Over the past few days, we’ve heard many weird defenses of Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart himself has claimed that he never intended to target Shirley Sherrod. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have raised the possibility that the whole business was a White House sting operation.
But the prize for bold cynicism has to go to James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal. Taranto yesterday posted a short column under the heading “David Frum is Silly.”
It was, Taranto says, “extraordinarily slipshod” of me to suggest that somebody like Andrew Breitbart had any moral obligation not to broadcast defamatory lies.
Taranto does not deny that the original Breitbart story about Shirley Sherrod was a reckless defamation of an innocent person. Taranto describes the original story as “journalistically shoddy” and acknowledges that Breitbart’s methods have been “grossly unethical.” But that’s OK! The methods are grossly unethical only by the outdated standards of “institutional journalism.” Breitbart, says Taranto, is not an institutional journalist – so anything goes.
It was a very effective bit of Alinskyite political theater, and in a way more so for Breitbart’s having gotten the story wrong. As it turned out, the NAACP condemned Shirley Sherrod based on a false, secondhand accusation of racism. Members of the Tea Party movement know just how she feels.
All the more effective for being wrong. Let those words sink in for a moment.
In his column, Taranto objects that I described conservatives these days as having a “unique capacity to ignore unwelcome fact” – the fact in this case being Breitbart’s involvement in the Sherrod smear. Taranto emphasizes: He does not ignore this unwelcome fact. He delights in it. Breitbart set out to destroy the career of a person who had done nothing wrong, without any effort to verify the story he broadcast to the world.
As Taranto tells it, the truly guilty party here is the NAACP. In Taranto’s view, the NAACP committed two wrongs:
First, they relied upon Breitbart-provided information. (As Otter says in Animal House: “You fucked up. You trusted us.”)
Are we to believe that [NAACP head] Ben Jealous thought Breitbart was what Dan Rather, before his fall, claimed to be–an impartial and reliable purveyor of facts? In the unlikely event that the answer to that question is yes, doesn’t his failure to know better reflect a stunning incompetence?
And second, when confronted with apparent racism within their own ranks, they acted promptly to condemn it.
[Breitbart] correctly identified the organization’s moral weakness. Confronted by a video showing apparent racism at an NAACP function, its leaders appear to have panicked and made a snap decision to denounce one of their own so as to pre-empt the charge of employing a double standard.
Personal background here: I worked at the Wall Street Journal editorial page from 1989 through 1992. As a new hire, I was sent to an orientation session. There I was shown an opinion survey ranked the Wall Street Journal in first place as America’s most trusted media source. Message: check and double-check everything – the value of the brand depends on the writers’ care and integrity.
The idea that a columnist for the Wall Street Journal would endorse falsehood and defamation as legitimate political tactics … while denouncing non-hypocrisy as a “moral weakness” … I’m not shocked by much these days, but I’ll admit: I’m shocked by that.