News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

July 24, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Partial information, instant judgment — it’s such a rush

I love judgmentalism — it’s a sport … I like judging. I like judging! Let me judge.

— Internet media mogul Andrew Breitbart in the New Yorker

If I’m Andrew Brietbart, why would I ever apologize for sliming Shirley Sherrod? In a culture in which verbally facile people are paid boat loads of money to rush to judgment — and publicly pronounce sentence in as smart-assed a manner as possible — what’s the upside to saying, “I was wrong. I’m sorry”?

Especially to a mid-level member of the Agriculture Department?

Sherrod, of course, went from bureaucratic obscurity to household name last week when a speech she had given to an NAACP chapter was edited to portray her as a black racist. The video was then posted by Breitbart with vitriolic comment on one of his many conservative web sites and flagged to Fox News, which could not get it on the air fast enough for condemnation.

The NAACP and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reacted with equally alarming and under-informed speed. Monday, Sherrod was denounced by national NAACP executives and, despite her protests of innocence, forced to resign (via BlackBerry on the shoulder of a highway) from her position as rural development director of Georgia.

When her full speech was posted on the Web the day after, it became obvious that Sherrod had related a story of overcoming her own prejudice — her father reportedly was killed in a racially motivated crime — not bragged about giving a poor white farm couple short shrift.

In affirmation, the white farmers, who actually had been helped by Sherrod, spoke up in her defense to reporters all over the country.

Breitbart’s initial reaction was to say he was a victim of fraud by whomever passed the edited video clip to him. He corrected a time element in his original blast — the farm anecdote occurred while Sherrod worked for a non-profit, not the Ag department — and posted more of her speech.

But as the week wore on and visitors swarmed to Breitbart.com, right-wing pundits leapt to his side. Some parsed anew every line of Sherrod’s full speech, inferred prejudice from her audience’s reaction or insisted that her use of the present tense in parts of the farmer story proved she really is a black racist.

By week’s end, Sherrod had been showered with NAACP and Obama administration apologies and offered a new job in the Agriculture Department. Breitbart, meanwhile, was protecting the identity of his video source and declaring that liberal news media had used a couple of errors to shift attention to him from their own double standard for reporting on racism.

Breitbart also had returned to an aggressive stance against Sherrod. On Tuesday, he had emphasized that his beef was with the NAACP and he’d never suggested she be fired. By Friday, he told Politico that Sherrod’s speech demonstrates “this person has not gotten past black versus white.”

In a telephone interview with Politico’s Kenneth Vogel, Breitbart said, “I am public enemy No. 1 or 2 to the Democratic Party, the progressive movement and the Obama administration, based upon the success my journalism has had.”

No wonder Politico recently named Breitbart one of its “50 Politicos to Watch,” praising his “wit” and “edge.” Wit and edge — especially edge — are the currency of the realm in opinion journalism, which is the brand of the profession Breitbart practices.

As for the realm of opinion among the general population, wit and edge aren’t necessary — any more than accuracy and context are necessary. What really matters is the speed at which citizens weigh in on a subject and the passion with which they condemn or defend it.

This is America 2010, after all. Who wants to wait around while someone checks facts or obtains the whole story? That can take days, even weeks. All those instant polls on TV, radio the ’net and our cell phones? How could we vote if we paused long enough to get more than a sound bite accusation?

Whether it’s the food we order in a restaurant, the roads and highways we travel or the lives we want to build, we just don’t like waiting around for mission accomplished. Careful deliberation is for juries — unless Nancy Grace tells us they blew the case. Then we can second-guess 12 people we never met, based not on all the testimony they heard, but on our gut reaction to the verdict they rendered.

When Agriculture secretary Vilsack reversed his decision and apologized to Sherrod, he said the firing “was a decision I regret having made in haste.” The same day, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged that the administration had reacted without having all the pertinent information.

In a news conference, Gibbs spoke of a “frenzied culture where everything happens so quickly.” He told the White House press corps that everyone involved in the Sherrod affair should “ask themselves, How did we get into this? How did we not ask the right questions? How did you all not ask the right questions?”

Um, because that’s just the way we all do it these days?

Whatever the socio-political causes, we Americans, from the White House to our own house, have surpassed a rush to judgment. We now display an instinct to judge. Based on fragments, shards and snapshots of information — an irritable checkout clerk, a dawdling driver, a crying child, a standoffish church member, a hyperactive colleague — we fill in the blanks with made up facts from our imagination. And we judge, judge, judge.

Once in a great while, if and when we’re proven wrong and can’t wriggle out of it, we might admit, like Vilsack, that we made a regrettable judgment in haste. Most of the time, though, we don’t because saying, “I was wrong. I’m sorry,” is even harder than waiting around.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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