Out of Context: Occupational Hazards of Reacting at the Speed of the Web

The USDA quickly fired Shirley Sherrod after some of her comments were taken out of context, and now has offered her another job.
The USDA quickly fired Shirley Sherrod after some of her comments were taken out of context, and now has offered her another job.

If you have a job that puts you in the public eye, and you express racist views or terrorist sympathies, you're probably going to lose that job. There's nothing wrong with that. But what if you express something that sounds like racism or support for terrorism only when taken out of its proper context?

That's what happened to Shirley Sherrod, who was pressured to resign from her job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week after a conservative website posted a video snippet that made it look as if she discriminated against whites. It's also what happened to Octavia Nasr, who was fired by CNN earlier this month after she used Twitter to lament the death of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a cleric affiliated with Hezbollah.

The two incidents aren't perfectly parallel. Sherrod was the victim of what appears to have been a deliberate misrepresentation of a speech she gave that was actually meant to illustrate how she learned to overcome her own biases and look past race. (Biggovernment.com posted the edited clip and Fox News, among other outlets, called attention to it.) Nasr's unfortunate utterance, meanwhile, was offered without further explanation, in keeping with Twitter's 140-character limit.

Still, in both cases, the reaction was swift and decisive. Unwilling to be seen as tolerating abhorrent views, both CNN president Jon Klein and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack allowed themselves to be stampeded into acting before they had all the facts in their possession. And both, it quickly became clear, made the wrong decision. Vilsack has already apologized to Sherrod and offered her a new job. Nasr hasn't been invited back to CNN, but pundits from Tom Friedman to The Boston Globe's editorial board now agree that the network overreacted in its haste to escape criticism.

Knowing When to Wait

Any crisis-management expert will tell you that circling your wagons and playing for time in the midst of a public-relations fiasco is a bad idea. It's best to come clean right away. But admitting the truth requires knowing the truth. In the disagreggated world of Internet news, it's easy to come across "gotcha" quotes, or what look like "gotcha" quotes, but often hard to know what to make of them. The same imperative of speed that requires a 20-minute speech to be boiled down to a 30-second YouTube clip before it can go viral also enable a minor embarrassment to spiral into a major scandal worthy of a public beheading before anyone can pause for breath.

First-person media, like Twitter, and documentary media, like video, make it easy to think that what you're getting is the raw, unmediated truth. And sometimes it is: No one has argued that Helen Thomas's anti-Israel rant was taken out of context. But sometimes it's not. Just ask The New York Times, which blundered in accusing candidate Richard Blumenthal of lying about his military service based on a short video clip, even though the full clip showed him speaking honestly about it.

Waiting for the whole story to emerge requires patience, and the 24-hour news cycle penalizes patience. But every so often, it punishes impatience even more.