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MONDAY, JULY 26, 2010

Refusing to tell the people/Andrew Breitbart edition: Last week, Michelle Cottle told her pals in the press corps that they should ignore Andrew Breitbart (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/23/10). This is the familiar shut-your-mouth, play-it-safe strategy people like Cottle have always taken toward conservative hit men like Breitbart—and Drudge, and Hannity, and Beck, and Coulter, who got applauded in the New York Times because her pathologically inaccurate book had so many footnotes.

Never mind that if you checked those footnotes, they rarely said what Coulter claimed (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/22/02).

Life is easier—better by far—when you don’t report on such people. Life in the press corps can really be grand when you do what Cottle recommends—when you pretend you’re refusing to do your job as an act of high principle.

Given the notoriety of the Sherrod case, will big newspapers report on Breitbart’s past misconduct? This morning, the New York Times presents a news report on the Sherrod matter which is a virtual parody of serious reporting. (Click here, then weep for your species. More tomorrow). That said, one journalist did a good job this weekend, recalling the previous innocent party Andrew Breitbart got fired.

People! Shirley Sherrod isn’t the first innocent person Breitbart got canned from a job. Do you recall the guy he got fired last year? According to Nexis, only one journalist has mentioned his name in the week since this new story broke.

That journalist is Annette John-Hall, a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. In last Friday’s column, John-Hall remembered Juan Carlos Vera, another innocent party Breitbart got fired. Like other columnists, John-Hall named a string of parties who bungled in the Sherrod firing. But she also remembered the innocent person Breitbart got fired last year:

JOHN-HALL (7/23/10): All of which create a fertile environment for someone like Andrew Breitbart, who, as of this writing, was as unrepentant as the devil. This is the guy, after all, who helped ruin the career of...Juan Carlos Vera, the San Diego ACORN worker who was shown—in a heavily edited video—conspiring with a fake pimp and prostitute to transport underage girls across the border.

Conveniently, the video didn't show Vera reporting the incident to police after the two left. Vera was fired before all the facts came in. Sound familiar? Not surprisingly, Vera is suing.

As John-Hall helps us recall, the firing of Vera was very similar to last week’s firing of Sherrod. It stemmed from the Breitbart-promoted ACORN matter—from Breitbart’s first use of “edited” tapes.

Like Sherrod, Vera was instantly fired when “edited” tapes made it appear that he had engaged in wrongdoing. Since that time, two major inquiries have seemed to conclude that Vera, like Sherrod, was unfairly judged. One of these inquiries was conducted by Jerry Brown, California’s attorney general. (Brown investigated the ACORN incidents which took place in California.) Below, we’ll post the portion of Brown’s report which dealt with the firing of Vera. But let’s be clear: Given Breitbart’s sudden notoriety, a real news division would tell the public about this earlier affair, even if Lady Cottle is begging them to stop.

We know, we know! The press corps swallowed the ACORN con, and big news orgs don’t like to admit that they, and their readers, got tooken. But the “editing” of the ACORN tapes was especially clownish and dishonest, what with the splicing in of James O’Keefe in that pimp outfit and all. By normal journalistic standards, the Vera story has high entertainment value—as well as an obvious connection to the events of last week. The public deserves to be told of the lengths a con man like Breitbart will go to.

Overwhelmingly, Americans have agreed that Shirley Sherrod was wrongly fired. They deserve to know that Juan Carlos Vega was wrongly fired last year too, even if scuts like Cottle are begging their colleagues to clam.

Will big newspapers report on Breitbart’s past conduct? We’ll believe it when we see it. Lady Cottle knows how her cohort works. More on this topic tomorrow.

From the Brown report: Attorney General Jerry Brown published a detailed report on the parts of the ACORN flap which took place in California. He found significant wrongdoing by some ACORN officials. But this is the way he described what happened after Breitbart’s pair of youthful crackpots left ACORN’s San Diego office, where they had spoken with Vera (click here, scroll to page 15). Throughout, the Brown report links Vera’s claims to telephone records:

BROWN REPORT (4/1/10): Our investigation revealed that Vera speaks limited English. The language barrier, combined with the couple’s peculiar story, left him confused over whether the couple was serious about running a prostitution business and smuggling young girls into San Diego. He felt the couple’s story was constantly changing and made little sense. At first Vera understood there was another pimp running the business and Giles needed help. Then the story evolved in such a way that Vera understood O’Keefe was actually the pimp. Vera felt something strange was going on and was not sure if the situation was legitimate. (Vera Interview.)

