Stifled by Soundbites
Cose, Ellis, Newsweek
Byline: Ellis Cose
The Sherrod brouhaha is distressing evidence of why we can't have an honest public discourse about race.
Taken on its merits and in context, it was a beautiful tale of redemption and reconciliation: a story of one woman's journey from anger to compassion. But in the end, it became something infinitely less lovely: a sign of the stupidity of soundbite culture, of the pitfalls of racial hypersensitivity, and, perhaps most sadly, of the difficulty--indeed, maybe even the impossibility--of having (in this society, at this moment) a truly honest public discourse about race.
The woman at the center of the storm, Shirley Sherrod, was an unsung Department of Agriculture employee until a clip posted on a conservative Web site seemed to show her admitting bias against whites. Conservative talk-show hosts bayed for blood; Sherrod was forced to resign. (The matter was deemed so urgent that she was ordered to pull to the side of the road and compose the resignation letter on her BlackBerry.) Then, when the full-length video of her speech revealed that instead of discriminating against a white couple, she had gone out of her way to help save their farm, Sherrod was swamped with apologies, was offered a new job at the USDA, and received a seven-minute phone call from President Obama.
The American public, meanwhile, was left to wonder what the moral of this tale really is. For starters, it's about the idiocy that can follow when ideology replaces journalistic integrity. Real journalists draw conclusions from facts. The ideologues who attacked Sherrod forced facts to fit their preconceived notions.
But this state of affairs in the U.S. media has broader and more insidious repercussions, as Charles Ogletree, one of Obama's professors at Harvard Law School, makes clear in a new book. The Presumption of Guilt is an exhaustive account of the events that led to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who initially was suspected of breaking into a home that turned out to be his. After Obama criticized the Cambridge, Mass., police for acting "stupidly," conservative talkers exploded in rage, accusing the president of being a racist himself. The ensuing controversy threatened to derail Obama's health-care package. The White House tamped it down with a silly "beer summit" between Gates and the arresting cop. …