Breitbart is a sort of new-journalism entrepreneur who developed the Huffington Post for Adriana Huffington, but is better known as the current proprietor of various popular right-wing web sites, and the promoter of last year's controversial ACORN undercover videos. And the "context" that he had in mind was the media furor over the NAACP's call for "Tea Party leaders to repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches".
The explosive part of Breitbart's article was a video clip, a bit less than two minutes long, presented under the title "NAACP: Bigotry in their ranks". The video's content is taken from a speech at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet, 3/27/2010, given by Shirley Sherrod, who was then the US Department of Agriculture's Director of Rural Development for the state of Georgia. Graphics in the intro to this video proclaim that "Ms. Sherrod admits that in her federally appointed position, overseeing over a billion dollars, she discriminates against people due to their race". In the video, Ms. Sherrod describes what happened when a white farmer came to her for help in saving his property from foreclosure. She indeed says that that she reacted to him in racial terms, and "didn't give him the full force of what I could do".
But there's this issue of, as Mr. Breitbart says, context.
A less maliciously edited version of Ms. Sherrod's speech would provide three important pieces of context that have been omitted from Breitbart's version.
First, the events described took place in 1986, when she worked not for the U.S. Government, but for the New Communities black farm cooperative in Georgia, a private land trust that she had helped to found.
Second, in the parts of her presentation that were omitted from Breitbart's video, she describes how she came to realize that her first reactions were wrong, went on to help the farmer save his farm, and started a friendship with him and his wife that has lasted to the present time.
And third, the intended rhetorical force of the story, as she told it to the NAACP banquet earlier this year, was that racial divisions can and should be transcended: "We have to get to the point where race exists but it doesn’t matter".
Before these aspects of the context emerged, the NAACP rushed to dissociate itself from her and to condemn (what Breitbart represented as) her remarks. A day later, when the context was better understood, they took it back and apologized. But meanwhile, Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, had fired Sherrod. And so far, at least, there's no sign that the administration will take that back — and maybe she wouldn't return if they asked her to. [Update: the White House has asked for reconsideration, and both the White House and Tom Vilsack have now apologized.]
Paul Krugman explains the situation succinctly ("Fooled Again and Again and Again", NYT 7/21/2010):
It was basically as if I said, “Some people say that violence is always the answer; they’re wrong”, Fox ran with the story “Krugman says violence is always the answer”, and the Times fired me.
Indeed, Andrew Breitbart nailed it: "Context is everything". And in context, his post was a vicious lie, even though its center was a two-minute-long video of Shirley Sherrod telling a story, without (as far as i know) any internal edits. Overall, an excellent case study for a class in rhetoric, and a bad week for American politics.
A video of Shirley Sherrod's full speech:
A CNN interview with Roger and Eloise Spooner:
And another (?) interview:
Andrew Breitbart doubles down:
Some other comments:
Joan Walsh, "The shame of right-wing journalism", Salon 7/20/2010.
It's a disgraceful story with no heroes — except Sherrod and the white farmers who came forward to support her, Roger and Eloise Spooner. Caught off-guard by the right-wing frenzy over its resolution asking Tea Partiers to condemn the racists in their midst, the NAACP overreacted, took Breitbart's word about Sherrod, and denounced her. (Ben Jealous has now, rightly, apologized.) Tom Vilsack fired her. The White House insists it didn't tell Vilsack to let Sherrod go — but it won't tell him to take her back, either.
Charles Johnson, "Farmers in Sherrod case: 'She saved our land"", 7/20/2010:
I don’t know how Andrew Breitbart sleeps at night. What he did to Sherrod is beyond despicable. This was one of the most loathsome episodes of creepy right wing dishonesty I have ever witnessed.
And that’s saying plenty.
A prediction from David Frum, "Shirley Sherrod and the shame of conservative media", The Week, 7/21/2010 :
On the phone on the evening of July 20, a friend asked me: "Can Breitbart possibly survive?" I could only laugh incredulously. I answered: "Of course he'll survive, and undamaged. The incident won't matter at all." […]
When Dan Rather succumbed to the forged Bush war record hoax in 2004, CBS forced him into retirement. Breitbart is the conservative Dan Rather, but there will be no discredit, no resignation for him.
Some reactions from across the political spectrum are here: "Media across the board reject Breitbart's race-baiting lies", Media Matters 7/21/2010.
I'll note that Andrew Breitbart claims that the video clip was sent to him pre-edited, which would mean that he's merely malicious and credulous to the point of incompetence, rather than actively deceitful. On the other hand, his story about this has apparently changed over time — at one point he said that he had the whole tape but wasn't allowed to release it.