Last September, Fox News embraced a series of videos released by Andrew Breitbart that purported to expose ACORN, the national grassroots advocacy group, as fraudulently seeking governmental services for folks disguised as pimps and prostitutes. The ensuing rapid fire media reaction and the political firestorm it created drove ACORN to its knees, and it was quickly abandoned by its progressive allies, funders and supporters. All of this occurred long before the context and facts were investigated or evaluated, and the video "stings" were exposed as having been edited to misrepresent the alleged "facts" by both our independent report, "An Independent Governance Assessment of ACORN: A Path to Meaningful Reform", and the Public Editor's March 21, 2010 column in the New York Times.
The Shirley Sherrod incident that has played out in prime time this week has had all of the same elements and ingredients. The same conservative blogger -- Breitbart; the same network -- Fox News; the same kind of edited video -- again involving race. This apparently proved that the Department of Agriculture was engaged in illegal, fraudulent activities that were known and supported by NAACP and democratic and progressive leaders, including the Obama administration. This time, though, it backfired -- because the "victim" struck back immediately with the full facts, and the mainstream media gave equal time to her side of the story. As a result, the Obama administration and other democrats and progressives were forced to reverse their actions and rhetoric -- and admit that they had reacted to the first sign of political and media pressure without doing their own independent fact-checking!
The credibility, fairness and accuracy of the ACORN "sting", on the merits, was eventually challenged by almost every objective observer, but all that came much later and with almost no publicity or discussion. Yet, as a practical matter, for all their self-inflicted leadership, political, governance wounds and weaknesses, ACORN was not done in by its political, ideological or media critics, but by its supposed friends and supporters -- funders and political allies (for whom they delivered, for example, 1.2 million voters in 2008 and served as front line troops on a range of progressive/poor people's causes) who simply abandoned them without a bit of fight, taking away any chance ACORN may have had to defend and reform itself, even though there was substantial evidence to use in that political and substantive fight. Fortunately for Shirley Sherrod, she had her own resources to respond with the facts and, hence, have her name, reputation and job restored.
Surely, it is time for us to learn at least one of the overarching lessons or messages that may be of most immediate relevance here. In this incredibly fiery and polarized, media-driven, political climate, may we hope that our political, business and civic leaders and all people of good faith in this democracy, looking at this controversy and its aftermath, remain engaged and in the fray on behalf of advocates for the poor and powerless, for fairness and equality.
This post originally appeared at Boston.com.