The 'Electronic Brownshirts'
Judy Ancel, a Kansas City, Mo., professor, and her St. Louis colleague were teaching a labor history class together this spring semester. Little did they know, video recordings of the class were making their way into the thriving sub rosa world of right-wing attack video editing, twisting their words in a way that resulted in the loss of one of the professors’ jobs amidst a wave of intimidation and death threats. Fortunately, reason and solid facts prevailed, and the videos ultimately were exposed for what they were: fraudulent, deceptive, sloppily edited hit pieces.
Right-wing media personality Andrew Breitbart is the forceful advocate of the slew of deceptively edited videos that target and smear progressive individuals and institutions. He promoted the videos that purported to catch employees of the community organization ACORN assisting a couple in setting up a prostitution ring. He showcased the edited video of Shirley Sherrod, an African-American employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which completely convoluted her speech, making her appear to admit to discriminating against a white farmer. She was fired as a result of the cooked-up controversy. Similar video attacks have been waged against Planned Parenthood.
Ancel has been the director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Institute for Labor Studies since 1988. Using a live video link, she co-teaches a course on the history of the labor movement with professor Don Giljum, who teaches at University of Missouri-St. Louis. The course comprises seven daylong, interactive sessions throughout the semester. They are video-recorded and made available through a password-protected system to students registered in the class. One of those students, Philip Christofanelli, copied the videos, and he admits on one of Breitbart’s sites that he did “give them out in their entirety to a number of my friends.” At some point, a series of highly and very deceptively edited renditions of the classes appeared on Breitbart’s website. It was then that Ancel’s and Giljum’s lives were disrupted, and the death threats started.
A post on Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com summarized the video: “The professors not only advocate the occasional need for violence and industrial sabotage, they outline specific tactics that can be used.” Ancel told me, “I was just appalled, because I knew it was me speaking, but it wasn’t saying what I had said in class.” She related the attack against her and Giljum to the broader attack on progressive institutions currently:
“These kinds of attacks are the equivalent of electronic brownshirts. They create so much fear, and they are so directed against anything that is progressive—the right to an education, the rights of unions, the rights of working people—I see, are all part of an overall attack to silence the majority of people and create the kind of climate of fear that allows for us to move very, very sharply to the right. And it’s very frightening."
Ancel’s contact information was included in the attack video, as was Giljum’s. She received a flurry of threatening emails. Giljum received at least two death threats over the phone. The University of Missouri conducted an investigation into the charges prompted by the videos, during which time they posted uniformed and plainclothes police in the classrooms. Giljum is an adjunct professor, with a full-time job working as the business manager for Operating Engineers Local 148, a union in St. Louis. Meanwhile, the union acceded to pressure from the Missouri AFL-CIO, and asked Giljum to resign, just days before his May 1 retirement after working there for 27 years.
Gail Hackett, provost of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, released a statement after the investigation, clearing the two professors of any wrongdoing:
“It is clear that edited videos posted on the Internet depict statements from the instructors in an inaccurate and distorted manner by taking their statements out of context and reordering the sequence in which those statements were actually made so as to change their meaning.”
The University of Missouri-St. Louis also weighed in with similar findings and stated that Giljum was still eligible to teach there.
On April 18, Andrew Breitbart appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, declaring, “We are going to take on education next, go after the teachers and the union organizers.” It looks as if Ancel and Giljum were the first targets of that attack.
In this case, the attack failed. While ACORN was ultimately vindicated by a congressional investigation, the attack took its toll, and the organization lost its funding and collapsed. President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to Shirley Sherrod, and Vilsack begged her to return to work. Sherrod has a book coming out and a lawsuit pending against Breitbart.
Let’s hope this is a sign that deception, intimidation and the influence of the right-wing echo chamber are on the decline.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
© 2011 Amy Goodman