Thursday, July 22, 2010

exemplar

NYTimes | The White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized profusely and repeatedly on Wednesday to a black midlevel official for the way she had been humiliated and forced to resign her Agriculture Department job after a conservative blogger put out a misleading video clip that seemed to show her admitting antipathy toward a white farmer.

By the end of the day, the official, Shirley Sherrod, had gained instant fame and emerged as the heroine of a compelling story about race and redemption.

Pretty much everyone else had egg on his face — from the conservative bloggers and pundits who first pushed the inaccurate story to Mr. Vilsack, who looked stricken as he told reporters he had offered Ms. Sherrod, until Monday the Agriculture Department’s rural development director in Georgia, a new job that would give her a “unique opportunity” to help the agency move past its checkered civil rights history. She told him she would think about it.

“This is a good woman, she’s been put through hell and I could have and should have done a better job,” Mr. Vilsack said, as he conceded that he had ordered Ms. Sherrod’s firing in haste, without knowing that the video clip, from a speech she gave to the N.A.A.C.P., had been taken out of context. He said that he had acted on his own, and that there was “no pressure from the White House.”

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.

The full video of Ms. Sherrod’s March speech to an N.A.A.C.P. gathering in Douglas, Ga., shows that it was a consciousness-raising story. Ms. Sherrod’s father was murdered in 1965 by white men who were never indicted; she spoke about how in response, she vowed to stay in the South and work for change. She married the Rev. Charles Sherrod, a civil rights leader and cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.