I hesitate to add any more verbiage to the Breitbart/Sherrod post mortem, but there’s one lesson I’m extracting that may be useful.
I do not hold it against Breitbart that he is a partisan. Most of the information I get online about politics today comes from partisans. My problem with Breitbart is that he is a partisan I do not trust, based on his track record with ACORN and other stories.
For me, the Sherrod video reduces Breitbart’s credibility to zero. This is not because he published a story that was later discredited — after all, so did many other media outlets. It is because, in the wake of overwhelming evidence that his original version of the story was inaccurate, misleading and irresponsible, he has done nothing to withdraw or disavow it.
This, to me, is the litmus test for good-faith journalism. Everyone makes mistakes, and every publication seeks scoops and exclusives, and today every news outlet is racing against the clock. Bad decisions are going to be made. If you expect to retain any shred of trust, though, you’d better cop to them and make amends when you mess up.
At Salon we once withdrew a major cover story because we came to realize that the freelance reporter we’d worked with wasn’t leveling with us. (In a later memoir, he confessed to a variety of substance abuse problems, which explained a lot in retrospect.) This was no fun, but our self-respect as journalists demanded that we take the fall.
Breitbart claims that at the time he posted the Sherrod video he didn’t know what was on the rest of it. I find that hard to believe. But if it were true, he would have only one option now that he does: fall on his sword. Withdraw and apologize. Instead, he ran a laughably narrow correction and has continued to make defensive excuses. This is why he has lost all credibility: he lacks the menschlichkeit to clean up his own mess.
One final thought: The most pernicious tactic in Breitbart’s arsenal is his habit of declaring that the little snippet he is posting is the tip of an iceberg, that he’s got way more where that came from. This gambit is straight out of the Sen. Joe McCarthy playbook, and should be called each time it surfaces.
Greg Sargent says all this in a different way:
it’s true that “both sides,” to one degree or another, let their ideological and political preferences dictate some editorial decisions, such as what stories to pursue, how to approach them, who to interview, etc. But what’s underappreciated is the degree to which the Breitbart-Fox axis goes far beyond this, openly employing techniques of political opposition researchers and operatives to drive the media narrative.
This simply has no equivalent on the left. The leading lefty media organizations have teams of reporters who — even if they are to some degree ideologically motivated — work to determine whether their material is accurate, fair, and generally based in reality before sharing it with readers and viewers. They just don’t push info — with no regard to whether it’s true or not — for the sole purpose of having maximum political impact.