By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
Shirley Sherrod has been offered a new job in the Department of Agriculture. And by the time you read this, I hope she has taken it. She was done wrong. And she would never have been fired in the first place if her superiors had taken the time to learn all the facts before they jumped.
But her story is not just one of administration overreaction. It’s also a case of irresponsibility on the part of the news media. And part of a continuing campaign by Fox News and right-wing talk show hosts to paint President Obama as a dangerous racist.
Sherrod’s rollercoaster ride began when right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart — the same man who hired actors to infiltrate ACORN’s offices and bug the phones of Sen. Mary Landrieu — posted video of a speech she gave on March 27 to a Georgia branch of the NAACP. Breitbart, who posted only two minutes and 38 seconds of a 43-minute speech, admits his motivation was to get even with the NAACP for challenging racist elements of the Tea Party.
In that short clip, Sherrod recounted an incident that happened 24 years earlier. While working for a nonprofit farmers aid organization, she was approached for help by a white farmer. Remembering how many black farmers had lost their farms, she told her audience, “I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.”
Racist! As soon as that clip started circulating on the Internet, Sherrod was condemned by the NAACP and ordered by USDA official Cheryl Cook to submit her letter of resignation immediately. Which she dutifully did.
There’s only one problem. Nobody bothered to watch the full 43-minute speech before acting or reporting on it. When they did, it was clear that Sherrod was saying the exact opposite of what she appeared to be saying in the shorter video. Yes, at first, she was not inclined to help the white farmer. But he helped her realize that race didn’t matter. His situation “opened my eyes,” she confessed, that the real struggle was “about the poor versus those who have.” As long as farmers were poor, whether black or white, they were at risk of losing their land. So she found the white couple a lawyer. And without her help, they told CNN, they would have lost everything.
Then, overnight, everything turned around. The NAACP apologized. The Black Caucus demanded an investigation. The White House apologized. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack not only apologized, he offered to create a new position for her in Department headquarters.
For all concerned, it was an embarrassing mess that never should have happened. It was also, as Press Secretary Robert Gibbs volunteered, a “teachable moment.” And the lessons learned were several.
Starting with: You can’t believe what you see or hear on Andrew Breitbart’s website, right-wing talk radio, or Fox News. The Shirley Sherrod incident does not stand alone. It’s part of a carefully orchestrated propaganda operation to portray President Obama as a racist. It started during the campaign, with rumors of a videotape of Michelle Obama criticizing “whitey.” It continued with Glenn Beck accusing Obama of having “a deep-seated hatred for white people” and with reporters denouncing as “racist” Obama’s anger at the treatment his friend Henry Louis Gates Jr. received from the Cambridge Police Department.
Conservative bomb-thrower Breitbart released the edited Sherrod video for the same purpose: to build the absurd case that our first black president, and members of his administration, have a secret agenda to advance the interests of black Americans at the expense of white Americans.
The video flap also reveals the appalling state of the media today, and not just Fox News. Sure, Fox had its own agenda in running with the Breitbart video, but what about CNN, MSNBC, and the networks? They were so interested in fanning the flames of another racial scandal that they forgot the basic rule of good journalism: verify, verify, verify. Surely someone, somewhere, should have hollered: “Stop! Let’s get all the facts first.”
Nor is this the first time the Obama White House has cowered in the face of criticism from conservative media. First, Green Jobs Czar Van Johnson. Then National Endowment for the Arts Communications Director Yosi Sergant. Now, Shirley Sherrod: the third member of the administration to be targeted by Fox News, and the third forced to resign.
Last lesson learned: The Obama White House is too quick to throw its own people under the bus.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.