For all that some are trying to make Shirley Sherrod’s firing into a greater discussion about race, this is more a lesson in media studies than race relations. Sherrod’s story reveals the fundamental and collective power the media wields over all facets of society, in particular politics, and total lack of accountability for journalist and media personalities that permeates the body politic.
As someone who is certified in crisis communications, I’m aware of need for Agencies and organizations to be mindful of the media’s power but not blindly reactionary. When organizations fail at this key part of media management, their feet are held to the fire. The NAACP will and should pay dearly for its decision to release a statement condemning Sherrod for her speech without listening to the full audio (which, by the way, was delivered in front of a local chapter of their organization). The Obama administration is also rightfully feeling the burn for its regrettable decision to force a resignation from Mrs. Sherrod.
But who holds media personalities like Andrew Breitbart who edited the tape of Sherrod in order to promote an erroneous message accountable for their actions. Who will hold Fox News responsible for its dogged promotion of Breitbart’s lie. And who will hold CNN correspondent and journalist Roland S Martin accountable condemning Sherrod before he had all the facts?
The answer is no one. When it comes to Breitbart and Fox News, we’ve come to expect blatantly biased behavior. However, Martin is an employee of CNN, a channel that aims to be a credible news source. That calls Martin’s comments into question, and, further the role and greater responsibility of journalists to police themselves and each other. Not only did Martin support condemning Sherrod he also defended his position by citing the status quo. Martin pointed out that when you’re “in the midst of a political firestorm” you have to know that your comments can be used against you. Nevermind the fact that Sherrod gave the speech back in March prior to the NAACP’s dispute with the Tea party, which, I think most people would agree is at the root of Sherrod’s firing.
To CNN’s credit, Campbell Brown and guest David Gergen were hard on Roland Martin during Brown’s show today. They quickly poo pooed his attempt to divert the conversation into mucky raceland bringing the conversation squarely back to where it belonged: on the complete and utter mishandling of this woman and her statements by Martin among other people.
Martin is certainly not the only journalist to pontificate on a situation about which he does not have all the facts. But that does’t mean he should be given a pass. At some point we have to hold members of the media responsible for what they say, especially those who claim they’re journalists not just opinion pundits. Until that happens, the collective role and credibility of the media will remain in question.