WJBO Host Apparently Not All That Interested In Shirley Sherrod Story (UPDATED)

As is the case all over the country today, the story of Shirley Sherrod, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee fired yesterday after video surfaced of her describing at an NAACP event a lack of motivation for helping a white farmer on racial grounds, made the list of topics being discussed on Baton Rouge AM talker WJBO. The afternoon drive host, Michael Castner, had apparently decided on a narrative he was going to operate from this afternoon.

It seems that on the morning show Castner does at WJBO’s sister station Rush Radio WRNO-FM in New Orleans, he had launched into the racial angle on Sherrod pretty heavily, but as more about that story surfaced during the day and it appeared some of Sherrod’s “racism” on video may have been taken out of context he decided he needed to backtrack and call for everybody to calm down.

But there’s more to the Sherrod story than just race. A good deal more. And Castner blew a good opportunity to smoke a lot of it out.

First, the Andrew Breitbart BigGovernment.com piece which first broke the Shirley Sherrod story wide open posted two videos of Sherrod. The first, which has attracted all the attention this week, is the one you’ve seen:

Was it a bit unfair? Probably. After all, Sherrod does later in her speech talk about how she began to realize “it’s not about race, it’s about haves and have-nots” – which moves her from the realm of race-hustlers into more of a garden-variety wealth redistributionist (and the presence of those in the federal government is something of a scandal in and of itself given the track record of that philosophy).

But Breitbart posted another video of Sherrod as well, and in doing so claimed the second video was the one which actually mattered:

He introduces that clip this way:

The second video affirms the real reason there is tension between the Democratic Party and a growing mass of middle Americans — and it’s not because of race.

The NAACP which has transformed from a civil rights group to a propaganda arm of the Democratic Party and social-justice politics, supports a new America that relies less on individualism, entrepreneurialism and American grit, but instead giddily embraces, the un-American notion of unaccountability and government dependence. Shirley Sherrod, a federal appointee who oversees over a billion dollars of federal funds, nearly begs black men and women into taking government jobs at USDA — because they won’t get fired.

But it turns out that Sherrod’s attitude toward race or government employment practices might not be the only item of interest in the wake of a lightning-fast firing once she surfaced in the public eye. In fact, she’s only been in government since last year. Prior to that, Sherrod had a history as a community organizer among rural African-Americans in southern Georgia – a history which makes her employment in the Obama administration interesting for more reasons than just the fact that she used to hate white people.

In fact, today the Washington Examiner, which is a newspaper based in the nation’s capitol with a roster of well-respected journalists on staff – among them Michael Barone, Mark Tapscott, Mark Hemingway, David Freddoso and Byron York – had a piece on the Sherrod kerfuffle entitled “Shirley Sherrod’s Disappearing Act: Not So Fast” which brought out several interesting questions about Sherrod’s history and tenure within the USDA.

The piece, by freelance writer Tom Blumer, opens like this:

Within hours of the video’s release, USDA Director Tom Vilsack announced Sherrod’s resignation, and in the process issued an exceptionally strong condemnation (“We are appalled by her actions … Her actions were shameful … she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man”).

The NAACP, at whose Freedom Fund Banquet Sherrod spoke of her discriminatory posture, and at which the audience seemed to indicate approval of her outlook, followed a short time later, virtually echoing Vilsack.

So I guess we’re supposed to forget about Shirley Sherrod from this point forward.

Not just yet. Luckily, she’s not going away quietly, and is complaining about Fox News and the Tea Party causing her dismissal. Keep it up, ma’am, because you and the USDA both deserve further scrutiny.

Ms. Sherrod’s previous background, the circumstances surrounding her hiring, and the USDA’s agenda may all play a part in explaining her sudden departure from the agency. These matters have not received much scrutiny to this point.

A further reading uncovers the fact that before Sherrod worked at the USDA, she was suing the USDA. It seems that Shirley and Charles Sherrod had operated a land trust called New Communities, Inc., which had been involved in a suit against the Department for alleged mistreatment of African-American farmers going back decades, and just days prior to her appointment as Georgia Director for Rural Development last year that claim was settled for some $13 million. Sherrod and her husband Charles received $150,000 each in the settlement for “pain and suffering,” plus they along with other plaintiffs apparently also scored an unspecified forgiveness of debt from the federal government.

