I spent a slightly surreal weekend hanging out with Andrew Breitbart at CPAC this past weekend and at the end of the conservative convention, he was served with a lawsuit from Shirley Sherrod, the former USDA official who was forced to resign by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack back in July, 2010 after Breitbart had published two videos of her as part of a long blog post. One of those videos showed Mrs. Sherrod (ironically, it turns out) telling the NAACP audience that she suggested people get work with the government because "you can't get fired". The second, better known video showed Mrs. Sherrod telling her story of how she didn't give a white farmer 'the full of force' of her help for a period of time. After the USDA fired her, apparently without an investigation, the full tape was released.
Why was I with the notorious Andrew Breitbart? As I've mentioned previously, for the past two months, I've been on the road working on a film about the Pigford 'Black Farmers' settlement. This project has been funded by Andrew Breitbart and even though I've had complete editorial freedom, obviously some people are going to question my opinion since I'm working with Andrew.
Are my feelings about Andrew altered by the fact that I'm working with him on the Pigford story? The reality is just the opposite. I don't like Andrew because I work with him, I work with him because I like him and because Pigford is an important, misrepresented story. I spent weeks looking into Pigford and getting to know Andrew before deciding to work with him. My initial view of him was based on countless stories and comments I'd read calling him racist, homophobic and worse. I learned very quickly that the real Andrew Breitbart didn't fit any of those stereotypes. Aside from my personal experience, I spoke with liberal friends who'd known him for years and confirmed that no, he's not a bigot.
That brings up another point that I want to be clear on. Work relationship aside, I'm proud to have Andrew Breitbart as a friend. Here's a man who is attacked mercilessly as racist and homophobic but just in the past three days at CPAC has shown has commitment to helping black farmers discriminated against by the USDA and hosted a party for the gay conservative group GOProud. Those are brave, independent positions in the conservative movement, not safe or calculated ones. Andrew isn't a partisan ideologue.
Andrew is outrageous and opinionated but I like that in people; it's a quality I like in Bob Cesca, Chez Pazeinza, David Sirota and a host of other people who I know a little bit. Bob, Chez or David might consider this a false equivalence since -- ya know -- as liberals they are obviously right and as a conservative Andrew is clearly wrong on everything.
Sorry, I don't fall for the 'false equivalence' meme. I worry more about the enforcement of lockstep conformity that I see on the left. I've seen the attacks on people like Jane Hamsher. I can both work with and be friends with people who I don't agree with on any number of political or social issues. I believe in free speech and lively debate. I'd love to see Bob, Chez, David and Andrew arguing over dinner.
I have been working on Pigford nonstop for weeks and until Mrs. Sherrod just plunged herself headfirst into the story by suing Andrew, I wasn't clear on how central a figure she was to the story. There has been no pressure by Andrew at all to focus on or attack Sherrod.
The timing of Shirley Sherrod's lawsuit is interesting. For one thing, months after the incident it's very clear that Mrs. Sherrod's reputation hasn't been hurt by the controversy, but in fact seems to have been enhanced by it. She seems to be a folk hero who gets honors, awards and speaking engagements. She was offered another job the next day and spoke to the president. I'm not a lawyer but I thought lawsuits -- especially those that might have chilling first amendment effects on publishers -- were usually filed by people who had suffered damages.
She doesn't seem to be feeling especially harmed by the video controversy from months back. Just a few days ago at a speech in Oregon, she described the incident by saying, "That moment was just a bump in the road."
Stranger still, Mrs. Sherrod's former attorney Rose Sanders told me via phone a couple of weeks ago, "Tell Andrew Breitbart I'm not going to sue him" because she's left the practice of law. Technically, she didn't -- Mrs. Sherrod seems to have retained the high priced, powerful Kirkland & Ellis law firm -- but in retrospect it was certainly a strange message for Sherrod's former attorney to tell me to relay to Breitbart.
I don't think it's a coincidence that this lawsuit comes just as things are starting to heat up in the Pigford investigation. Mrs. Sherrod is connected to Pigford. She's the largest recipient of a Pigford claim; she, her husband Charles Sherrod and the New Communities farm won over thirteen million dollars while most other farmers only got $50,000. Mrs. Sherrod was hired by the USDA after this award. Prior to being hired, she worked to help keep angry black farmers from pulling out of the lawsuit after they objected to the terms of the consent decree. And despite her hero status with many, the farmers I have personally interviewed about Mrs. Sherrod have decidedly mixed feelings about her.
So, why now? What I know for sure is that a couple of days ago Andrew Breitbart and I put on a press conference at CPAC that released a two-hour, unedited audio clip that showed how easy it was to commit fraud in Pigford and that people are coached on exactly how to do it. A week ago Friday, the National Review released a 4,000+ word article detailing the Pigford scandal. Other major media outlets have pieces in the works and politicians are looking seriously at investigating Pigford. The USDA has been stonewalling me for weeks. And after Media Matters published a deceptive piece calling the Pigford investigation a 'smear' against Mrs. Sherrod, this lawsuit comes. I have a number of questions I'd like to ask Mrs. Sherrod about Pigford but now that seems highly unlikely as she's sure to lawyer up on the issue.
Andrew's response is characteristically defiant but this won't likely be fun for either Mr. Breitbart or Mrs. Sherrod. But just as in Pigford, I'm sure somewhere there are trial attorneys laughing and opening a bottle of wine. Meanwhile, the years of racism at the USDA continue and the black farmers continue to suffer due to Pigford.