Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shirley Sherrod’s teachable moment

You’re to be forgiven if you think that Glenn Beck or Andrew Breitbart is the 44th president of the United States, not Barack Obama. That’s the inescapable takeaway from the Obama administration’s latest sad foray into race matters, an exercise in bungling that has the tail of the right-wing media wagging the dog of White House policy.

The matter of Shirley Sherrod is one of those teachable moments about race, the media and jumping to conclusions. But this time, it’s not the administration doing the teaching. This episode proves the Obama White House has a lot to learn. Mostly about itself.

Sherrod, Georgia director of rural development for the Department of Agriculture, was fired Monday by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, dismissed on the strength of a video posted to the BigGovernment blog of Andrew Breitbart, conservative activist and content source for Fox News.

The Breitbart video showed Sherrod making comments on March 27 at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet in Douglas, Ga., comments that appeared to indicate racial bias on Sherrod’s part when dealing with a white Georgia couple trying to save their farm in 1986.

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But as happens in a ravenous 24/7 news cycle, the story we got at the outset wasn’t the full story. Or even the real story. The video that looked so damning at first blush wasn’t used in its entirety on the Breitbart site. The rush to judgment by the USDA and the mainstream media was based on selective editing, a few minutes of excerpts that didn’t reveal the full context of Sherrod’s comments.

The full 43-minute video revealed that Sherrod’s speech at the banquet was really a laying bare of her own heart, revelation of her own reach across the racial divide, and an explanation of her own personal journey to racial reconciliation. Breitbart couldn’t be bothered.

The Breitbart video (the full version of which Breitbart himself said he hadn’t even seen before posting about three minutes of its contents) made the rounds of the blogosphere, and from there into wider circulation on mainstream news Web sites and cable outlets. Vilsack, apparently trying to head off a controversy over race, called for Sherrod’s resignation.

Sherrod told CNN on Monday that her resignation was put on a fast track – so fast they couldn’t even wait for her to complete a three-hour drive to her home in Georgia. Sherrod said she was requested to pull over to the side of the road and text her resignation to her agency immediately, at least partly because of the expectation that her case would be featured on that evening’s Glenn Beck program on Fox.

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Once the error was revealed, the Ag Department — and by extension the Obama administration — started backing and filling. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Vilsack would apologize to Sherrod, “and they’ll talk about their next steps,” certain to include Sherrod’s reinstatement to her old post, or another one.

And Gibbs, off his usual confident game, owned up to the mistake. “I think clearly that a lot of people in this situation, from the government’s perspective on through, acted without all the facts … Without a doubt, Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology.”

She got one from Vilsack, who was the soul of contrition on Wednesday when he admitted the error and offered the “extraordinarily gracious” Sherrod a new position at USDA. “A good woman has gone through a very difficult period,” he said.

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What’s more concerning, and what Gibbs’ statement can’t conceal, was an administration willing to leap to unsupported conclusions, an administration that’s averse — if not flat-out allergic — to any perceptions of improprieties on race matters, even when no improprieties exist.

Interviewed on CNN, Vilsack took one for the team, saying the decision to dismiss Sherrod was one he made alone, but it’s frankly hard to believe that such a highly visible decision was made without some consult with the White House — especially once the prospect of the Sherrod case being featured on Glenn Beck’s highly-rated program came to light.

The rapid escalation of Sherrod’s dismissal points to how ready, able and willing the Obama White House is to react to the right-wing echo chamber given voice by Beck, a frequent critic of Obama policies and a deployer of ugly ad hominem attacks and character assassinations.

Even if President Obama had no direct role in Sherrod’s firing, as Gibbs and Vilsack both said, there’s no getting around the ways White House philosophy extends to the various agencies under White House control, including the Department of Agriculture.

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It’s a curious departure from the Obama mindset on race both during and just after the 2008 campaign, when Obama smartly navigated the Jeremiah Wright issue, speaking unflinchingly about race in ways that reframed the national debate with a stunning candor and clarity.

Has the heat and intensity of governing made the Obama brain trust gun-shy about thinking things through? Where was the president’s preference for analysis and thorough deliberation? Is this now a White House inclined to shoot from the hip on racial matters, quick to stamp out a perceived racial controversy when there isn’t one?

And who in hell made that mouthbreather Glenn Beck the big bad wolf, the unassailable authority on reporting race matters in America? The USDA/White House firing of Sherrod reflects a definite trepidation about dealing with the Fox News wind machine. Several commentators in the punditburo used the word skittish to describe the White House’s dealings with Fox News; leave it to plain-spoken Ed Schultz, on MSNBC, to use the word scared as a descriptor. And probably a more accurate one.

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In a week that should have been a triumph for Team Obama — the finreg bill was finally signed into law, and the president signed for extension of unemployment benefits for millions of Americans — the story that got the most traction was one that embarrassed the White House. It didn’t have to be this way.

The Shirley Sherrod story and its resulting fallout clearly indicates that there’s a problem with the Obama White House and its sensitivity to criticism on racial issues. The Sherrod case points to how the White House, this time as in the past, has knuckled under to Fox News’ smear campaigns, firing or demoting good, capable people, throwing people under the bus (or by the side of the road) on nothing more substantial than right-wing innuendo.

Alvin Felzenberg, writing in U.S. News & World Report, got it right on Wednesday: “The administration’s actions suggest that fear of media criticism, rather than facts and the national interest, too often determine its actions. As a result, we witness the paradox of a president, elected by 53 percent of the vote, appearing to hand over the keys to the White House to Glenn Beck.”

This crap has to stop. In the past, the Obama White House and its agencies have proven they’re adept at exercising damage control. This case shows they need more of the intellectual courage they campaigned with, and they require better media antennae, the better to react to situations when there’s no damage to be controlled — except the damage they do to themselves.

Image credits: Shirley Sherrod: Today show, NBC. Andrew Breitbart: Fox Business Channel. Glenn Beck: Fox News Channel.

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