New Communities’ settlement is only part of a billion-dollar lawsuit, Pigford v. Vilsack, which has been going on for a very long time and which is being settled slowly and expensively by the federal government. The story then references a May 27, 2010 piece from Agri-Pulse:

As part of a April 14, 1999 class action case settlement, commonly known as the Pigford case, U.S. taxpayers have already provided over $1 billion in cash, non-credit awards and debt relief to almost 16,000 black farmers who claimed that they were discriminated against by USDA officials as they “farmed or attempted to farm.” In addition, USDA’s Farm Service Agency spent over $166 million on salaries and expenses on this case from 1999-2009, according to agency records.

Members of Congress may approve another $1.15 billion this week to settle cases from what some estimate may be an additional 80,000 African-Americans who have also claimed to have been discriminated against by USDA staff.

Settling this case is clearly a priority for the White House and USDA. Secretary Vilsack described the funding agreement reached between the Administration and advocates for black farmers early this year as “an important milestone in putting these discriminatory claims behind us for good and in achieving finality for this group of farmers with longstanding grievances.”

However, confronted with the skyrocketing federal deficit, more officials are taking a critical look at the billion dollars spent thus far and wondering when these discrimination cases will ever end. Already, the number of people who have been paid and are still seeking payment will likely exceed the 26,785 black farmers who were considered to even be operating back in 1997, according to USDA. That’s the year the case initially began as Pigford v. (then Agriculture Secretary) Glickman and sources predicted that, at most, 3,000 might qualify.

At least one source who is extremely familiar with the issue and who asked to remain anonymous because of potential retribution, says there are a number of legitimate cases who have long been denied their payments and will benefit from the additional funding. But many more appear to have been solicited in an attempt to “game” the Pigford system.

Obviously, some questions the Obama administration might not be too keen on answering arise from all this, as Blumer mentions. First, was Sherrod’s USDA appointment a quid pro quo to settle the suit? Second, why is it that New Communities was able to get so generous a settlement when appears the average for plaintiffs among the 16,000 in the original suit was one-quarter their figure? Third, what kind of debt forgiveness was involved in that settlement? And of course, those questions lead to the fairly obvious one – was firing Sherrod an attempt to make her disappear from the public eye before anyone could delve into the circumstances of the lawsuit and her hiring in the first place?

This is all fairly juicy stuff, and given the constant use of race as a smoke screen to hide more substantial issues within this administration it seems like the sort of subject a talk show host might seek to mine for material to produce interesting radio.

So while listening to Castner (which might have been a mistake in its own right, I’ll admit), I noticed that the deeper issues surrounding Sherrod were getting no attention. As such, I sent him this e-mail:

Michael,
 
Before you go too far on the Shirley Sherrod thing, while it does appear that BigGovernment.com did something of a hit job on her there appears to be a LOT more to this woman.
 

Castner actually mentioned the e-mail on his show. Unfortunately, he didn’t take the time to read the link. You can find the segment here beginning at the 17:26 mark, but a transcript of what he said follows:

CASTNER: First of all I want to say hey to Scott, publisher of The Hayride. He just wrote me an e-mail, “Michael, before you go too far on the Shirley Sherrod thing,” – you mean me being fair? – “while it does appear that BigGovernment.com did something of a hit job on her there appears to be a lot more to this woman.” And then he says to check out this link. I’ll tell you what Scott, I’m going to check out major news sources, and that includes Fox News. Obviously, we’re a Fox News affiliate.

I’m not going to go off and, and this is not saying anything to you at the Hayride, but I’m not going to go off to do some blog. Because I think a lot of times – and that still came off wrong. I DIDN’T MEAN IT THAT WAY. I’m going to go off to a major news source with a lot of, uh, RESOURCES available.  CNN being one of them because they’re pulling up video of her giving the same speech from before. And what a concept too, I know that not a lot of hosts will come on and say “Hey, I was wrong this morning.”

