The Sherrod defamation suit against Breitbart et al continues. A federal appeals court upheld a federal district court’s rejection of a Breitbart colleague’s request to dismiss Shirley Sherrod’s defamation case against conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, his aide Larry O’Connor and an unnamed defendant.
Breitbart died in February of 2012, at the age of 43, but the suit continued. O’Connor requested that the case be dismissed on the grounds that it violated his freedom of speech rights.
Sherrod was asked to resign from her job as the former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the Department of Agriculture after Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com posted a deceptively edited video of the African American Sherrod speaking to an NAACP group, which made her sound like she was “racist” against white people. (Note: While conservatives like to make this claim, a function of racism is using race to keep a minority in the status quo, therefore, while white conservatives rage about “reverse racism”, it is not actually equivalent to the systemic, cultural and economic impact of racism on minorities).
The “conclusion” that Sherrod was a racist was in fact the opposite of the point she was making in her speech. This became clear later, when the full speech was released to the public, and Sherrod received belated apologies from the administration.
O’Connor and Breitbart claimed the Sherrod post was “opinion” and stood by it. The AP pointed out that the case is one of the first high-profile cases to test bloggers’ freedom of speech rights, with large news organizations filing friend of the court briefs in the lawsuit.
While it’s concerning to see a possible silencing of bloggers/press via a defamation suit, the issue may not be as simple as it first appears. There is an onus upon a “blogger” who wishes to maintain some level of credibility to verify the information. As an example, let’s look at David Corn’s release of the damaging Mitt Romney “47%” video. Corn did due diligence before releasing the tape. And again, when Corn released the Mitch McConnell secret tape, he took pains to authenticate it. The journalist told The Huffington Post that he “was able to verify the tape was authentic.” In addition, Corn said that Mother Jones “vetted the use of the tape for the story with our lawyers, as we always do in these situations.”
Sure, he could have still been taken – it’s possible, but there should be a reasonable expectation that information is vetted as much as possible, while balancing that need with the public’s right to know.
There’s also a lot of space between running a falsely edited video, perhaps unknowingly, and refusing to correct inaccurate “opinion” and accusations. Breitbart et al had the chance to update their posts with the accurate information, and they did eventually post the full 40-minute video of the speech, but somehow conservatives still believe that Sherrod is a “race-baiting Marxist”. This is probably because Breitbart claimed rather disingenuously that the point was never to target Sherrod, but rather to prove that the NAACP audience were racists, so as to mitigate the charges of racism being levied at the Tea Party during this time period.
The conservative Gateway Pundit is offended by the NAACP and “race baiting Marxist” like Sherrod and still thinks Sherrod should apologize, writing on May 31 of 2013, “then another step on the road to recovery from the Progressive race-card-game addiction, would be an apology from Shirley Sherrod and the NAACP.”
While it’s true that corrections rarely get the press the original story does, telling a lie and never properly correcting it is a heightened problem within the epistemic closure of conservative media, where outside reality is refused breathing space. For example, Right-wing bloggers falsely claimed that Joe Biden was “lying” about having played football at the University of Delaware, according to Media Matters, even though more than 20 years of actual reporting debunked this claim. “Gateway Pundit, National Review Online, and the Daily Caller picked up a post from Breitbart and claimed that it was evidence that Biden didn’t play football at Delaware and is “lying” about it.”
The result is that defamation is allowed to continue unabated, and with often drastic and supremely unfair (and sometimes dangerous) results. Yes, bloggers have important freedom of speech rights, but as with any rights, they also have responsibilities. It’s not clear that Breitbart et al have taken those responsibilities to heart, especially given the fact that they continue their jihad against political opponents unabated and unfettered by concerns of accuracy.
In a normal world, the readers (aka, the market) would reject a source that repeatedly misled them — but this is a market that seeks out sources that will mislead them in order to have their beliefs confirmed, and their prejudices reinforced.
So the question is not should Breitbart et al have run the original, deceptively edited video, presuming they did so unknowingly (and this has not been established). The questions are: A) What kind of diligence did they pursue to verify that they had the entire video, that it wasn’t edited so as to mislead the viewer, and that the clip they had was a reasonably accurate representation of the context and B) Once an important correction is established, how did the outlet handle this responsibility.
There’s an important difference between activism and journalism/news reporting/opinion pieces, if Breitbart et al are extending freedom of speech to freedom of the press rights (the right to speak and be heard). If you have an agenda that so blinds you to any sense of responsibility to your audience, it may be challenging to claim that your right to misinform the public so as to garner support for your cause should be protected under the law the same way a journalist’s like David Corn’s should be. If you are claiming freedom of speech, you are free from governmental restraint, but not necessarily the civil consequences of possible defamation charges or the marketplace reaction (see Paula Deen).
For example, journalists and bloggers with ethics don’t meet with candidates in off the record meetings to determine how to get the candidate’s message across better, but that’s what many conservative bloggers did with the Romney campaign. “The basic message I got is the primary’s over and we want you on our side and working with the campaign,” one attendee told the Huffington Post. That’s called propaganda, not news, and it certainly isn’t a function of an effort to inform the public.
Having an ideological bent is not the same thing as being willing to lie and mislead your audience, or deceptively present the other side so as to damage them as a defense of your “side”, which is exactly what Breitbart admitted to using the deceptive Sherrod video for in his email to TPM in July of 2010. It’s completely absurd that the mainstream media circled the wagons around Breitbart’s empire, once again falling for the ruse that caused them to defend Fox News from the Obama White House’s accusation that they are not a news organization.
If conservative bloggers like Breitbart continue to follow Fox News down the defamation path in service of their propaganda agenda, the very least the mainstream media can do is refuse to continue pretending these outlets are legitimate news or journalism.
Ms. Jones is the Editor-in-Chief of PoliticusUSA and a Huffington Post contributor. She has covered President Barack Obama, 2016 Democratic candidate for president Hillary Clinton, VP Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, First Lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Sarah hosts Politicus News and co-hosts Politicus Radio. Her analysis has been featured on several national radio, television news programs and talk shows, and print outlets including regular appearances on The Ann Walker Show With Scott Nevins for UBN Radio and KPTR 1450’s California Woman 411, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Wire, CNN, MSNBC, The Week, The Hollywood Reporter, The Richard Dawkins Foundation and more.
Sarah has won two Telly Awards and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. She graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in Latin and Psychology, including studying the psychology of organized crime, with graduate studies in the psychology of linguistics and Latin poetry.