Smear campaigns: then and now

In our current Age of the Internet, smear campaigns and falsities are easier dismantled—but quicker spread.

Take two case studies, for example. The first: Bill Clinton’s illegitimate son scandal in the 90s. The second: USDA’s Shirley Sherrod’s “racist” comments about a white farmer which proved to be false.

The Online Journalism review article “A Cybersleaze Timeline” shows how Clinton’s illegitimate son rumor was spread and sensationalized throughout a period of 7 years— from 1992 when the story first appeared in the tabloid “The Globe, to 1999, when Danny Williams (Clinton’s “son”) DNA test results came back, Clinton’s paternal test negative.

As the OJR article shows, this rumor was being pushed most strongly by Matt Drudge, founder of The Drudge Report. In his “breaking” of this story in 1999, Drudge’s “report” on the rumor (which was based off of a videotaped testimony of Danny William’s mother, Bobbie Ann revealing her and Clinton’s alleged relationship) included this line, which I found funny: “What becomes immediately obvious to the viewer watching the videotaped confession is that this is clearly not gossip, rumor or anonymous charges being maliciously directed at a politician,” wrote Drudge. The only thing “clear” was this was bad journalism being done—as revealed when the paternal test was released.

Fast-forward to 2010, and you have the case of Shirley Sherrod who actually was asked to resign from her position with the USDA after making “racist” remarks against a white farmer at a NAACP dinner. As this column “Shirley Sherrod: Anatomy of a Smear Campaign” written by George Curry demonstrates, this rumor was dispelled much quicker than the first case: it took the media only a few days to realize they’d been duped by blogger Andrew Breitbart, who’d edited the video of Sherrod’s speech together to make it look as though Sherrod had said something offensive, when in reality, the speech was about racial acceptance. In those two short days, however, damage was done: the NAACP released a statement against Sherrod, she was asked to resign from her post at the USDA and her character was questioned on many mainstream media outlets before the full tape was actually watched.

The similarities between both cases? It seems like the media doesn’t let fact checking (or, at least, waiting for verification of facts) get in the way of their reporting.

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