Because one thing I am correct about, Scott, and so is Mary Matalin, is the race-baiting has got to stop on both sides. And saying “Yeah, but they did it” is a first-grade answer. You wouldn’t accept that of your child and you shouldn’t accept it out of your fellow citizens. Just because the NAACP is running around calling the Tea Party racist doesn’t mean you have to lob a salvo on the other side.

Keep talking about the issues. If you’re a member of the Tea Party and you believe in what you’re doing, keep talking about the issues. That’s how you’re going to be heard. People in both parties act like a bunch of children, screamin’ and yellin’, doing hit jobs on this woman who lost her job, and from all accounts THAT I TRUST, did not perform – nobody has come out with one incident at the USDA that required her to lose her job. Not one.

I’d be stunned if somebody that runs the Hayride is supporting President Obama. I’d be really blown away. I was wrong on this. The White House is wrong on this. The NAACP was wrong on this. An organization that is there for people to jump to conclusions – and yet they jump to conclusions and they’ve now retracted their criticism of this woman.

I’ll tell you what we were doing. What we were doing was playing a bite that was provided to us, playing it out of context, and then villifying this woman and when we finally get the story and they interview this white farmer, that she supposedly didn’t want to help and didn’t help, well she did wind up helping him and became friends with him. And if you think I’m going to continue playing the race-bait card, that ain’t happening on this show. You can get it on other shows, you’re not going to get it here.

There is virtually no mention of race in the Washington Examiner piece other than that the plaintiffs in Pigford were black. The piece describes an entirely alternative reasoning for Sherrod’s treatment which is, like Castner drones on about, much more substantial than the tired question of black-vs-white.

So exasperated, I sent a follow-up e-mail to Castner when he was wrapping up the above. Entitled “Nice Work,” it reads as follows:

Had you hit the link you would recognize there is a lot of substantial information on Shirley Sherrod which has NOTHING to do with race and has a great deal with why once she became a household name the USDA couldn’t wait to get rid of her. It involves billions of dollars and lawsuits and a potentially corrupt appointment which might be a nice scandal in its own right.
 
The link is not to the Hayride, which you obviously have little respect for and have never even bothered to look at, but to the Washington Examiner – by no means “some blog” unworthy of reputable attention.
 
That’s fine. You missed the story. Somebody else will pick it up.

Castner’s response is at the end of the linked audio file, and it’s not friendly. I won’t go into the trouble of transcribing it because it contributes little to the substance of the exchange. But it’s clear that the host never read the piece in question – even after it was explained what was discussed in it. Instead, he got huffy. He also chose not to read the second e-mail, as he had the first, though he began to. Perhaps Castner realized that the first paragraph of the second e-mail would invalidate virtually everything he said in response to the first; who knows.

The point of this? Baton Rouge’s major talk station has as its afternoon drive-time host someone who doesn’t seem to be very curious about the stories he’s discussing on the air. That’s unfortunate, as it’s another example of how a failure to get to the bottom of the important issues of the day by media people consume in mass quantities lead to an uninformed public.

There might be nothing more to Shirley Sherrod than a series of unfortunate video clips. But there are real questions to be asked about the circumstances of her employment, and they have nothing to do with whether she hates white people or not. Castner hammered away for a whole hour about how folks need to get off race, and then he refused to even consider something much more important when it was served to him on a silver platter.

The listeners to his show weren’t well served by that decision.

UPDATE: The background behind the Shirley Sherrod hiring and firing has the potential to be a gigantic story – and potentially a major scandal in its own right. It’s anything but crazy to suggest she was run off as a means of attempting to put a lid on the Pigford settlements.

For example, here’s a story from last year, when the Obama administration first proposed a $1.25 billion fund to pay claims under Pigford, by NBC affiliate WALB-TV in Albany, GA…

Black Farmers filed the Pigford Class Action Lawsuit in 1997 against the USDA for discrimination in loan practices. Now advocates say the Obama settlement offer is good news, but still not enough money to make up for what it cost.

One point 25 billion is not enough,” said Shirley Sherrod, Georgia Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. “So now we’re scrambling to see what we are going to do.”

In 2008’s Farm Bill the offer was $100 million. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack says he wants to correct past errors by the USDA and move forward with a new civil rights program.

