Administration apologizes to official fired over distorted race video
An embarrassed White House apologized on Wednesday to a black Agriculture Department employee who was ousted for her remarks on a misleading snippet of video.
Tribune Washington bureau
The full video: www.naacp.org/news/entry/video_sherrod
How the case caught fire
Conservative Andrew Breitbart on Monday posted a 2 ½-minute snippet of Shirley Sherrod's 43-minute NAACP speech on his website, BigGovernment.com.
Fox News Channel then began its pursuit of Sherrod in prime time Monday night on three successive opinion shows that reached at least 3 million people.
Leading off, Bill O'Reilly asked on his top-rated program, "Is there racism in the Department of Agriculture?" He discussed the tape, plugged Breitbart's website and demanded that Sherrod resign immediately. By the time O'Reilly's remarks, taped in the afternoon, were broadcast, Sherrod had resigned.
Next up, Sean Hannity treated the resignation as breaking news. He played a short part of what he called the "shocking" video from Breitbart and later discussed the development with a panel of guests, mentioning the NAACP's recent accusations of racism within the conservative tea-party movement.
Fox's 7 p.m. show also covered the resignation as breaking news (Sherrod says Fox never tried to contact her before running the video clip repeatedly Monday).
By Tuesday, Sherrod's forced resignation was the talk of cable-television news.
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration issued an extraordinary public apology Wednesday and offered to reinstate a federal official fired after she appeared to make racial comments on a misleading snippet of video.
When it became clear that Shirley Sherrod's comments had been taken out of context, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to her by phone and asked if she would return to the department.
The events came as an embarrassment to Obama administration officials, who have depicted themselves as immune to the blogosphere and demands of the news cycle. In this case, though, the administration fired the woman based on Vilsack's reading of a video transcript that left the inaccurate impression that Sherrod, a black USDA official, had deliberately not helped a white man save his family farm in 1986, when she worked for a Georgia nonprofit.
As the video went viral, putting pressure on the White House to respond, Vilsack made the quick decision to dismiss Sherrod.
"This is a good woman. She's been put through hell," Vilsack said Wednesday. "I could have done and should have done a better job."
He did not describe the new position, but hinted it might involve a promotion to a position dealing with civil-rights claims.
Sherrod, in an interview with The Associated Press, said, "They did make an offer. I just told him I need to think about it."
The White House role in the firing remains unclear. Vilsack denied he had received "pressure" but said he discussed his actions with a White House liaison.
In interviews, Sherrod has said department undersecretary Cheryl Cook phoned her Monday and told her that White House officials wanted her to quit. Sherrod said Cook also told her the story would be mentioned on the cable show hosted by Fox News network conservative commentator Glenn Beck, a harsh White House critic.
White House officials denied they sought Sherrod's resignation.
Vilsack's news conference followed a press briefing by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who also apologized on behalf of the administration. Sherrod was shown in a CNN studio viewing Gibbs' briefing, and smiled as the apology was expressed in real time.
The story began Monday, when Andrew Breitbart, a conservative-media entrepreneur, posted a 2 ½-minute video of Sherrod addressing a local NAACP meeting in Georgia in 1986. In those moments, Sherrod discusses her dealings with a white farmer and says she was reluctant to give him the "full force of what I could do."
That touched off a fury in conservative-media outlets, which have forced White House retreats in the past. "Ms. Sherrod must resign immediately," Fox's Bill O'Reilly said.
But the NAACP weighed in, too, calling Sherrod's statements "shameful."
A fuller picture emerged Tuesday when the NAACP released the complete 45-minute video of Sherrod's speech. In it, Sherrod tells the story of her father's death in 1965, saying he was killed by white men who never were charged. She says she made a commitment to stay in the South the night of her father's death, despite the dreams she had of leaving her rural town.
"When I made that commitment I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only," she said. "But you know God will show you things and he'll put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people."
She said the encounter with the white farmer taught her that poor people of all races needed help, which she resolved to give.
People who know Sherrod quickly defended her, including the wife of the white farmer discussed in the speech. "We probably wouldn't have (our farm) today if it hadn't been for her leading us in the right direction," said Eloise Spooner of Iron City, Ga. "I wish she could get her job back because she was good to us, I tell you."
Ultimately, the full video caused the White House to reconsider. President Obama had been briefed on the matter Tuesday morning and voiced support for the firing. With the unedited video circulating, White House officials changed their stance that night. They asked Vilsack to review the firing, which he agreed to do.
He issued a statement after 2 a.m. Wednesday saying he would consider "new facts" in the case. The NAACP earlier retracted its criticism, saying it had been "snookered" by the video posted on Breitbart's site.
With each hour, Sherrod picked up more sympathy. The Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement: "It is now apparent that Secretary Vilsack did not have all of the facts available to him and overreacted."
Even one conservative Fox commentator expressed remorse: "I owe Ms. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework and for not putting her remarks into proper context," O'Reilly said in a script prepared for his show.
The Obama administration, sensitive to criticism that it is beholden to liberal interests, has a history of relenting once an issue catches fire in the conservative media. For weeks last summer, Fox's Beck complained about Van Jones, the administration's green-jobs czar. But when news surfaced that Jones had signed a controversial petition concerning the Sept. 11 attacks, he was out of a job within days.
Similarly, federal officials spent months deflecting conservative criticism of the nonprofit Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. But federal agencies cut ties with the group after Breitbart posted edited video of its employees apparently advising two people how to run a brothel.
Even as ACORN officials sought to defend themselves, Census Director Robert Groves said the scandal-tainted group had become a "distraction from our mission."
In the Sherrod case, the Obama administration was far too credulous, said Marty Kaplan, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. A 2 ½-minute video on a conservative site should not provoke the Obama administration to act, Kaplan said.
"It's surprising to me, and not very complimentary, that anybody who is in a position of authority is so naive as to believe that, 'Well, it must be true because I saw it on the Internet,' " Kaplan said.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.
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