April 27, 2013

NYT’s 5,000-Word Story on Pigford Fraud ‘Vindicates’ Andrew Breitbart; But Where Have They Been All These Years?

On Thursday for Friday’s print edition, the New York Times carried a weakly headlined but well-written story entitled “U.S. Opens Spigot After Farmers Claim Discrimination” on its front page. Written by Sharon LaFraniere with the help of three others, it laid out how what began in 1997 as a class-action suit by black farmers (Pigford v. Glickman) claiming they had suffered discrimination at the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture “became a runaway train, driven by racial politics, pressure from influential members of Congress and law firms.” Moreover, LaFraniere covered how the scope of the litigation grew “to encompass a second group of African-Americans as well as Hispanic, female and Native American farmers” to the tune of over 90,000 claims and potential ultimate taxpayer cost of over $4.4 billion, in the process morphing into a vehicle for the Obama administration to unjustifiably dole out taxpayer money to as many people and constituent groups as possible. It is worth reading the entire story, though it will make just about anyone concerned about the financial and cultural future of this nation shudder.

The Times coverage indeed “vindicates” the late Andrew Breitbart, whose Big Government blog exposed the fraud associated with Pigford, but that vindication is hardly satisfying. We’re supposed to be impressed that the paper finally got around to substantively covering it, and that the paper even noted the “Public criticism (which) came primarily from conservative news outlets like Breitbart.com and from Congressional conservatives like Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, who described the program as rife with fraud.” I don’t see why.

A search at the Times’s web site indicates that LaFraniere’s coverage is the first and only instance where Breitbart’s name and Pigford appear in the same story. A Times search on Breitbart’s name and that of Shirley Sherrod, one of the original Pigford litigants, returns 55 results. These results indicate that the Times devoted over 50 items to covering the back-and-forth between Breitbart and Sherrod over a video of Sherrod’s speech at an NAACP event and the related fallout without even once mentioning the Pigford lawsuit by name.

Coverage of the lawsuit itself is sparse, with a search on “Pigford lawsuit” (not in quotes) returning only 13 results. One of them is an editorial from February 2010, five months before the initial Breitbart-Sherrod dustup, in which the Times likened Pigford to the Supreme Court case which outlawed segregated public schools (published in full for maximum embarrassment; bolds are mine):

Pay Up

Claimants are still looking for their money, more than a decade after the federal Department of Agriculture reached a landmark settlement for having cheated generations of black farmers through “indifference and blatant discrimination.” The 1999 agreement on what is known as the Pigford class-action lawsuit was hailed as the biggest civil rights settlement in American history. The judge estimated a swift $2 billion payout — or $60,000 each — for victimized black farmers.

It has not worked out that way, as the White House’s new budget confirms with a request for $1.15 billion to pay still-pending claims from black farmers. The same amount was requested last year but did not survive the self-interested knives and elbows of the Congressional budget scrum.

The class-action suit detailed how eligible black farmers traditionally were denied loans by the agriculture agency while their white peers went to the head of the line for growing-season wherewithal and homestead improvements.

After the settlement, some farmers got their money, but far too many ran into a new buzz saw. They were stalled and rejected through paperwork technicalities, tight deadlines and a lengthy appeals process that officials insisted was necessary. There was early confusion within the Obama administration about whether the settlement process had been capped, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack insists no; the aim, he says, is to finally “close this unfortunate chapter.”

Pigford v. Glickman has not resonated across the land like Brown v. Board of Education, but the very same history of crippling injustice is at its heart. The Pigford settlement will remain a misnomer until the nation rights this historic injustice and pays what it owes.

Anyone who cared enough to investigate the situation at the time could have learned that the “runaway train” was already near full speed. But the Times didn’t.

In November 2010, months after Breitbart and others had exposed much of the Pigford fraud, a Times story on what was then described as a $4.55 billion settlement barely mentioned it, quoting Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and then giving a defender a chance to respond with what LaFraniere’s story demonstrates is a flat-out lie:

While members of both parties have said they supported compensation for the farmers and the Native Americans, some Republicans oppose the bill. Representative Michele Bachman has claimed that the black farmers’ suit was “rife with fraud” because there (are) more claimants than there are black farmers.

John W Boyd Jr., the president of the National Black Farmers Association, countered that the dwindled number of black farmers was a result of the discrimination patterns alleged in the suit.

“This case ain’t got a thing to do with fraud,” he said Tuesday. “It’s about a group of black farmers complaining about what was done to them and seeking justice.”

The Times could have exposed the Pigford-related fraud any time during 2011 and 2012. But it didn’t, more than likely because President Obama was firmly behind the settlement, even to the point saying, as quote in that November 2010 story, that “while today’s vote demonstrates important progress, we must remember that much work remains to be done.” (When does it ever end?) But it didn’t.

Now that Obama has been reelected, it’s safe to cover Pigford. Now the Times can say, “See? We covered it.”

Contrary to what many center-right bloggers and commentators are claiming, I don’t think that Andrew Breitbart is “smiling” about all of this.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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