Story pick: One phone call and racism charge evaporates
The Shirley Sherrod story is quickly becoming a classic cautionary tale about the polarized politics of our age, the act first-think later nature of behavior in this phase of the transition into digital journalism, and the human desire to gang up on someone about whom we know nothing.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture official who told an NAACP gathering about an incident in which she was less than fully helpful to a farmer simply because he was white lost her job because it appeared that she was boasting about her racism.
But as the full story emerged, Sherrod morphed from narrow-minded, bitter bureaucrat to thoughtful, self-deprecating friend of the very same farmer she had supposedly mistreated.
Now comes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with the move that should be first instinct for any reporter on such a trail: Call the people with direct knowledge and involvement. As Journal-Constitution reporters Marcus Garner and Christian Boone discovered, the truth is that the white couple in question believe they were well-served by Sherrod, and the three have remained friends ever since the original 1986 incident:
Sherrod, "kept us out of bankruptcy," said Eloise Spooner, 82, of Iron City in southwest Georgia. Spooner, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, added she considers Sherrod a "friend for life."
Lots of reporters today are quoting from the full text of the Sherrod speech, which, unlike the brief excerpt that got her in hot water earlier in the week, shows that she was only telling the Spooner story to document her own journey toward removing her racial blinders: "When I made that commitment (at age 17 years old to remain in Georgia and help people), I was making that commitment to black people, and to black people only," Sherrod said nearly 15 minutes into the recording, just seconds before the segment that brought her trouble. "But you know, God will ... put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle was really about poor people."
But the Atlanta paper is the only one I've found so far this morning that talked to both Sherrod and Spooner. The result is the story that should have come first, even in this age of minute-by-minute scooplets.
The AJC story ends like this:
Eloise Spooner said she'll stand up for her friend.
"She helped us and we're going to help them," she said.
| July 21, 2010; 10:04 AM ET
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