NEW YORK – A conservative blog posts 2 minutes, 38 seconds of video clips of a black federal agriculture official saying she didn’t do everything she could to help a white farmer. The blogger labels it racism. Calls grow for the Obama administration to remove her. No one at the Agriculture Department or the White House checks further. The official is forced to resign.
Monday ends, but not the story.
A complete, 43-minute version of the video surfaces the next day, Tuesday, and casts a much different light on Shirley Sherrod’s comments: They were part of an NAACP speech about how she overcame her racial prejudice to help the farmer, not about prejudice that stopped her from helping him.
Now, the administration is criticized for wronging her by rushing to judgment.
By Wednesday afternoon, Sherrod is sitting at a studio in CNN’s Atlanta headquarters, watching on live television as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs apologizes to her.
She accepts and says: “Being afraid of the machine that the right has put out there that’s what’s driving this.”
A split screen shows her face and Gibbs’ in a surreal moment, concluding a whirlwind 48 hours in which conservative media had the Obama administration on the defensive.
Fox News Channel has been riding high in the ratings since Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president a year and a half ago. Commentators Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly offer a favorite destination for many administration opponents.The Sherrod story erupted after BigGovernment.com, a website run by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, posted portions of her speech at an NAACP banquet in March.
Breitbart’s story began: “Context is everything.” He said he offered “video evidence of racism coming from a federal appointee,” and followed with snippets of the speech.
On the video, Sherrod, hired last August as director of rural development for the U.S. Agriculture Department in Georgia, talked about her unwillingness to offer much help to a white farmer when she worked at a non-profit organization 24 years ago.
The story moved from the Internet to Fox News Channel on Monday night.
In seeking her resignation, Sherrod said, a USDA deputy undersecretary told her the story was going to appear on Beck’s program late Monday afternoon. Instead, Beck didn’t discuss it that day; it first appeared a few hours later on the top-rated prime-time show “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Host Bill O’Reilly showed the brief portion of Sherrod’s March speech where she explained that she didn’t give the white farmer “the full force of what I could do.”
“Wow!” O’Reilly said after the clip aired. “That is simply unacceptable, and Ms. Sherrod must resign. The federal government cannot have skin color deciding any assistance.”
As he talked, Fox flashed the news on the bottom of its screen that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had accepted Sherrod’s resignation.
Fox’s Sean Hannity aired the same short snippet of Sherrod’s speech shortly afterward.
“This was at an NAACP dinner, and this was racist,” Hannity said.
CNN’s Rick Sanchez said producers there were intrigued by Biggovernment.com’s posting and immediately started reporting on it. But with all the questions involved — Was this a fair characterization of Sherrod’s full speech? Can she be reached to give her side of the story? — they wouldn’t be ready to discuss it on his afternoon show until Tuesday, he said.
By then, the story rushed by.
“As journalists, we have to protect ourselves the best we can,” Sanchez said. “It’s easy for it to happen to anybody, by the way — jump to a conclusion, get excited, look at the coverage. It’s kind of like creating a bandwagon effect. Once you get on the bandwagon, you can’t hit the brakes.”
By Tuesday morning, “Fox & Friends” headlined the story “Racism Caught on Tape.”
Commentator Laura Ingraham talked about “people who have burrowed their way into the Obama administration with radical outlooks, a radical agenda and, in this case, a racist sentiment. How many more like Ms. Sherrod exist in the Obama administration who weren’t so stupid as she was to actually explicitly state her views on the issue of race?”
When the full tape became available later, it was clear that Sherrod said the case taught her a lesson about the importance of helping all those in need, regardless of race.
“What’s happening here is that she’s guilty until proven innocent,” Beck said on his show. “They fired her and now they are back-pedaling. There’s no due process here. Doesn’t an American have a right to a fair trial? They have politically assassinated this woman. No one has heard the case for or against her, they just took her out. When did we stop having the right to face our accusers?”
It’s not clear when, or if, someone at Fox saw the full tape.
Fox spokeswoman Irena Briganti and David Tabacoff, executive producer of “The O’Reilly Factor,” did not immediately return calls for comment. Sherrod said that she wasn’t contacted by anyone at Fox until Tuesday, when she refused their requests for an interview.
After a video of her full speech was posted online by the NAACP, the White House called the Agriculture Department on Tuesday night, and it was agreed that her ouster should be reviewed.
As more came out Tuesday about Sherrod’s speech, Fox’s focus shifted. “Race Story Takes Strange Twist” was Wednesday’s headline on “Fox & Friends.”
“They may have acted without knowing the whole story,” co-host Brian Kilmeade said of the administration.
Breitbart did not immediately respond to an AP request for an interview.
But on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Wednesday, he said his story “was not about Shirley Sherrod.” Instead, he said, the video provides evidence of Georgia NAACP members applauding or laughing at racist behavior, at the same time national NAACP figures are criticizing the tea party movement for having members that express racist sentiments.”
Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com attracted attention last year for airing video of workers at the community group ACORN counseling actors posing as a prostitute and her boyfriend. This month, Fox News has aggressively reported the story about the U.S. Justice Department choosing not to pursue a voter intimidation cases involving the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia.
Paul Levinson, a journalism professor at Fordham University, said those cases — and the attention they received on Fox — were likely on the mind of Obama administration officials when Breitbart’s story on Sherrod first appeared.
“They panicked,” Levinson said. “They’re giving the media far more power than they should have.”
In issuing his apology, Gibbs said the government, media and interest groups on all sides made quick determinations without knowing all the facts involved.
“One of the great lessons you take away from this is to ask all the questions first and come to a full understanding,” he said.