I don’t spend much time watching television, but yesterday when I was on the treadmill at the gym, I tuned into CNN, listening through earphones. What I saw was excerpts from Mrs. Sherrod’s talk to the NAACP, and her interview with CNN. It was electrifying: a person who, as a teenager, had gone through the unspeakable trauma of having her father killed by white racists and a Ku Klux Klan cross burned in her front yard, described how she overcame racist resentment and came to understand that the problems she was dealing with were economic, not racial. It was a plea, to a largely black audience, to put lingering racist stereotypes behind us and to work together to solve problems all races face.
The blogger who pulled one short episode out of context, in an effort to picture Mrs. Sherrod’s message as the opposite of what any mentally competent listener would have understood, was acting as an unprincipled propagandist. Either he took the snippet out of context or accepted it from someone who did so without checking, which shows that, for him, the truth was irrelevant. Here was something that could be used as a verbal battering club against the Obama administration. So go with it! Make sure you get it in the hands of the Fox Network’s resident propagandists. They’ll make it the topic of the day!
And so they did. And how did the Obama administration react? When I was a government official, one of the first things I was taught, and one of the main things I tried to impress on subordinates once I had them, was: Make sure you know the facts before you act or give me advice. (OK, you won’t ever know all the facts, but you must check on as many as are available.) And, if it involves something a person has done or said, get that person’s account. Of course, this rule should apply to the media as well, but we have a right to expect government officials to operate on the basis of higher ethical standards than are common in the private sector, whether business or media.
Defending one’s employees when they are doing the right thing is important for any organization, whether private or governmental. Of course, that does not mean tolerating malfeasance or incompetence, but when persons are criticized unfairly, it is the duty of the employer to defend them. This is not a matter of politics, or race, but just plain common sense, even if one puts the ethical question aside. It is a matter of self-interest. No organization can function effectively unless the managers treat the employees fairly. Unless there is loyalty down, how can they expect loyalty up?
Well, after stumbling badly by firing Mrs. Sherrod, the administration’s reversal yesterday was welcome. I stayed on the treadmill an extra ten minutes to hear Secretary Vilsack’s apology. Nevertheless, as a citizen, I am not satisfied.
I would like to know who it was who messaged Mrs. Sherrod on her Blackberry demanding that she resign. (She mentioned in an interview that it came from an undersecretary of agriculture.) Secretary Vilsack has taken full responsibility, as he should, but what is he going to do about the people in his department who failed to follow the only proper course when this story broke, which was to get the facts? It would be useful for the public to know a little more about what went on within the agriculture department before the firing. At least we should know whether the guilty parties have been in any way reprimanded. (In my opinion, the undersecretary who sent the message should be fired; even if Vilsack had authorized the message—I don’t know whether he did or not—the official would have exhibited the most basic incompetence by failing to perform due diligence before taking or recommending action.)
Yes, this is a “teaching moment.”
For us, members of the American public: Don’t believe anything you hear on Fox or from the propaganda mouthpieces until you have checked it out from reliable sources. Unless you want to spend most of your life checking everything out, you’ll be more accurately informed by not listening to them at all. (Their enabling advertisers will love that!)
For Secretary Vilsack: You have been ill served by some on your staff. The one most responsible for giving bad advice should get the axe. Pour encourager les autres, as Napoleon would say.
For the White House: The best defense against a lie is the truth. Start taking the un-American blowhards on. They are out to bring down the President of the United States whom American people elected by a comfortable margin. Why don’t you stick it to them, instead of tip-toeing around every lie and distortion?
For President Obama: It’s nice you found time to call Mrs. Sherrod today. But you are going to need to make some staff changes as soon as the November elections are over. If the Republicans refuse to cooperate in the national interest, take a leaf from Harry Truman and start giving them hell. We need a president who leads.
© Copyright 2010 by Jack F. Matlock, Jr. All Rights Reserved