Now black farmer groups will meet to decide if this offer will be accepted, and how it will be distributed, to finally bring the long fight to a close.

So we don’t have to deal with discrimination from this point on. We can just deal with the business of farming and development in the rural area,” Sherrod said.

The Obama administration increased the settlement offer in Pigford cases, including the one Sherrod was involved with, TWELVE TIMES over what the previous administration had budgeted with a Democrat Congress. No wonder Sherrod and her group agreed to a settlement.

There’s more. It seems that, as you may have read above, you’d qualify for a Pigford settlement if you fit the class of plaintiffs and could credibly allege that you’d even thought about farming prior to the instigation of the suit. Naturally, that made Pigford cases ripe for abuse

However, the seeds of a vast scam were sown: with only a simple affidavit signed by someone who alleged he had applied for a loan or merely that he had “attempted to own or lease farm land,” $50,000 (tax free no less) would be paid out. Upon a slightly greater showing of proof (“a preponderance of the evidence”) even more money could be claimed.

Claimants did not need to prove that they ever actually farmed — or ever applied for a loan, only that they “attempted to farm” explains USDA’s General Counsel Marc Kesselman. Could someone sitting on their couch get money by saying they thought about farming in the 1990’s? Kesselman says that “folks have to sign an affidavit with sufficient detail” to describe how they attempted to farm. Well, people wouldn’t lie, would they?

What happened next was an extraordinary example of fraud on a massive scale. The USDA did its job under the consent decree. It provided notice to potential claimants and took steps to advertise the class settlement. Nearly a half a million dollars was spent to advertise on cable TV and in newspapers, with special attention to African American press.

The consent decree which ended the lawsuit provided that farmers who had suffered discrimination could come forward to present claims and receive compensation.

Within the original time period for claimants to come forward some 22,440 claims were made. Only 1420 of these were actual borrowers. Employees of USDA and others privy to the details of the settlement are blunt: they consider the vast majority of the claims to have been fraudulent. They suspect that so-called civil rights activists and by class action lawyers eager to sign up as many potential claimants as possible simply rounded up as many individuals as they could find, even if they never farmed, never applied for a loan and never seriously pursued farming. With the minimal proof needed for a $50,000 settlement 67% of the claims were approved by an independent arbitrator.

Wait, there’s more…

After the initial time period for the settlement ran out in October 1999 the consent decree provided for another period of eleven months whereby claimants upon “extraordinary circumstances” could still file claims. More than 65,000 additional claimants stepped forward to file claim requests. Another 8000 then came forward with their late claims. (So in a universe of 18,500 farmers in 1997, 96,000 individuals managed to make claims.) But there had been a court-imposed deadline. Wasn’t this the end of the road? Not by a long shot.

Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) is one of the few legislators who has attempted to question this boondoggle. He terms this a case of “significant fraud.” King contends that at least 75% of the claims are fraudulent, the work of plaintiff’s counsel and activists who spread the word in African American communities that individuals, many of whom had never even farmed, were entitled to these monies. Asked if any of his colleagues seem inclined to rock the boat and challenge this give away, he says bluntly, “No.”

Although the evidence is plain, the fear of being labeled as “insensitive” or “opposing civil rights remedies” has kept most every legislator from stepping forward to challenge the gravy train of cash give away. After all, it’s only your money.

Bear in mind, the staggering numbers from the Human Events piece referenced above were 2008 numbers – we’re talking about a situation where it appears massive fraud and waste was occurring and had been for 11 years at that time. The 2008 Farm Bill had $100 million set aside to finish off the remaining claims, after countless millions had already been spent on cases the USDA and others knew or had good reason to suspect were fraudulent.

And along came Obama, who turned that $100 million into $1.2 billion. Which Shirley Sherrod, prior to her USDA appointment, said wasn’t enough. Then Sherrod hit the jackpot with a $13 million settlement for her group and a plush federal job from which she said she couldn’t be fired – until all this started tumbling out into the media, at which time she was run off so rapidly her head is still spinning.

Let’s ask this again – should Michael Castner maybe have had a look at that Washington Examiner piece?

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