An indignant Anderson Cooper railed against Andrew Breitbart with an
uncharacteristic angry commentary at the top of his eponymous CNN
program yesterday, calling the conservative activist a "bully," likening
him to a "weasel," and accusing him of posting a video which was
"clearly edited to deceive and slander [Shirley] Sherrod."
Admitting he has never met Breitbart, Cooper preached, "Watching him try to weasel his way out of taking responsibility for what he did to Ms. Sherrod today is a classic example of what is wrong with our national discourse."
After pointing out that Breitbart should have apologized for posting an out-of-context video that made Sherrod, a black woman working at the Department of Agriculture, appear racist toward white farmers, Cooper dismissed the publisher of BigGovernment.com as a ideologue who will never own his mistakes: "Today, Mr. Breitbart could have just apologized, said he was wrong, but he didn't. Bullies never do. And nor do ideologues in our divided country." It's strange that Cooper would demand honesty in our discourse and then suggest he's not one of those "ideologues." As if he never snarkily attacked "teabaggers ."
The CNN anchor also admonished rival cable news networks for reporting only "on the stories that suit their slant." Employing the phrase "the truth matters" three times in the first five minutes of the broadcast, Cooper's self-righteous screed against his cable news competitors came just hours after CNN analyst David Gergen compared Sherrod, who had been jobless for about 48 hours, to Nelson Mandela, a "larger-than-life figure" who spent 27 years as a political prisoner before becoming the first black president of South Africa.
While media outlets meticulously review the full context of Sherrod's remarks - as they should - Cooper ignores the context of Breitbart's post. On Tuesday, Breitbart told Talking Points Memo , a liberal blog, that his source sent him the edited clips and he did not have the full video. Breitbart was certainly guilty of posting the video before he could watch the entire speech, but this statement refutes Cooper's claim that he edited the video himself to deceive viewers and "smear" Sherrod. Not once in his monologue did Cooper consider the possibility that Breitbart made an egregious yet honest mistake.
Criticizing Breitbart for shoddy journalism is fair, but Cooper's accusation that Breitbart intentionally took Sherrod's remarks out of context is baseless. In fact, it is just the sort of baseless accusation that Cooper crusaded against in his commentary. Taken in its full context, nothing in the video suggests Sherrod is racist. At the same time, while the full context of Breitbart's post reveals careless reporting, it does not necessarily prove malicious intent.
A transcript of the relevant segment of the program can be found below:
10:00 P.M. E.S.T.
ANDERSON COOPER: But we begin tonight with the smear - the smearing of Shirley Sherrod. Well, the White House apologized to her today. So did the guy who fired her. And she has been offered a new job. We'll talk to her in a minute to see if she is going to accept that job. But the damage has been done. And a woman who gave a speech about the change in her outlook and her heart has been dragged through the mud and has had to prove she is not a racist. This can happen to anyone. And it's not right. Imagine it happening to you. The truth is, it can happen to anyone, and the truth does matter. But we live in an age where that simple fact is increasingly lost, as people on the right and the left, people who view things through the prism of politics and ideology, seek to score points by scoring scalps. Cable news is part of the problem. There is no doubt about that; the left and the right have their own anchors who only report on the stories that suit their slant. That's their right. But we think the truth matters. It's even worse on the Internet, where there are no standards and where anonymity allows for the cruelest expressions of vitriol and hate.
Now, if you watched much of the coverage of Shirley Sherrod today, what seems to have been lost in much of it is the man who first posted this video, which was clearly edited to deceive and slander Ms. Sherrod. His name is Andrew Breitbart. Now, I don't know him. I have never met him. But watching him try to weasel his way out of taking responsibility for what he did to Ms. Sherrod today is a classic example of what is wrong with our national discourse. Andrew Breitbart is a conservative, but of course there are liberals who are just as narrowed-minded and who also refuse to admit when they are wrong. Breitbart posted the clip on Monday on his Web site. Nearly everything Mr. Breitbart said about Shirley Sherrod was either wrong or somehow slanted to make a larger point about racism in the NAACP. And he initially said her speech showed a government official who allowed racist views to influence her work with a white farmer. But we now know it was a speech about her change of heart 24 years ago, when she wasn't even at the USDA.
Today, Mr. Breitbart could have just apologized, said he was wrong, but he didn't. Bullies never do. And nor do ideologues in our divided country. Instead, he now claims this was never about Ms. Sherrod; it was about the NAACP and what he says is their racism based on the audience's reaction to her speech. Here is what he said last night on "JOHN KING, USA".
ANDREW BREITBART, Publisher, BigGovernment.com: This tape is about the NAACP. Its raison d'etre is about non-discrimination. And when Shirley Sherrod is talking there in which she expresses a discriminatory attitude towards white people, the audience responds with applaud - with applause - and the NAACP agrees with me. And it rebuked her.
COOPER: Well, the fact is, there was no applause when Ms. Sherrod was talking about the white farmer. And we'll talk to members of the audience who were there that night about the reaction that they saw and heard and that they, themselves, had. Now Breitbart also said today that there were cheers over racist comments. Again, the facts do not bear him out. The truth matters. Now, the closest Mr. Breitbart came to an apology today was this comment.
BREITBART: I feel bad that they made this about her. And I feel sorry that they made this about her. I'm not sure if that was done because they rushed to judgment or whether they wanted to make it about Shirley versus me, because that's what it's become.
COOPER: He goes on to say he's sympathetic to what Ms. Sherrod has gone through. Notice the passive voice here, because - his words - quote, "They went after her, and not the NAACP." It's like the arsonist saying, I'm sorry, ma'am, for the water damage done by firefighters." He started the fire. Andrew Breitbart said the clip he first posted proved black racism happening now at the USDA and the NAACP. It didn't. He said it proved racism in the crowd. You can decide for yourself about that. We'll play you the tape and you'll talk - we will hear from audience members. He claims to feel sorry for the victim, but blames others acting on his misleading information for hurting her. It was a phony story. It isn't the first and it isn't the first about race. But why let the truth stop you, when you're making political points? That's the way a lot of people seem to think these days on left and the right. Now, you can blame the media for acting as a conveyor belt. You can blame the Obama administration for being hyper-sensitive about race. Race baiters, smear artists and game-players have learned that trumped-up stories about race pay off, because people care about race. But they care more, we think, about the truth. And the truth matters. It certainly does to Shirley Sherrod and certainly should to all of us.
-Alex Fitzsimmons is a News Analysis intern at the Media Research Center.