Truth in a digital age

The story of Shirley Sherrod, a US Department of Agriculture official recently fired for allegedly making racist remarks in a speech to the NAACP, is a cautionary tale about the fragility of truth in a digital age. Shortly after a conservative blogger posted excerpts of a video in which Sherrod recounted her unwillingness to help a white farmer, she was sacked by the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. In fact, the anecdote in question was part of a much longer speech in which Sherrod was stressing the need for officials like her to resist prejudicial attitudes in their professional lives. Restored to its proper context, the speech would have shown that not only did Sherrod approve aid to the farmer, but she eventually wound up saving his farm.

The Obama administration learned of their mistake after Sherrod had been fired and could only issue a belated apology.  Trying to explain Vilsack’s response, President Obama subsequently told ABC News “He jumped the gun, partly because we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles.” After various apologies, Sherrod was offered another job with the Department of Agriculture.

In 1961, Daniel Boorstin, an eminent librarian and former director of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote a prophetic book about the ways that broadcast media decontextualize facts and obscure their original meanings. Anyone reading The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America could be forgiven for thinking that it was written last week. Almost every page contains a comment that could be about half a dozen recent headlines. One of Boorstin’s main themes is the media’s willingness to feed our extravagant appetite for novelty. “Demanding more than the world can give us,” he warns, “we require that something be fabricated to make up for the world’s deficiency. This is only one example of our demand for illusions.” In Sherrod’s case, part of the subtext of the illusion is the current US right wing crusade against groups like the NAACP, on the bizarre grounds that they promote discrimination. Incensed by the president’s ability to survive their wildest smears (last week the North Iowa Tea Party paid for a billboard that explicitly compared Obama to Hitler and Lenin), the malcontents have had to settle for smaller targets.

Ironically, the illusion of Sherrod’s bigotry concealed a far more arresting truth. Having grown up under Jim Crow laws, her idea of racism was far from abstract speculation. In fact her father was murdered by a white racist who was never prosecuted. All of this ought to have underscored the value of her rejection of prejudice, especially in front of an audience that would have had profound sympathy for her backstory. But the media preferred to go with the simple, morally uncomplicated idea that someone who seems to be making a racist remark must be racist. In the digital age, distortions like this are becoming the rule not the exception. Jeremiah Wright, the most famous casualty of widely broadcast video excerpts, is another instructive example. In his recent biography of Obama, the New Yorker editor David Remnick places  Wright’s infamous “God Damn America” in an illuminating context. The offending phrase was actually derived from a sermon by the white preacher Tony Campolo, whose searing denunciation of America’s indifference to suffering in the developing world had caught Wright’s eye. In its original context, Wright’s condemnation was an attempt to shock his congregation out of its passive attitudes, but all that survived in the portions broadcast ad nauseam on Fox News and the internet were his anger, supposedly at white America.

The media guru Marshall McLuhan wrote that “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or powers of perception steadily and without any resistance.” In other words, our habitual consumption of tidbits of news may eventually leave us permanently incapable of digesting more substantial portions of relevant information.  It is a timely warning for everyone who lives in the age of YouTube.

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