[...]

Immediately after the couple left, Vera telephoned his cousin, Detective Alejandro Hernandez, at the National City Police Department. He left a voicemail message for Detective Hernandez stating that some “crazy people” were in his office providing information. Vera did not explain the substance of the conversation and did not make reference to prostitution or human smuggling on the message. He asked his cousin to call him back. (Interview with Vera; Vera Phone Records, at p. 4 [reflecting a 2-minute call to Detective Hernandez’s cell phone at 6:40 p.m.]; Detective Hernandez Phone Records, at p. 132 [reflecting a call to voicemail at 6:45 p.m.].)

Later that day, Vera also reported the incident to fellow ACORN employee Cruz Acosta. Acosta had been away from the office while the couple was present. Vera explained to him what happened. Vera also reported the incident, either the same day or shortly thereafter, to Mar Murrillon, an ACORN board member. Vera told Murrillon that he had reported the incident to the police. (Vera Interview.)

Vera eventually spoke with Detective Hernandez on August 27, 2009. He told Detective Hernandez that a self-admitted prostitute had been to the office and was discussing human smuggling. He did not know the exact location where the smuggling would take place. Detective Hernandez said he would contact someone in law enforcement who dealt with that area and get back to Vera. (Interview with Detective Alejandro Hernandez, October 8, 2009; Detective Hernandez Phone Records, at p. 115 [reflecting 12-minute call between Vera and Detective Hernandez on August 27, 2009 at 5:07 p.m.].) The next day, Detective Hernandez and his partner, Detective Steve Villariasa, contacted Detective Mark Haas at the San Diego Police Department. Detective Haas works with cases involving human smuggling. He said he would need more information in order to work the case. (Detective Hernandez Interview; Interview with Detective Steve Villariasa, October 8, 2009; Detective Villariasa Phone Records, at p. 86 [reflecting 4-minute call between Detectives Villariasa and Haas on August 28, 2009 at 7:44 a.m.].) Detective Hernandez called Vera and left a message stating that he had information for him that might help. (Detective Hernandez Phone Records, at p. 115 [reflecting 1-minute call between Detective Hernandez and Vera on August 28, 2009 at 10:48 a.m.].)

Vera attempted to acquire more information as Detective Hernandez had requested. He sent O’Keefe and Giles an email at the address Giles had given him. The email asked them to call him. A short time later, O’Keefe called Vera’s cell phone. O’Keefe said the girls would be crossing in Tijuana, but did not give any other details. Vera told O’Keefe he would call him back and hung up. Vera called Detective Hernandez in order to give him the information. (Vera Interview.)

Several days passed and Vera played phone tag with Detective Hernandez. The first videos of ACORN employees began to surface and Vera realized that O’Keefe and Giles had been acting. He contacted Detective Hernandez on approximately September 11, 2009 and told him the whole thing was a set up and to disregard it. (Vera Interview; Detective Hernandez Interview; Detective Hernandez Phone Records, at p. 120 [reflecting a 12-minute call between Vera and Detective Hernandez on September 11, 2009 at 6:28 p.m.].)

On September 17, 2009, O’Keefe released an edited videotape of his conversation with Vera.

ACORN fired Vera the same day.

To all appearances, Vera was trying to do the right thing, just as Sherrod did in her speech. But so what? Through use of those “edited” tapes, Breitbart got both parties fired.

Do readers deserve to know these facts? Or will Cottle’s advice prevail?

RACE TO THE TOP (permalink): Last week, the American public quickly agreed that Shirley Sherrod had been wrongly fired. Black people could see that she had been wronged—but white people could see this too. A bit of good news is lurking here: When it comes to so-called matters of so-called race, the public isn’t quite as tribal as it may have been in the past.

That said, a lot of race-baiting has been floating around, and it hasn’t all come from the right. In last Wednesday’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson surveyed the scene—and we thought he did a good job cataloging recent events. As he went through those events, he kept seeing things on the one hand—and then again, on the other.

Quite rightly, this type of reporting is often mocked, because it can serve as a dodge. In this case, we thought it made sense. Here’s how Gerson started his column. We thought he was fair—perhaps too fair—to those of us on the left:

GERSON (7/21/10): It is regrettable, and perhaps inevitable, that Barack Obama's swift political slide should reopen racial controversies that were temporarily closed by his decisive presidential victory.

