There's always more to the story. When we purport to put something "in context," it's never the whole context. We're choosing the frame of information that serves our interests, interests that may include but are rarely limited to the pure understanding of the truth. Traditional newspapers may have led their readers to think that they'd processed all the information and digested it into a simple-to-read article, and they often abused their readers' trust. The web doesn't work like that. The web activates its readers, and I think that's for the good.
With that in mind, let's look at the Andrew Breitbart post — "Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism–2010" — that started the sequence of events around Shirley Sherrod.
Ironically, the post began: "Context is everything." The context Breitbart chose was the NAACP's impugning of some of the people in the Tea Party movement as racists.
The constant calls to “repudiate the racists from your ranks” have not only been insulting, but have also served to force a false standard upon America’s fastest-growing and most vibrant political movement that no other group could ever live up to nor would ever be asked to live up to.Breitbart reminds us of the claims that Tea Party people spit on black congressmen:
Congressional Black Caucus members staged a walk through the Tea Party crowd in front of the capitol the day before the health care vote. They claimed they were threatened by a violent mob and were subjected to the vile N word slur fifteen times. With the unpopularity of the toxic health care bill that the majority of Americans did not want, the Democrats needed a November strategy. Neutralizing the growing Tea Party movement with charges of racism was clearly its post-health care reform vote priority.Breitbart details his own efforts to prove that story was phony and the failure of mainstream media to follow up.
That was the important context to Breitbart as he offered up the video clip. He identifies Sherrod as USDA Georgia Director of Rural Development, speaking a the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner in Georgia, giving a "meandering speech to what appears to be an all-black audience." He misstates (and later corrects) that she's talking about how she treats white people today, in her current job. That's an atrocious, blatant error, which, as we all found out, is easily refuted by watching the video of the full speech. (I should say, more accurately, the speech minus the gap that "an NAACP spokesman" said occurred "when the tape was switched in the recording." Really? They use tapes to record? Tapes that are inadequate to hold a speech of less than an hour? My pocket digital cameras have better video capacity that than. I'm skeptical.)
Back to Breitbart:
Sherrod’s racist tale is received by the NAACP audience with nodding approval and murmurs of recognition and agreement. Hardly the behavior of the group now holding itself up as the supreme judge of another groups’ racial tolerance.So part of the context to Breitbart is about the present-day audience, responding positively to Sherrod's account of feeling conflicted about helping a white man who wasn't giving her the deference warranted by her power. The speaker and the audience shared a feeling of understanding a sort of stereotypical white attitude.
Breitbart features a second quote from the speech in which Sherrod "nearly begs black men and women into taking government jobs at USDA — because they won’t get fired." He concludes that the Democratic Party and the NAACP are "scared." And then, it seems, they really were scared, because the NAACP immediately denounced Sherrod and the Obama Administration fired her. They impulsively did what seemed like the most obvious thing to avert the bad press they saw coming. Then, they acted ashamed of doing that, apologized, and seemed to hope that — with the aid of a willing mainstream press — we'd all want to concentrate our attention on bad Mr. Breitbart.
We learned much more about Shirley Sherrod, but we don't know everything. The context frame was widened, to her full speech, her life story as she chose to tell it. But there are gaps even in that (even aside from the tape-switch gap). I want to know more, and I don't think we know the whole story about why she was fired. The official story is pretty embarrassing for the administration, and I don't quite believe it. They jumped because of the Breitbart post? What are they hiding? I suspect that they don't want us delving into the inner workings of the USDA, and they don't want us listening to all the various things Shirley Sherrod has said and will say. Why wasn't she on any of the Sunday talk shows?
Context is important, but we can and do speak before we have the whole context. We are in the middle of a conversation. At any given point in a conversation, somebody may be happy with the state of development of the context, and it may be clear that the narrower context was deceptive. But that doesn't mean the context can't be opened up even further. I'm skeptical. I want to keep reading and thinking, and I hope you do too.
UPDATE: The link to Breitbart's "Video Proof" post no longer works. Here's a link to Memeorandum, linking to may commentators who, like me, wrote about it.