The Big Implosion of Big Breitbart's Big Story


By now you may have seen this video, which Andrew Breitbart's Big Government promoted with great fanfare yesterday:

For those of you who didn't watch it, the clip begins with title cards that declare that Shirley Sherrod, until this week the Georgia director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "admits that in her federally appointed position, overseeing over a billion dollars…She discriminates against people due to their race." The footage that follows supposedly supports that narrative.

It turns out that the story Sherrod tells in the clip actually took place 24 years ago, and that she was working for a private organization at the time, not the USDA. Also, in context it's clear that her anecdote was about overcoming prejudice, not celebrating it; the tale ends with Sherrod recognizing that she wants to help poor people of all colors, not just blacks. It's equally clear that her audience understood that this was the point of the story.

Nonetheless, after the video went viral Sherrod's bosses quickly ousted her from her job. Breitbart's site now wants to focus on why the USDA and/or the White House pushed her out the door with so little evidence. Not a bad topic, but first you might want to acknowledge the fact that your entire story has fallen apart.

The punchline: The first three words in Breitbart's original post were "Context is everything."

Update: The fallback position for Breitbart's die-hard defenders is that the point of the story isn't Shirley Sherrod; it's the NAACP audience that responds with "laughter and cheers" when she describes her attitude toward the white farmer she was initially reluctant to help.

Even if that summary were true, it wouldn't change the fact that the edited clip falsely claims that Sherrod "discriminates against people due to their race" while "in her federally appointed position, overseeing over a billion dollars." But it isn't true. In the full video, her story begins with this statement: "When I made that commitment, I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only. But you know God will show you things, and he'll put things in your paths, so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people." So the audience knows going in that it's a redemption story, and it knows what the moral will be.

Anyway, the church-style affirmations that you hear clearly mean I understand, not Hooray. If she was testifying about overcoming a cocaine addiction, you'd hear the same sounds, complete with laughter at the appropriate junctures. But only a fool would think the audience is enthusiastic about drug abuse.