By Eric Hananoki
Media Matters for America
Don’t trust Andrew Breitbart.
It’s a phrase Media Matters has been repeating ever since the conservative web publisher burst onto the national stage by coordinating the release of deceptively edited tapes purporting to show "illegal activities" and criminality by ACORN employees.
Breitbart’s ACORN claims fell apart: after the media firestorm died down, multiple investigations found no evidence of criminality in the "severely edited" ACORN tapes. In other words, countless hours of hysterical news coverage did little more than promote meaningless videos, while propping up Breitbart as the leader of conservative new media journalism.
A similar debacle played out again this week, as Breitbart released another bogus tape, this time smearing (then-) USDA official Shirley Sherrod. The video, Breitbart boasted in a Monday post on BigGovernment.com, showed "evidence of racism coming from a federal appointee and NAACP award recipient" "against a white farmer," and that Sherrod’s "federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions." Breitbart opened his post: "Context is everything."
Fox News and the conservative media initially lauded Breitbart’s "great work." Fox Business host David Asman hailed the video from "our friend" as the "triumph of Andrew Breitbart over the establishment." Unfortunately, even members of the Obama administration gave it credence and forced the resignation of Sherrod.
Breitbart’s triumph, however, was short-lived. As conservative blogger Allahpundit wondered when the video was released, "Doesn’t it sound like Sherrod was building to a ‘but’ before the clip cut out?" The alleged victims of Sherrod’s racism, Roger and Eloise Spooner, told CNN that those who were smearing her as racist "don’t know what they’re talking about," and that Sherrod did "her level best" to help them successfully save their farm. And on Tuesday evening, the NAACP released the full video of Sherrod remarks, which exonerated her and showed that Breitbart’s descriptions were false. Sherrod was speaking about her actions 24 years ago (not during the Obama administration), and was telling a tale about learning that she needed "to work to help poor people" regardless of whether they were black, white, or Hispanic.
Breitbart, apparently operating without having "slept in 40 hours," doubled down on his heavily edited clip and even bizarrely suggested that the farmer’s wife was a plant. Breitbart also offered an avalanche of false claims about his original story, like his scoop wasn’t actually "about Shirley Sherrod," and that the real story is racism in the NAACP, as evidenced by supposed "applauding as [Sherrod] described how she maltreated the white farmer." Throughout his flailings, Breitbart never offered an apology to Sherrod.
Fox News similarly circled the wagons. On Tuesday, Special Report anchor Bret Baier absurdly claimed, "Fox News didn’t even do the story" on Sherrod. On Thursday, Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy claimed that the "Fox News Channel" didn’t touch the story "until she had actually quit." A Los Angeles Times article that day reported that Fox News senior vice president Michael Clemente defended the channel’s coverage by claiming he "urged the staff to first get the facts and obtain comment from Sherrod before going on air." However, Fox News commentators ran with the story before getting all "the facts," and reporters for FoxNews.com published a story based on the deceptively edited video before Sherrod resigned and without comment from her.
Even after the facts came out, Fox News personalities continued to attack Sherrod. Juliet Huddy claimed that Sherrod’s "incriminating" "present tense" statements still "raise questions" about whether she should be federally employed. Glenn Beck said that Sherrod "obviously has some sort of Marxist or redistributionist qualities to her." Dick Morris said employing Sherrod is like "having Reverend Wright on staff." And Fox News contributor Monica Crowley suggested Sherrod may be among "radicals, racists, socialists" in Obama administration.
Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and Rush Limbaugh even ludicrously speculated that Breitbart and the conservative media may have been the victim of a "set-up" "orchestrated" by the White House.
After Breitbart’s implosion, some — but certainly not all — in the media correctly noted that the case illustrates that Breitbart has no credibility. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell said, "I think [Breitbart] has lost his standing to present videos to the country at any time." CNN’s Anderson Cooper said that Breitbart’s actions are "a classic example of what is wrong with our national discourse." Politico’s Ben Smith noted, "Breitbart’s sites now have a growing credibility problem."
In the end, Breitbart is Breitbart. This was not his first dishonest video, and it won’t be his last.
