Abuse of Trust: Anatomy of a Breakdown

From this blogpost’s title, you’re probably assuming this is about the BP oil spill, or the SEC’s settlement with Goldman Sachs, the recent financial legislation, or a new perspective on Bernie Madoff.

Instead, I want to shine a flashlight on l’affaire Sherrod. From a trust perspective.

For those of you outside the US, the bare narrative is this: Fox News played a videotape of a speech by a federal government employee, which appeared to be racist, and called for her resignation. In very short order, the government did indeed fire her, without checking on the facts.

The Shirley Sherrod Case

Those of you in the US, I’m not going to link here to any more background. The newspapers are full of it.

What I do want to suggest is to offer a case example of how trust breaks down, in the only terms that matter: yours.

Here is a link to the original Fox video; the first 45 seconds are about this story.

Here is the foxnews.com coverage of the video, on July 20—a quick read.

Now: most of you know what came next. But you almost certainly know it from secondary sources. Rarely, these days, do we actually get to make up our own minds from primary material.

We have an opportunity here to contrast punditry with original source material. Ask yourself what you know of the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. Google it a bit if you want. Then compare it with the actual video, here.

In the same vein, may I strongly suggest that all of you seize this opportunity to view Ms. Sherrod’s original video in its entirety. It’s not a light request: the entire video lasts 43 minutes, and the ‘hot stuff’ is scattered throughout the middle section. 

I still suggest you look at it. This is a teachable moment. But don’t be taught by what you hear from the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times, or the NAACP, or pundits of the right or of the left–the signal-to-noise ratio is huge. Instead, seize this opportunity to teach yourself.

I won’t say anymore just now; I’ll add my own comments in a few days. 

There is a ton of learning to be had by each of us watching the original source material—at roughly the same time the opinion makers are all ossifying the official learnings. 

There is to be had here learning about how we come to trust, who we trust, how much power we grant to those we trust, and the benefits and risks of trusting others.

So–if you can find time to watch the original, please share with us what you learned from it.

4 replies
  1. Jeri Sessler
    Jeri Sessler says:

    It is amazing to me how much individuals grant "trust by proxy" to news agencies who claim to be objective journalists but, in fact, are anything but and have their own agendas to promote.  And then, having attributed this trust proxy to the news agency, act on the so-called information in a way that is irresponsible, because of specious assumptions related to the edited content (out of context and rearranged in a way that created conclusions totally out of synch with reality).

  2. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    For anyone out there who’s daunted by Charlie’s invitation to spend 45 minutes watching the source video, I only had to get to 3:18 to get invaluable context for this whole mess–context that casts her well-publicized comments in a VASTLY different light. I have a hunch I know what I’d see if I watched the whole thing, which would no doubt leave me even more incensed than I already am about how irresponsible it is to kill someone’s career over a sound bite.

    For me the lesson here is about the power context … and how context makes it possible for us to relate to other humans (or not). And relating to other humans matters because that’s how we experience empathy. And empathy, I’ve said once or twice or maybe 10 times, has a little something to do with influence.

    I’m also aware of my own tendency to hear a sound bite from/about a client and take that as truth ("The CEO isn’t on board with this — he’s made it clear he doesn’t have time to spend on this effort." — who said? what is "this effort" being referred to? what does this really mean? Often I don’t bother to stop and ask all those questions.) Thank you for the important reminder, Charlie, to check my assumptions at the door.

  3. Lance E. Osborne
    Lance E. Osborne says:


    First of all, thank you for pulling my head out of the sand in regards to this topic. I was on holiday overseas when this broke and had successfully avoided what I thought was yet another embarrassing polarized-America moment by simply turning my back on the whole story.
    I’ve completed the homework assignment plus some additional research and now feel a bit more educated. I say “a bit” because, as you stated, “the opinion makers are all ossifying the official learnings” so one must tease out the facts.
    Charlie, not that you likely ever wasted brain cells on such mind candy in your youth, but I am reminded of the old Mad magazines and the regular feature entitled, Spy vs. Spy. From Wikipedia: the comic featured two spies who were constantly warring against each other, and coming up with increasingly sophisticated ways of doing away with the other. Only in the Shirley Sherrod situation, the two bungling spies (our polarized right and left) have accidently done away with an innocent person’s job and reputation.
    Where was the due diligence from either side?
    One of the pundits (doesn’t really matter from which side and yes this is out of context but does fairly represent) actually said the words, “…to be honest with you, I could care less about Shirley Sherrod.”
    I guess that’s the understatement of the day. Here was a person—who had lived through terror, the murder of family members, discrimination and poverty—and admitted these horrible experiences had tainted her, had made her bias in her youth but that she had transformed. Her story (the 43 minute version) was about that transformation—the before and the after; the “after” coming from a realization that color was not the primary divider. And in being transparent, the story of her transformation was all the more credible.
    In fact, based on 43 minutes of her story, I would wager that her self-orientation score would be pretty low. I based this on several of her statements such as “couldn’t live with hate” “overcome the divisions” “race exists but it doesn’t matter” a quote from Toni Morrison and “reach back and help somebody.” The small amount of evidence indicates that Shirley Sherrod could be very trustworthy. The two spies missed that.
    The two spies are at opposite ends of the “Trust Outcome” scale (+5, +4, +3, +2, +1, 0, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5, a scale based on the combination of ego, greed, fear, ignorance, geography, population density, law enforcement, and political polarization.) The two spies are perfect +5’s and -5’s. Remember that +5’s don’t trust -5’s, -5’s don’t trust +5’s, and neither are trustworthy.
  4. John Gies
    John Gies says:

    Thanks again for a reasoned approach to what could be a hot topic. I was hot when I heard that the tape had been edited. And while Fox leveraged this to rile up the masses (It seems Dan Rather isn’t the only one needing a fact checker); it is really the Administration that needs to consider their response.

    Fox has pulled their chain on so many occassions one would think that given the source of this report someone would have checked the facts before taking a drastic step like ermination.

    My Father many years ago encouraged me to read the same story in a variety of sources to "sort out" what is real from the points of view. Sadly as others have said, as a nation we have found our source for Truth…FOX, CNN or MSNBC and we’re sticking to it regardless of the facts.




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