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Finger-pointing at Fox in Shirley Sherrod firing

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010; 8:31 AM

The White House spokesman and the agriculture secretary weren't the only ones offering regrets Wednesday to the USDA 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 Undersecretary 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.

(Video: Vilsack to hire Sherrod back)

On Monday night, O'Reilly played the clip posted by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart on his site BigGovernment.com. He 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 race-based bias 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.

(Video: Washington Post's Chris Cillizza talks about Sherrod on 'Topline')

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 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."

Story goes viral

The MSM are primarily interesting in blaming the administration (although Keith Olbermann included his own network in criticizing the media's handling of the mess).

"The Obama administration issued an extraordinary public apology Wednesday and offered to reinstate a federal official who was fired after she appeared to make racial comments on a misleading snippet of video," the L.A Times reports.

"The events came as an embarrassment to Obama administration officials, who have sought to depict themselves as immune to the blogosphere and demands of the news cycle."

The New York Times includes this section on the media:

"Mr. Vilsack's late-afternoon appearance capped a humiliating and fast-paced few days not only for the White House, but also for the N.A.A.C.P. and the national news media, especially the Fox News Channel and its hosts Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, all of whom played a role in promoting the story about Ms. Sherrod.

"The controversy illustrates the influence of right-wing Web sites like the one run by Andrew Breitbart, the blogger who initially posted the misleading and highly edited video, which he later said had been sent to him already edited. (Similarly, Mr. Breitbart used edited videos to go after Acorn, the community organizing group.) Politically charged stories often take root online before being shared with a much wider audience on Fox. The television coverage, in turn, puts pressure on other news media outlets to follow up."

That may be true generally, but the problem with the chronology in this case is that by the time the O'Reilly and Hannity comments aired Monday night, Sherrod had already been cashiered.

The White House wanted Wednesday to be about the president signing the financial regulation bill. But the Sherrod fiasco dominated the Robert Gibbs briefing.

Politico's Ben Smith, looking at recent racial dustups, concludes that "the conversation just got dumber.

"The America of 2010 is dominated by racial images out of farce and parody, caricatures not seen since the glory days of Shaft. Fox News often stars a leather-clad New Black Panther, while MSNBC scours the tea party movement for racist elements, which one could probably find in any mass organization in America. Obama's own, sole foray into the issue of race involved calling a police officer 'stupid,' and regretting his own words. Conservative leaders and the NAACP, the venerable civil-rights group, recently engaged in a round of bitter name-calling that left both groups wounded and crying foul. Political correctness continues to reign in parts of the left, and now has a match in the belligerent grievance of conservatives demanding that hair-trigger allegations of racism be proven."

Atlantic's Marc Ambinder deconstructs the administration's handling of the mess:

"The executive branch realizes that the White House is extremely sensitive to the charge that Obama is using his presidency to advance the cause of black people. It's a tremendously silly charge, and maybe the White House shouldn't be so sensitive to it, but it's a real sensibility. One suspects that the moment that the specter of reverse racism was raised, the USDA's political appointees reacted almost unconsciously because they assumed the White House would blanch when the videotape was played. . . .

"The NAACP wasn't snookered. Vilsack was snookered. It doesn't matter why he was snookered, but he was. If he doesn't reinstate her, he'll look like a jerk who refused to admit he made a mistake. If he reinstates her, he might look like a wimp to some who object to Sherrod's economic inequality argument, or who refuse to acknowledge that Andrew Breitbart selectively edited a tape, but he'll also look like a guy who made a rash decision and had the judgment to reverse it.

"The White House is loath to touch anything resembling a racial thing, but this isn't a racial thing: it's a judgment thing. It's about thinking before speaking. It's about slowing down, it's about gathering evidence before making decisions, it's about doing the right thing."

From the right, David Frum unloads on the proprietor of BigGovernment.com:

"On the phone on the evening of July 20, a friend asked me: 'Can Breitbart possibly survive?' I could only laugh incredulously. I answered: 'Of course he'll survive, and undamaged. The incident won't matter at all.'

"There will be no apology or statement of regret for distributing a doctored tape to defame and destroy someone. There will be not even a flutter of interest among conservatives in discussing Breitbart's role. By the morning of July 21, the Fox & Friends morning show could devote a segment to the Sherrod case without so much as a mention of Breitbart's role. The central fact of the Sherrod story has been edited out of the conservative narrative, just as it was edited out of the tape itself.

"When people talk of the 'closing of the conservative mind' this is what they mean: not that conservatives are more narrow-minded than other people -- everybody can be narrow minded -- but that conservatives have a unique capacity to ignore unwelcome fact.

"When Dan Rather succumbed to the forged Bush war record hoax in 2004, CBS forced him into retirement. Breitbart is the conservative Dan Rather, but there will be no discredit, no resignation for him."

Jonah Goldberg delivers more of a rap on the knuckles:

"I think she's owed apologies from pretty much everyone, including my good friend Andrew Breitbart. I generally think Andrew is on the side of the angels and a great champion of the cause. He says he received the video in its edited form and I believe him. But the relevant question is, Would he have done the same thing over again if he had seen the full video from the outset? I'd like to think he wouldn't have. Because to knowingly turn this woman into a racist in order to fight fire with fire with the NAACP is unacceptable. When it seemed that Sherrod was a racist who abused her power, exposing her and the NAACP's hypocrisy was perfectly fair game. But now that we have the benefit of knowing the facts, the equation is completely different."

From the left, Washington Monthly's Steve Benen takes issue with Breitbart saying that "I feel sorry that they made this about her":

"Breitbart pushed a deliberately misleading video that went after Shirley Sherrod for no reason. He proceeded to label her a 'racist' who 'racially discriminates against a white farmer,' and demanded that the NAACP 'denounce the racism in the video.' That, of course, would be the racism that didn't exist when listening to the remarks in context.

"Breitbart's racially-motivated media stunt cost Sherrod her job, at least for now. But he regrets that 'they went after her'?"

Still, one fact is indisputable: It was Vilsack, not Breitbart, who kicked Sherrod out of her job.

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

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