The question is whether Fox "friend" Breitbart’s scoops about supposed misdeeds will still be given prominent news coverage, and taken as fact. As MSNBC.com’s First Read wrote, "you would have thought that all of us in the ACTUAL news business would have learned this lesson about Andrew Breitbart and his protégés: They’re not out for the truth; they’re out for scalps."
Fox News anchor Shep Smith, frequently the station’s lone voice of reason, may have been speaking to his colleagues (once again) when he said on Wednesday that he declined to run the story "because of the history of videos on the site where it was posted. In short, we did not and do not trust the source."
The way to avoid another ACORN or Sherrod debacle is simple: Don’t trust Andrew Breitbart.
Fox News’ tea party boosterism backfires
Breitbart hasn’t been the only Fox News friend to have a bad week.
On July 14, Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams wrote a "newly discovered letter" from NAACP president "Precious Ben Jealous" to Abraham Lincoln which portrayed blacks as lazy and Jealous as supporting the repeal of civil-rights laws so that "massa" would again take care of blacks. The letter was subsequently condemned by both Republicans and Democrats as offensive, and led to the expulsion of the TPE from the National Tea Party Federation. Today, Williams "completely cut his ties to the Tea Party Express" and resigned.
The uproar marks a low-point for the relatively new Tea Party Express after it shot onto the national stage thanks to Fox News (sound familiar?).
In August 2009, when the group kicked off its first tour, the TPE became the most visible tea party organization on Fox News, appearing on countless programs. Front and center was Mark Williams, then-chairman of the group. Fox News regularly gave viewers the dates and locations of rallies, with one reporter saying she wanted "to let folks know" their schedule so "they can be a part" of events. Another "reporter" was embedded on the group’s bus and gave such fawning reports that a colleague called him a "Tea Party groupie." Fox News offered similarly positive coverage for the group’s second and third tours in the fall and spring.
As Media Matters documented, Fox News has openly admitted being the voice of the opposition against the administration. It was natural, then, that Fox News fostered the tea party movement, and defended it from criticism for being pseudo-grassroots and pushing incendiary and racist rhetoric. But if Fox News’ intention was to present the tea parties as an independent and reasonable voice for fiscal conservatism, they partnered with the wrong group.
Politico’s Ken Vogel noted that the Tea Party Express was started by Republican operatives with the intent of cashing in on the tea party movement. Vogel also reported that "even before the Express launched, [Tea Party Express’s coordinator Joe] Wierzbicki worried about having Williams — along with another PAC figure, Deborah Johns — as movement figureheads. ‘Sure wish Mark and Deborah were just a bit more sophisticated and experienced and ‘presentable,’ Wierzbicki wrote to a colleague last summer."
Indeed, Williams appears to come from the Ann Coulter School of Punditry, where graduates are purposely controversial in order to garner publicity and money. In recent years, Williams has claimed: Presidents Obama and Carter are "Nazis"; the NAACP makes "more money off of race than any slave trader ever"; Allah is a "monkey god"; Obama is "Our Half White, Racist President"; Obama is an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug turned anointed"; Obama is "engaging in nothing different than did mass murders like Stalin and Pol Pot"; Obama’s raping the country; Obama wants death panels like Nazi experiments; voting Democrat may result in a nuclear holocaust; President Carter is a "creepy little faggot"; and — deep breath — Obama lacks a valid birth certificate.
Williams, who’s received tens of thousands of dollars in "consulting" fees from Our Country Deserves Better PAC, appears to enjoy the attention, telling Dave Weigel in April: "I’m accustomed to being a pin cushion and a lightning rod … That’s one of the things I bring to the table." (Spouting hateful remarks has also earned Williams frequent guest spots on CNN, where Williams has defended his indefensible remarks — then been invited back anyway.)
Yet as indicated this week, other members of the tea party movement don’t enjoy the attention — especially in the wake of the NAACP resolution condemning racist elements within the tea parties. Ironically, the very spokesman propped up by Fox News to speak for the tea parties proved that the movement has racist elements within it.
It really hasn’t been a good week for Fox News friends Mark Williams and Andrew Breitbart.
This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Media Matters research fellow Eric Hananoki.