White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs showed poor press management skills in handling the whole Shirley Sherrod saga. He allowed the media frame to shift quickly to the missteps of the administration rather than emphasizing the underhanded, contrived, and racist actions of Andrew Breitbart and his fellow travelers at Fox News.
Instead of explaining to the press why decent people in this country should be shocked and outraged at Mr. Breitbart’s smear tactics that dragged the good name and reputation of an excellent public servant through the mud, Gibbs offered a mealy-mouthed “apology” on behalf of the White House. The apology then became the story, not Breitbart.
Gibbs’s handling of the episode enabled the mainstream media to turn on a dime from looking at Breitbart’s motives and tactics to asking the question: “Why did the Obama administration act so hastily in firing Sherrod?” It’s a legitimate question that reporters would ask in any case, but Gibbs could have kept the focus on the smearer instead of the smearee. Gibbs should have hit back at Breitbart and his soul mates at Fox News and AM talk radio for lying about Sherrod and manipulating the video to falsify her words.
What would Ari Fleischer or Tony Snow do if they had faced a similar controversy involving a demonstrably false accusation coming from the extremist end of the blogosphere? Apologize on behalf of the President? Hardly. They’d hit back at its source and hit back hard.
What the Obama people need is a tough, partisan flak-catcher/deflector who can make the television rounds in real time early in the first 24-hour news cycle when the white supremacists launch their next set of smears against some hapless public servant inside the Administration. It’s a big government. A “target-rich environment” members of the Far Right might say. There are other Shirley Sherrods at many levels inside the departments, bureaus, and agencies of the government who can have their public statements twisted and edited to create the next “scandal,” which will presumably prompt Gibbs’s next apology.
It’s a strange political discourse that leaves egg on the faces of the first African-American President and the NAACP while the right-wing racist who concocted the smear walks away unscathed and free to do it again. There’s blood in the water now. The White House showed its skittishness when it comes to accusations of “reverse racism” in the Administration. Why can’t President Obama hire a more skilled and partisan press secretary? Say what you will about Ari Fleischer and Tony Snow, but no one can say they weren’t good at their jobs.
One of Rahm Emanuel’s assistants, Jim Messina, even praised the Department of Agriculture for dispatching with Ms. Sherrod quickly as if it were a sign of smart media management instead of total cowardice in the face of an unsubstantiated rumor perpetrated by an untrustworthy source.
What this White House needs is a “special liaison for media affairs” (or something of the sort) – someone experienced like Howard Dean – to go on TV and defuse these racial controversies when the Breitbarts and the Foxes orchestrate the next one, (and there will be a next one, and a next one after that, and . . . ) — and with style and unapologetic partisanship dispatch with them as efficiently as Fleischer and Snow used to do with anyone who suggested that it might be an open question whether Iraq had WMD or not.
This fall, in the heat of the midterm campaigns, there will be another Breitbart-style hit piece on one or more African-American members of the administration — one that might hold up better than the one aimed at Sherrod. You can set your watch by it. Let’s hope the Obama White House handles it better than it did this last one. After all, these racist smears are just like streetcars, one pulls away and you know there’s another one coming right behind it.