Andrew Breitbart made a mistake. Based on a two-minute video excerpt of Shirley Sherrod’s speech at an NAACP dinner last year, he accused her of practicing racism as a federal employee. He neglected to mention that in the excerpt, she was clearly talking about events in a different job 20 years ago. And when the rest of the video turned up, it proved that her story was about transcending her old racial resentment.
Well, anyone can make a mistake or two. Let’s give Breitbart one more chance. Now that he’s seen the whole speech, he has a new line of defense. What’s important in the video, he argues, isn’t Sherrod. It’s the racist reaction of the NAACP audience.
In a taped interview aired on CNN at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Breitbart told CNN’s John King that he had received the full video of the speech. He revised his position as follows:
This tape is about the NAACP. … When Shirley Sherrod is talking there in which she expresses a discriminatory attitude towards white people, the audience responds with applaud—with applause … This is asserting that the NAACP condoned racism and was caught on video. And the more video that we’ve seen that we haven’t even offered, there’s even more racism on these tapes. … What you see on the video are people in the audience, at an organization whose sole job is to fight against discrimination, and they’re applauding her overt racism that she’s representing.
Two hours later, in a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity, Breitbart added:
What this video shows … is not just that Shirley Sherrod, what she said was wrong, but that the audience was laughing and applauding as she described how she maltreated the white farmer. … The point is that the NAACP, at a dinner honoring this person, is cheering on a person describing—describing a white person as the other.
Breitbart’s Web site, BigGoverment.com, reinforced this line of attack. A post at 7 p.m. Tuesday chastised the NAACP:
Watch the video again, listen for the approval of the crowd as she talked disparagingly about the white farmer and how she sent him to one of his own for help. You see, Ms Sherrod’s story doesn’t change the fact that the NAACP audience seemed to have approved of her actions when she talked about not helping the white farmer.
Breitbart’s argument is simple and straightforward: Regardless of what else is in Sherrod’s speech, the first video released on BigGovernment.com features Sherrod telling a tale of racism that is received by the NAACP audience with laughter and cheers. They weren’t cheering redemption; they were cheering discrimination. Upon hearing the cheers, Sherrod fails to offer any immediate clarification and even smiles right along with them.
A day later, the site’s editor-in-chief, Mike Flynn, repeated the charge:
We all now know that Ms. Sherrod’s anecdote was part of a larger point about the need to move beyond racial prejudices. But the NAACP audience did not know that as they heard the speech. As Ms. Sherrod recounted the first part of her parable, how she declined to do everything she could for the farmer because of his race, the audience responded in approval. … The media would rather focus on Ms. Sherrod or Andrew Breitbart than report that leaders of a state chapter of the NAACP approved of racial discrimination.
Breitbart’s followers have parroted this indictment in messages to numerous media outlets, including National Review and Slate. But is it true? Let’s look at the video. The key section starts around 16 minutes in. I’ll quote the speech and describe the reactions from the audience, to the extent I can discern them. You can check my version by listening to the audio as you follow along. Here’s Sherrod:
When I made that commitment, I was making that commitment to black people, and to black people only. [Pause. Silence.] But, you know, God will show you things, and He’ll put things in your path so that—that you realize that the struggle [Audience: Alright] is really about poor people. [Audience: Alright, alright.]
Racial appeal met with silence; non-racial appeal met with approval. Sherrod’s next words:
You know, the first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm, he—he took a long time talking, but he was trying to show me he was superior to me. [Audience: Alright. Murmurs.] I know what he was doing. [Audience: Alright.] But he had come to me for help. [Audience: Amen.] What he didn’t know, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him. [Laughter.]
The audience seems sympathetic to Sherrod’s resentment of the farmer’s arrogance, as she perceived it. How should we interpret the laughter? Is it laughter at her power to withhold help from a white man? Or is it laughter at her power to withhold help from a guy with an attitude? The evidence so far suggests the latter: The audience has embraced an appeal for “poor people,” shunned an appeal for “black people only,” and given Sherrod her only Amen when she noted that despite the farmer’s attitude, “he had come to me for help.” But let’s keep listening.
I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. [Audience: Mm-hm.] So, I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do. [Sherrod smiles and pauses. There’s a single staccato noise somewhere in the room. No words, no laughter.] I did enough so that when he—I assumed the Department of Agriculture had sent him to me, either that or the Georgia Department of Agriculture. And he needed to go back and report that I did try to help him. [Pause. Silence.]
This time, Sherrod has mentioned only the farmer’s race, not his attitude. She delivers the crucial line—”So, I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do”—with a smile and a wry tone that invites any racist to laugh or blurt out approval. But she gets nothing. I had to listen to this clip more than a dozen times before I realized that the “applause” Breitbart describes could only be the staccato noise. To interpret this as applause, you would have to believe that a single person, representing an otherwise silent audience, suddenly decided to change the congregation’s language of affirmation from call-and-response to clapping—and just as suddenly, after a single stroke, decided to stop.
As Sherrod renounces her old attitude, the audience comes alive:
Well, working with him made me see [Audience: Mm-hm] that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t [Audience: That’s right, that’s right], you know. And they could be black, and they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people—those who don’t have access [Audience: Mm-hm] the way others have [Audience: Mm-hm].
So, let’s review the Breitbart gang’s allegations:
When … she expresses a discriminatory attitude towards white people, the audience responds with applause.False.
The NAACP … is cheering on a person describing a white person as the other. False.
The NAACP audience seemed to have approved of her actions when she talked about not helping the white farmer.False.
They weren’t cheering redemption; they were cheering discrimination. False.
As Ms. Sherrod recounted the first part of her parable, how she declined to do everything she could for the farmer because of his race, the audience responded in approval.False.
First Breitbart and his acolytes falsely accused Sherrod of discriminating against whites as a federal employee, despite having no evidence for this charge in the original video excerpt. Strike one.
Then they misrepresented Sherrod’s story as an embrace of racism, when in fact she was repudiating racism. They later pleaded ignorance of this fact because they didn’t have the full video. Strike two.
Now, with the full video in hand and posted on their Web site, they’re lying about the reaction of the NAACP audience.
The excuses are all used up, Mr. Breitbart.
Video: Andrew Breitbart’s Freakouts Caught on Tape