Blogger Andrew Breitbart's hard-learned lessons
If a courtroom trial is a contest between dueling narratives, Shirley Sherrod's lawsuit against Andrew Breitbart reads like Little Nell taking on Snidely Whiplash.
That is, unless you're hearing about the case in conservative media. There Little Nell grows fangs and bites poor Snidely while he's saving the world from government bloodsuckers.
Sherrod is suing the conservative blogger Breitbart for a misleading video clip that Breitbart posted on one of the websites he owns.
As you may recall, she lost her job in July as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's director of rural development in Georgia as a result of the clip. It purported to show Sherrod, an African-American, delivering racist remarks to an approving crowd at an NAACP dinner in Georgia. "In her meandering speech to what appears to be an all-black audience," Breitbart wrote, "this federally appointed executive bureaucrat lays out in stark detail, that her federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions."
In what appears to have been a ham-handed attempt to avoid castigation by the carping prime-time conservatives at Fox News Channel, Obama administration officials fired Sherrod by cell phone on her way home from work without any opportunity to defend herself.
Alas, after the NAACP released video of the rest of the speech, Breitbart's description turned out to be stunningly false. Instead of encouraging racial discrimination, her speech condemned it. She also was backed up by the white family she described in her speech. In interviews, they praised her as a "hero" who helped them to save their farm.
The family had helped Sherrod to learn through experience to judge her clients by their needs, not their color, Sherrod said. If that's what Breitbart means by managing "through the prism of race and class distinctions," it doesn't sound so bad to me.
Her bosses agreed. They offered apologies and a new job, which she has not taken. On Feb. 11 she filed suit in federal court in the District of Columbia against Breitbart for defamation, false light and infliction of emotional distress.
Since defamation is generally defined as a statement that falsely holds someone up to ridicule or condemnation, she would appear to have a good case. Yet, in the interest of free speech, libel law gives wide latitude even to erroneous statements that are made without apparent malice, legal experts say.
Plus, Sherrod as a public official has an extra high burden of proof. "[Sherrod] has to demonstrate not just that he did it, but that he knew what he was doing was false [or] would leave a false impression about what she had said," Floyd Abrams, one the nation's top media rights lawyers, told a Salon website interviewer, "or [that he] had some serious doubts about what he was doing."
That's tricky. Having known and followed Breitbart for several years, I have not known him to have serious doubt about much of anything that he ever does, even when I happen to think he's dead wrong.
Should bloggers be held to lower expectations of accountability than those of us who toil in the old-school mainstream media? Questions like that could make this a landmark case, if it gets to trial.
When I contacted Breitbart by phone, he understandably declined to comment on the substance of the pending legal action, but he was delighted to raise suspicions about Sherrod's timing. Although he had no hard evidence to back it up, he raised the possibility that Sherrod might only be suing to distract attention from another issue Breitbart has been pursuing, a lawsuit called Pigford v. Glickman that black farmers filed against the Agriculture Department.
Sherrod has not been charged with wrongdoing, but Breitbart and documentary filmmaker Lee Stranahan, with whom Breitbart is working, have interviewed black farmers who complain that she could have done more to help them before she left her government post.
But could Breitbart be latching on to the Pigford case to distract from his own blunders with Sherrod? He denied that. Instead, when I asked him what he might personally have learned from the Sherrod experience, he said after a long, thoughtful pause that he had learned a new respect for investigative reporters and the "really hard work" that they do in nailing down facts. Good. I hope their example makes him a better reporter.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.