroy Obama's Presidency.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, Rich, this isn't going to turn into a political blog. I'm sure this argument is happening elsewhere. I see your point of view here, and I see Obama's.

But now that I have your attention, maybe we can revive what I think of as our two related principal disagreements from the 90s: the role of expertise and the value of cost/benefit calculations. Those were informative disagreements, I thought. I have more insight into your perspective now, but my basic thoughts on the matter haven't changed.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I think that the actual events of the last decade to decade and a half favor my views on those matters. Has expertise had anything useful to say? No, not really, other than presenting the scientific consensus. Once that's there, the only new event that can really impinge on policy is if the science turns out to be wrong in some major way, which looks asymtotically less likely... but is there really anything that people with expertise would say differently to the public now then a decade and a half ago?

Has expertise been listened to? Yes and no. I fully expect the end to come as it did with the Montreal Protocol, and the carbon-neutral world to become the new normal. This will take longer since carbon is so much greater a part of the economy than CFCs ... can scientists say anything to speed that up? Probably not. They're not good at politics, though that isn't saying much when right now we have a President who isn't good at politics. Mostly scientists will appear, in this era, in Climategate roles as easy targets. I have no idea whether this shift will come in time, however.

Let's see: cost-benefit? I haven't seen anything to suggest that the outcome of a cost-benefit exercise can not be completely predicted by who is paid to do it. Or if a rare neutral person does it, it will be ignored.

What else is there -- geoengineering? That would be a catastrophe, for reasons which could be viewed as political rather than technical per se; it would be done by the same heedless people who built the BP well.

I realize that you'd like for there to be something new all the time, as there is in science. But nope. If future historians do a piece of Major Crises of Global Technology or some such, I'd guess that there's going to be a general set of three stages for each one: Discovery, Reaction, Solution. The scientists get to be active during the Discovery phase. We're still firmly in Reaction, which is when the political system shakes itself out. Solution is going to be fairly quickly done by the technologists, rebuilding inftrastructure, and then that's going to be it.

cpwinter said...

As others have said, this incorrect dismissal of Shirley Sherrod is part of a pattern, and President Obama is a participant in that pattern. It would be nice to believe this is some series of obscure chess moves on his part, soon to be revealed in a stunning rout of the Right. But the more I read about him and the people he's chosen, the less I believe it.

I'll respect your wish that this not become a political blog — but you did bring the matter up.