Media Culpa: Shirley Sherrod and the Politics of the Public Apology


It seems everyone and their momma is serving up a healthy slice of humble pie to Ms. Shirley Sherrod.  The apologies are coming  fast, frequently, and from on high—as even The POTUS expressed regret for what had to be a demoralizing experience for Ms. Sherrod. In the wake of the initial firestorm and then subsequent reframing, Sherrod has gone from private citizen, to public figure, to vilified public figure, finally arriving at redeemed public servant—all in less than 48 hours.

What is remarkable about this story—outside of the real questions it raises about the progress of race relations in our country—is the speed in which it took hold in the common conscience, garnered largely uniform opinion in the press and then in a matter of media moments was squarely redefined. It is also reframed the notion of the public apology, something we certainly associate with political and public officials—but is so often tied to expressions of regret about personal transgressions, such as infidelity or misuse of campaign funds.

I had not even understood the original narrative in its entirety, before its authenticity was largely being refuted. A conservative activist posts a  video to YouTube of an official with the Department of Agriculture seemingly suggesting blatant racial bias against whites in her handling of farm aid cases.  Within a day the public and the media got a chance to see the speech in context and the narrative is reframed.

We learn the remarks were taken from a speech in which Sherrod shows how she battled feelings of intolerance to arrive at a social justice oriented understanding of how poverty adversely effects quality of life and productivity of all persons, regardless of race. She took this believe to form the guiding mission of her life: helping those regardless of race survive.  Accordingly. the once thought bigot becomes an exemplar of racial transcendence for the nation—all within a matter of a few days.

When The President apologizes to a more or less private citizen for the rush to judgment of an entire nation; one cannot deny that these are new and different times.  Viral videos, social networking, the blogosphere, and really the entire world of new media has changed the game for the conventions of traditional journalism to be practiced.  The trust then verify journalistic model has been replaced by the the trust, publish react, and perhaps verify model.

It is important we try to negotiate the wild, wild west of web journalism in ways that incentivize fact checking, verification, and neutrality. It is equally important that we do not hide the motivations of those forming public opinion, but encourage transparency among thought leaders and political taste makers.

So what do we think? Does Ms. Sherrod deserve the full-court press and  public apology tour that the administration is encouraging or should she should simply retire from public life, after this insane incident and in the interim allow her evolved feelings about intolerance and injustice to become a teachable moment for the entire nation?

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1 Comment

  1. […] Just the previous week, we saw former Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod being taken to tasks for being a racist, after doctored video of a speech she gave to the NAACP was posted to the Internet.  The power […]


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