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‘Slow down’ is message in Sherrod case Until early last week, Shirley Sherrod was a little-known public service executive, serving as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Athens-based Rural Development Office. But when conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, and subsequently, cable television’s Fox News, aired an out-of-context video clip that wrongly painted the black civil servant as a racist, Sherrod became a living, breathing symbol of what’s wrong with the increasing interconnectedness of our world. First, let’s consider the source of the video clip, which featured Sherrod speaking at a March NAACP gathering and apparently telling the crowd that, in an incident in her work life in 1986, she’d not been particularly interested in helping a white farmer, saying that at least initially, “I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.” That two-minute clip was posted to the website, operated by Breitbart. What the clip didn’t include was any other part of the 43-minute speech from which it was taken, and from which it became clear Sherrod was relating the story to illustrate a change in her attitudes on race. She had, in fact, been instrumental in helping the farmer keep his family’s farm. The full video is available online at the bottom of this article, and in fairness, there are a handful of moments in the videotape that can be seen as somewhat racially charged. At one point, for example, Sherrod notes, in an aside, that “it is about black and white.” At another point, she suggests that white elites worked to pit poor blacks and poor whites against one another, and she also appears to express some regret that “a white man” was able to buy a portion of some land put up for sale by a black family. But overall, it’s clear that Sherrod’s view is, as she expressed it in part of the speech not seen on the Breitbart clip, that “it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t – they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic.” Whether Breitbart knew of the entire context of the speech or not, it’s clear he wasn’t particularly interested in that context. A commentary from Stephen Engelberg of ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit news organization involved in investigative journalism, notes that “(i)n his (Breitbart’s) bylined story posting the clip, he said he was doing so in response to an NAACP resolution demanding the Tea Party repudiate racist remarks by its members.” In an admittedly utopian view, the Internet upon which the Sherrod clip was disseminated can be seen as a means for sharing information in the service of educating wide swaths of humanity. Sadly enough, though, the corner of the Internet now known as the blogosphere is populated by any number of agenda-pushing cranks – from across the political spectrum – masquerading as “news” providers and operating under the premise, enabled by a sometimes too-gullible public, that all information is created equal, and therefore is to be equally trusted. However, as the Sherrod clip so vividly illustrates, anyone wandering the Internet in hopes of becoming informed must guard against the all-too-real possibility, if not the probability, of being propagandized by people less interested in providing information than in fomenting discord. Unfortunately, though, there are any number of people – and, as it turns out, institutions – that are failing to place a critical eye on the information funneled through the Internet, and are all too quick to accept the supposed truth imparted by that information’s mere presence in cyberspace. As has been widely reported in the Sherrod incident, the longtime civil servant was forced by the high-level administration of the USDA to submit her resignation – a move supported by the NAACP – in the immediate aftermath of the video being posted. It was only after a more careful look at the issue by traditional media outlets that the truth of the video’s context became known, and the NAACP and the USDA were forced to back down from their initial reactions. Sherrod has since been offered a new job at the USDA, but it would be a mistake to consider that the end, or even the most important point, of this story. The larger lesson here is that in the evolving marketplace of ideas, it’s time for everyone – those who would have themselves be considered serious providers of information (including the traditional media who are continuing to migrate toward the faster pace of the Internet) as well as the consumers of that information – to slow down and think about the truth of the information they are, respectively, providing and consuming.

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