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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Learning from the Sherrod Smear

In his WaPo op-ed, “Enough right-wing propaganda,”E. J. Dionne, Jr. does a good job of distilling one of the most salient points regarding the Sherrod smear into one sentence:

The traditional media are so petrified of being called “liberal” that they are prepared to allow the Breitbarts of the world to become their assignment editors.

But Dionne points out at some length that it’s not only the wimpy MSM that’s at issue here. He and many progressives rightfully feel that the Obama Administration caved awfully easy on this one:

The administration’s response to the doctored video pushed by right-wing hit man Andrew Breitbart was shameful. The obsession with “protecting” the president turned out to be the least protective approach of all.
The first reaction of the Obama team was not to question, let alone challenge, the video. Instead, it assumed that whatever narrative Fox News might create mattered more than anything else, including the possible innocence of a human being outside the president’s inner circle. She could be sacrificed without a thought.
Obama complained on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack “jumped the gun, partly because we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles.” But it’s his own apparatus that turned “this media culture” into a false god.

After giving the Administration a fair share of the blame for being so easily hustled by prevaricating conservatives, however, it’s hard to overlook the shameless laziness/dishonesty of the MSM’s complicity. The headline for the Post article didn’t really get it. Call it wishful thinking, but I liked Truthdig‘s headline for Dionne’s article better: “The End of the Fox News Era.” Hey, we can dream, can’t we?
Dionne goes on to cite other examples of MSM wimptitude, including the sliming of Al Gore for saying he invented the internet (never mind that he never said it), the GOP’s “death panels” fear-mongering getting huge play, and the trumped up coverage of the “New Black Panthers” voter intimidation case.
The coverage of the Sherrod smear has been so extensive, that whatever fair-minded, persuadable voters were mulling over whether Breitbart and the tea party crowd could be trusted are now leaning toward a healthy skepticism regarding them. Breitbart and his defenders have lost some ground on this one. In that sense, the Sherrod smear did some good in terms of unintended consequences.
Some of the better thinkers have pinpointed a more lofty opportunity in the Sherrod affair that merits consideration. Here’s Charles J. Ogletree Jr., executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and Johanna Wald, the Institute’s director of strategic planning, also writing in The Washington Post:

…In some ways, Sherrod’s tale is a metaphor for this country’s aborted efforts to address race. In its entirety, her deeply moving story was about transformation and reconciliation between blacks and whites. It contained the seeds of progress and healing. She spoke of blacks and whites working together to save farms and to end poverty and suffering. But Sherrod, and those listening to her story, could get to her hopeful conclusion only by first wading through painful admissions of racial bias and struggle.
Racial inequality is perpetuated less by individuals than by structural racism and implicit bias….Implicit bias is a reality we must confront far more openly. A growing mass of compelling research reveals the unconscious racial stereotypes many of us harbor that affect our decisions. Such attitudes do not make us prejudiced; they make us human….
The good news is that structures can be dismantled and replaced and unconscious biases can be transformed, as happened to Shirley Sherrod and the family she helped, the Spooners. First, though, they must be acknowledged. We and others researching race and justice are committed to untangling the web of structures, conditions and policies that lead to unequal opportunities. Our nation has to stop denying the complexity of our racial attitudes, history and progress. Let’s tone down the rhetoric on all sides, slow down and commit to listening with less judgment and more compassion. If Americans did so, we might find that we share more common ground than we could have imagined.

Of course, politicians, as well as the media, can be excruciatingly slow learners. But the Sherrod smear ought to sound the knell for the age of MSM gullibility and general gutlessness. Surely, the time has come to put the childish things away and behave like grown-ups. As Dionne concludes

The Sherrod case should be the end of the line. If Obama hates the current media climate, he should stop overreacting to it. And the mainstream media should stop being afraid of insisting upon the difference between news and propaganda.

The one good thing about embarrassing lessons is that they are usually learned well. If it’s too much to ask of the MSM, it ought to be the only alternative for an Administration that hopes to win a second term.

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