Liberals have a tendency to blame the broad revolt against Obama's fiscal policies and economic failures on latent racism, particularly in the Tea Party movement. It is an explanation that avoids, or at least delays, the unpleasant necessity of ideological readjustment. Some conservatives, in turn, seem unwilling to acknowledge that populist conservative movements often have racist and nativist elements—and by this denial seem tolerant of bigotry in their midst.

On the one hand, Gerson said, liberals “have a tendency to blame the broad revolt against Obama's fiscal policies and economic failures on latent racism.” In some ways, we think he’s too kind. In our view, some liberals have been amazingly eager—and amazingly willing—to offer vast, sweeping claims about everybody else’s racism. For our money, this shows a lack of good judgment, of various kinds.

On the other hand, Gerson said that some conservatives seem unwilling to acknowledge racist and nativist elements in their midst. (Before long, Gerson named a few of those racist/nativist elements.) We tend to avoid the R-word ourselves, thinking it tends to shed more heat than light. But especially when he began naming names, we thought Gerson’s judgments were fair.

On the one hand, then on the other! As he continued, Gerson described some of the racial turmoil from the week before—events involving the NAACP, the Tea Party, and the always-repellent Mark Williams. But Gerson was soon noting hopeful signs from both sides of the aisle. On the one hand, and then on the other, her saw people trying to be fair—offering “small but significant signs of sanity:”

GERSON: But beneath this depressing controversy, the facts are more encouraging. The NAACP resolution did not conclude that the Tea Party movement as a whole is racist; it called upon its leadership to repudiate racist elements. "We don't think the tea party is racist,” said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, "but we don't think they've gone far enough yet either" in condemning racist incidents. Vice President Bidern agreed, characterizing the movement as "very conservative, very different views on government and a whole lot of things. But it is not a racist organization."

Meanwhile, the National Tea Party Federation— representing 61 groups around the country—expelled Williams (and his organization, the Tea Party Express) over the racist blog post. The parody, said federation spokesman David Webb, was "clearly offensive." Williams was not repentant—apologizing mainly for using the term "massa”—but his marginalization was swift.

To summarize: The president of the NAACP affirmed that the Tea Party movement is not racist. His organization urged Tea Party leaders to publicly condemn the movement's racist elements—which the Tea Party Federation did almost immediately. These developments are small but significant signs of sanity.

We’ll go along with those judgments, although we think Gerson is extremely generous in the way he describes the NAACP’s framing of that resolution. (You think this profoundly important organization screwed things up last week? They behaved strangely the week before too. More on this topic tomorrow.) As he continued, Gerson continued to play with both hands, criticizing the way Fox News “obsessively played video showing two members of the New Black Panthers wearing military gear outside a Philadelphia polling station in 2008.” More Gerson, and what he says is correct: “Voter intimidation is a serious thing and a federal crime. But two men engaged in revolutionary political theater do not a conspiracy make.”

Gerson continued to play with both hands all through last Wednesday’s column. As he closed, he said that “reactions [have been] disproportionate across the political spectrum”—a claim with which we’d agree. As he closed his column, he offered advice on the one hand, then on the other:

GERSON: This is irresponsible precisely because racial conflict is America's deepest wound, still poorly healed. Why are some African Americans suspicious of large, predominately white, conservative populist movements? Well, let's see. Perhaps because they have suffered provocations throughout American history that make the complaints of Boston's original tea party movement seem trivial in comparison. Perhaps because the Constitutional Convention itself was a conspiracy against their rights. Perhaps because great historical wrongs are still comparatively recent. The last African American born into slavery died only 40 or 50 years ago. The last African American born into segregation will not die for another 50 or 60 years.

Conservatives, of all people, should understand that history does not die quickly; it lingers in a shallow, restless sleep. No one, including the NAACP, should pick at historical scabs for their own benefit. But given our history, the Tea Party movement has a positive duty to assure African Americans that it is the second coming of Barry Goldwater, not of George Wallace. The expulsion of Mark Williams is a start.

We agree with all of that—because we think the NAACP did behave poorly, even in the week before they threw Sherrod under the bus.

Racial conflict is America's deepest wound? This is obviously true—and this of course includes the wars of extermination and subjugation waged against Native Americans. Because the history is so profound and so vile, we find it offensive when those on our side seem to toy with this deep, evil wound. It’s always easy to note the way the other side is misbehaving in some such area. But in the past year or two, our side has sometimes been quite foolish and quite cavalier about this deepest wound too.

We think Gerson was more than fair to our tribe. More on this topic all week, beginning with that resolution.

Tomorrow: Concerning that resolution