Cutting to Size

Written by Hazel Weiser

Bloggers are not journalists, and what bloggers write (including what I am writing in this post) should not be mischaracterized as principled, researched reporting.

Journalists are trained to discover facts and put together a version of a story based upon those facts, with a responsibility to include even those facts that don’t quite seem to fit into a neat picture.  Bloggers are often ideologues who want to prove a point by selectively using facts.

Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, courtesy of Wikicommons

Andrew Breitbart is not a journalist.  He wasn’t a journalist when he released the neatly edited videotaped interviews that brought down ACORN.  He isn’t a journalist now when he doctored a videotape of USDA worker Shirley Sherrod allegedly bashing white people.

How a blogger gets such easy access to media outlets, which in turn, have the power to insist on instantaneous comments from public officials, should be the subject of inquiry within the corporate offices of every television, radio and newspaper outlet, within government, and among ourselves.  Unfortunately, according to Leslie Savan, writing for The Nation, it isn’t.

Instead the talk among the pundits is about reverse racism, whatever that means.

This sounds very familiar.  Just last summer, now Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was subjected to a similar barrage of accusations of reverse racism, after the judicial activism characterization and then the “wise Latina” crack were plastered all over Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and beyond.  In a thoughtful piece in the October 2009 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Mark Bowden traces the origins of the release of these snippets that almost blew her confirmation.  Morgen Richmond and John Sexton, two friends and political conservatives with a then barely read website VerumSerum.com, had been hunting for material to use against Sotomayor as soon as her name was whispered as a possible first Obama nominee to the Supreme Court.  Richmond learned that universities have libraries of videotaped talks that no one really pays much attention to.  He did, and found the tape of the 2005 Duke University Law School panel where Sotomayor spoke.  The panel was hardly interesting to him until he heard Sotomayor mention that students who are interested in careers in academia or public interest law should try to clerk with an appellate court judge because that is where policy is made.  He cut a slim snippet out of the 51 minute long video and posted it on YouTube.  It was picked up by Volokh.com and HotAir.com, and then aired on television by Fox News opinionizer Sean Hannity.

A slightly different, but almost exactly the same story surrounds the “wise Latina” comment.  Richmond found that in a 2002 UC Berkeley speech in the university video archives, and once again, took what he wanted out of context, and posted it.  According to Bowden from his analysis of the archives, her comment was that a “wise Latina woman” could make a better judgment than a “white male who hasn’t lived that life” when serving as a judge in cases involving racial and sexual discrimination.  “Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences… our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging,” she said.  Seen in context, there is no reverse racism anywhere in her insight.  It’s just plain common sense that we see the world through the lens of our own experience.

That Shirley Sherrod lost her job and now has a whole host of very important folks apologizing to her, and that Justice Sotomayor almost skipped joining the Supreme Court is horrifying evidence of the failure of our alleged legitimate media to act like journalists and not like snake oil salesmen at a county fair.  The twenty-four hour news cycle is no excuse.  Seeing is not believing until we see the full context of quotations and comments.  Furthermore, public figures like Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack should not comment on things about which they know nothing.  In doing so, they ignore the reality that their words and actions validate efforts to make news about reverse racism instead of about a competent government employee’s acts of compassion.