The whirlwind surrounding Shirley Sherrod – whom the Department of Agriculture fired and then promptly apologized to last week – is more than just a story of race, politics, and bureaucracy.
Indeed, the most important lesson from the Sherrod affair may actually concern the media, the 24-hour beast that scoops up stories, tosses them around, and then – just as impetuously – drops them.
The Sherrod saga began, not surprisingly, on the Internet, where a blogger posted part of speech that the Department of Agriculture employee had made in March – a clip in which Sherrod appeared reluctant to help white farmers in the same way she helped black farmers.
On July 20, Fox News aired pieces of the speech, and by Tuesday Sherrod had transformed into a media sensation, tracked down by MSNBC, CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN, among others. CNN went so far as to stick a camera in Sherrod’s face to catch her reaction as Secretary Robert Gibbs discussed her employment status during the White House’s daily briefing.
Ultimately, the government and media both discovered that Sherrod's speech chronicled her realization that helping all poor farmers - regardless of race - was an essential part of her mission.
Of course, we’ve seen this sort of manic movie before. We saw it last year, when Cambridge police Sergeant James Crowley arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, and the media became consumed, pushing aside news of Afghanistan and Iraq to breathlessly prepare the nation for a Crowley-Gates-Obama beer summit.
In July of 2009, we probably heard more about the summit-goers’ drink choices than the Taliban (Bud light for Obama, Blue Moon for Crowley, and Sam Adams light for Gates – in case you were wondering).
And we’ve seem the same sort of obsessive pattern in the coverage of Rielle Hunter, Ward Churchill, Casey Anthony, and, most recently, Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan.
When these stories break, wars almost cease to matter. Economic malaise remains uncovered. Educational reform fades away.
Last week, on the very day that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called to apologize to Shirley Sherrod, the President signed a major financial overhaul bill, a bill that will create significant changes in regulation and oversight, affecting how mortgage lenders, banks, and credit card companies do business.
It’s a law that will remain with us long after we have forgotten about the media maelstrom engulfing Shirley Sherrod, a law that changed the nation the day it was signed.
But its provisions and protections may remain a mystery to most Americans. After all, something else was on television that day.
This commentary originally aired on 89.7 WGBH.
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