The Shirley Sherrod uproar is a quintessential example of the summer news story. Like last year’s story — the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and President Obama’s calling the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police action “stupid” — it has made the Obama administration look stupid.
The historian’s old standby, a timeline, is handy here. Last March, Shirley Sherrod, an employee of the Agriculture Department who grew up in the Jim Crow South and saw her father’s white murderers get away with that murder, gave a speech to the NAACP in which she recalled her own evolution on race.
Andrew Breitbart, a conservative provocateur, used a short clip from the speech to make it seem as though Ms. Sherrod were a racist, working hard for black farmers and indifferent to the problems of white ones — thus, evidence of anti-white racism in the Obama administration. I have no idea if Breitbart knew he was being intellectually dishonest or not. But he was doing what provocateurs do: provoking.
The clip went viral, and the Obama administration panicked big-time. The White House told the Secretary of Agriculture to fire Ms. Sherrod. She had to pull over to the side of the road while he did so. She received not a scintilla of due process. Indeed, she wasn’t even asked what her side of the story was. The NAACP, which had a tape of the whole speech, didn’t bother to review it and piled on. It seems the administration was terrified that Glenn Beck would eat it for lunch unless it moved immediately. Beck must love that.
The Obama administration’s firing of a black employee because of racism against a white farmer was irresistible journalistic catnip in the midst of the summer doldrums, and the cable channels ran the Breitbart clip over and over.
But there was another side of the story. The incident in the clip had taken place 24 years earlier, when Ms. Sherrod was working for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, not the federal department, and she ended up saving that white family’s farm from foreclosure. She had merely been using the incident to show the lessons on race that she had learned from it. The farmer in question backed up her story. Both the Obama administration and the NAACP backtracked and apologized to her. (Obama called her personally.) And she has been offered another job at the Agriculture Department.
This morning on Fox News Sunday, Howard Dean, obviously following the Obama line, tried to make it sound like Fox News had been part of the problem. Chris Wallace, in an unusually heated exchange, would have none of it. He pointed out that Fox did not carry the story or mention Ms. Sherrod’s name until she had been fired. It then ran the Breitbart tape, naturally, as part of the story. So did all other cable news channels.
So Fox, it seems to me, is blameless — it was reporting the news, which, after all, is its job. Breitbart was after attention and, perhaps, wanted to frighten the Obama administration into acting foolishly. If so, he sure succeeded. And the Obama administration has egg all over its face, contributing to the growing impression that it is incompetent.
The only hero here is Shirley Sherrod. She told her own moving story about how she managed to move beyond the racism of the past and enter the post-racial world that Barack Obama promised and has, rather spectacularly in this case, failed to deliver.
Maybe President Obama should fire one of the Chicago gang at the White House and replace that person with Shirley Sherrod. It seems the administration could use a little common wisdom and dignity around there.