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Before last July most Americans had never heard of Shirley Sherrod, a mid-level bureaucrat with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She became a household name, almost overnight, after a blogger posted a two and a half minute video in which she appeared to express racist sentiments. The public reaction was immediate and vehement. Benjamin Jealous, the President of the NAACP, and Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, were among the many who condemned her remarks. Ms. Sherrod resigned from her position in response to what she described as pressure from the White House.
It soon became apparent that the segment in question had been viewed very much out of context. The remarks that had caused such an uproar were part of a 43-minute speech whose message was in fact one of harmony and healing, not racism. Many of those who had rushed to judgment in denouncing Ms. Sherrod started scrambling to apologize. In today's world fraught with clichés the incident was described by many as "a teachable moment."
While this may indeed have been a "teachable moment," most politicians seem to have learned the wrong lesson from it. They would not appear to have learned that it's wrong to ruin someone's career by taking her remarks out of context and knowingly distorting what she actually meant. On the contrary, they would appear to have learned the exact opposite. Doing so is very effective and a great way to advance one's own career.
Consider the campaigns now underway in the St. Louis area. In Missouri Democrats are hoping to win the Senate seat that will be left open by the retirement of Republican incumbent Kit Bond. In Illinois Republicans are hoping to win the seat formerly held by President Barack Obama. There are also races for several seats in the House of Representatives that are viewed as competitive, as well as those for numerous state and local offices.
In many of these campaigns the common denominator seems to be a strategy based on distorting opponents' records and taking comments out of context on a scale far greater than what was done to Shirley Sherrod. The attack on Ms. Sherrod was based on a two and half minute excerpt from a speech she gave last March. The typical campaign attack ad, on the other hand, seizes on a single phrase or sentence, often from something said or written years ago. Moreover, candidates are often not content simply to distort something their opponents may have said deliberately. It's a common practice to have a campaign worker with a video camera follow the opposing candidate from morning 'til night in the hope of catching him or her in an inadvertent gaffe. Something uttered by mistake can then be presented in an attack ad as the candidate's real position.
Fortunately, listeners to NPR can avoid being exposed to much of the slanderous drivel that constitutes political advertising. Unfortunately we can't avoid robo-calls with the same message, even by putting our names on the "do not call list," but that's another story. There are, however, enough people who tune into commercial media to make it worthwhile for campaign committees to spend millions of dollars in pursuit of their votes. The messages they choose to disseminate with these millions are far from edifying.
Do we really want to be governed by elected officials who come to power by virtue of tactics like those that derailed the career of Shirley Sherrod? Unless candidates change their behavior dramatically that's what we're likely to get.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Tom Schlafly is an attorney in St. Louis.