Ousted official Shirley Sherrod blamed Fox, but other outlets ran with story

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010

The White House spokesman and the agriculture secretary weren't the only ones offering regrets Wednesday to the lower-level official abruptly fired over a videotape excerpt that turned out to be totally misleading. Bill O'Reilly apologized to Shirley Sherrod as well.

But for all the chatter -- some of it from Sherrod herself -- that she was done in by Fox News, the network didn't touch the story until her forced resignation was made public Monday evening, with the exception of brief comments by O'Reilly. After a news meeting Monday afternoon, an e-mail directive was sent to the news staff in which Fox Senior Vice President Michael Clemente said: "Let's take our time and get the facts straight on this story. Can we get confirmation and comments from Sherrod before going on-air. Let's make sure we do this right."

Sherrod may be the only official ever dismissed because of the fear that Fox host Glenn Beck might go after her. As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tried to pressure her into resigning, Sherrod says Deputy Under Secretary Cheryl Cook called her Monday to say "do it, because you're going to be on 'Glenn Beck' tonight." And for all the focus on Fox, much of the mainstream media ran with a fragmentary story that painted an obscure 62-year-old Georgian as an unrepentant racist.

On Monday night, O'Reilly had played the clip posted by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart on his site BigGovernment.com. O'Reilly led his Wednesday program by criticizing some of Sherrod's language but acknowledging his own mistake: "I owe Ms. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework . . . and for not putting her remarks into proper context." While the excerpt showed Sherrod, an African American, telling the NAACP in a speech that she had discriminated against a white farmer as a nonprofit aid officer 24 years ago, the full speech made clear she was saying she had overcome that racial instinct and learned an important lesson.

In his Monday comments, O'Reilly credited Breitbart with posting the excerpt and concluded that her remarks were "simply unacceptable. And Ms. Sherrod must resign immediately." O'Reilly taped the show at 5 p.m., and by the time it aired about 8:50, USDA had announced Sherrod's resignation (as Fox noted on the screen). Fox executives say O'Reilly's staff, which is not part of the news division, sought comment from USDA throughout the day.

Breitbart has worked closely with Fox opinion hosts in the past, most notably when he posted videos of two young activists ostensibly posing as a pimp and prostitute and seeking help from ACORN offices. Breitbart promoted those tapes on Sean Hannity's Fox program and the network gave them heavy play.

The administration's concern about Beck stems in part from his campaign last year that prompted the resignation of White House environmental official Van Jones over divisive remarks -- a controversy that some news organizations acknowledged they were too slow to cover. Ironically, Beck defended Sherrod on Tuesday, saying that "context matters" and he would have objected if someone had shown a video of him at an AA meeting saying he used to pass out from drinking but omitting the part where he says he found Jesus and gave up alcohol.

Breitbart told "Good Morning America" he had "no second thoughts" about posting the excerpt, which he says he did not edit, and sought to justify it by noting that the NAACP recently passed a resolution urging the "tea party" to disassociate itself from racism. "The video shows racism, and when the NAACP is going to charge the tea party with racism . . . I'm going to show you it happens on the other side," Breitbart said. On the same program, Eric Boehlert of the liberal advocacy group Media Matters told George Stephanopoulos: "Andrew had no idea what the context of the comments were, but that didn't stop him from launching the smear campaign."

Breitbart did not say how he obtained the tape he posted Monday morning, but he told CNN's John King he got it in March, when Sherrod appeared before the NAACP. He told MSNBC that "I feel sorry that they made this about her" and that the media have "misconstrued the intention behind this."

Sherrod ripped Fox in an interview Wednesday with Media Matters, saying the network would "love to take us back to where we were many years ago. Back to where black people were looking down, not looking white folks in the face, not being able to compete for a job out there and not be a whole person."

Clemente, the Fox executive, said in an interview that Sherrod "certainly could be forgiven for being confused." As for other critics, he said that blaming Fox is "a comfortable reflex for some people."

Even the NAACP, which had initially criticized Sherrod, beat an embarrassing retreat, after viewing the full tape -- and complaining that it had been "snookered" by Fox and Breitbart. Clemente said he never heard from the group's president, Benjamin Jealous, despite a recent lunch in which he says they agreed to get in touch when disputes arise. Fox says the NAACP did not respond to messages left by Clemente on Tuesday.

Once Sherrod's resignation was confirmed, it was obviously a significant news story that media outlets were entitled to chase. But they did so on the basis of one misleading clip before the NAACP made the full video available Tuesday.

There were signs of enterprising hustle, however. On Tuesday, CNN snagged interviews with Sherrod, Breitbart and Eloise Spooner, wife of the Georgia farmer whom Sherrod had aided and was the subject of her anecdote. "She gave enough that it helped save our farm," Spooner said.

With Vilsack now offering Sherrod a job and the media looking like they abetted the insta-tragedy, even many on the right were siding with the previously vilified Sherrod. "Her full speech is heartfelt and moving," wrote National Review Editor Rich Lowry. "It's the tale of someone overcoming hatred and rancor when she had every reason not to. Her saga over the last couple of days is a lesson in how the culture of offense often works in contemporary America -- chewing people up and spitting them out before they even have a chance to defend themselves."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."


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