Friday, September 24, 2010

Tick, tock

In less than three hours, one blog post can end a career.

Or at least that’s how long it took when Andrew Breitbart posted a drastically edited video of Shirley Sherrod’s speech at an NAACP event in Georgia. The video appeared to show Sherrod -- a black woman, and U.S. Agriculture Department official – making racist remarks against a white farmer.

Approximately one hour after the original blog post, had picked up the video, citing Breitbart as its source.

By 2pm, Sherrod had resigned.

It didn’t stop there. Politically conservative cable news stations and websites jumped on the story. The NAACP president, Ben Jealous, Tweeted his condemnation of Sherrod’s remark. Most horrifying, the Obama administration accepted Sherrod’s resignation without calling for an investigation into the whole truth.

In the old days – a mere 15 years ago – the Sherrod story may never have been available for public consumption. The head of a news desk – for broadcast or print – would have viewed the video and most likely insisted on seeing the entire thing rather than airing a snippet provided by an anonymous source. There would have been an editorial process and, perhaps, someone may have even decided that this story wasn’t worth a precious 30-second spot on the evening news or a column in the next morning’s paper. In fact, that’s almost exactly what happened at the nation’s three national broadcast stations (ABC, NBC and CBS), which did not air the Sherrod story the first night, waiting to gather more facts.

Traditional news sources uncovered the unedited video within a day. Sherrod was then able to tell her side of the story on various news programs. Her message of transcending racism and working together was finally transmitted - albeit muffled - across the headlines, airwaves and blogosphere. Apologies from Jealous and even President Obama rolled in.

But, by then, it was too late. Shirley Sherrod was already out of a job.

Today, bloggers are wielding extraordinary power in their capacity for cheap, instant global publication. It is the perfect manifestation of the First Amendment – giving the most ordinary citizens the power to say whatever they want to whomever they want – and to read whatever they want, whenever they want.

The Sherrod incident illustrates everything that is wrong with the media: how the race to be the first to break a story leads to bad reporting, and how the rise in blogging has meant a rise in credence given to bad information. Accurate reporting and all of its fact-checking takes time – something no news outlet has when they are consistently being scooped by other media sources like blogs.

But the Sherrod incident also is a harbinger of what may be to come. The important part of that story is that most traditional outlets – including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal – refused to be baited into bad journalism. They held the story, and walked away untarnished, when even the president could not.

If blogs want to continue breaking news, they need to get the facts straight. They owe it to their readers who are clicking on their ads, driving their revenues and forwarding their links to expand readership. Otherwise, the savvy media-consuming public will start lumping them together with the rest of traditional media.

* served as the source for the timeline of this blog post.

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