Reality Check: NYT Implies Fox to Blame for Sherrod, But White House Acted Before Story Ran
The Times picked through the sordid saga of Shirley Sherrod, fired from her post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture after a clip of a speech to a gathering of a rural chapter of the Georgia NAACP appeared to show her hostility toward a white farmer seeking assistance.
A full version of the speech shows that was a set-up to Sherrod's tale of racial reconciliation, though there are questions of how far her racial reconciliation really goes. That same speech reveals Sherrod accusing Republicans of being racist by opposing Obama and Obama-care, and Sherrod has gone on to accuse Fox News of using her as a "pawn" for its own reactionary, racist purposes.
Fox News didn't run a report on the controversy until after Sherrod had resigned under White House pressure and after the NAACP had issued a press release condemning Sherrod. Yet in "For Fired Agriculture Official, Flurry of Apologies and Job Offer," reported by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Shaila Dewan, and Brian Stelter, and written by Stolberg, the Times chose to blame a cabal of "right-wing Web sites" and Fox News for fostering the Sherrod scandal which led to her dismissal. As if Fox forced Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to do its right-wing bidding without ever actually running a single story on Sherrod until after her firing, when the point became moot.
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.
Stolberg and company glossed over the embarrassment to the White House. As ABC's Jake Tapper reported Tuesday night in details that didn't make the Times:
Last night, an Obama administration official called Sherrod in her car and demanded she pull over and type a resignation letter in her Blackberry. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement that 'There is zero tolerance for discrimination' at his agency. None of them bothered to learn that the incident in question happened 24 years ago when Sherrod worked for a nonprofit.
Stolberg whined about "pressure" from Fox News to pursue news stories that originally bloom on "right-wing Web sites." (The Obama administration certainly pays attention to FOX, given the alacrity with which Sherrod was fired compared to its foot-dragging on matters like the Gulf oil spill).
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 Times offered a misleading time-line, and even plugged the high ratings of Fox News and Bill O'Reilly to hint at the breadth of the menace afoot. That's ironic, given the effort the Times has expended boosting left-wing MSNBC, forever "catching up" to Fox and O'Reilly in the ratings.
Fox News began its pursuit of Ms. Sherrod in prime time on Monday night on three successive opinion shows that reached at least three million people. Leading off, Mr. O'Reilly asked on his top-rated program, "Is there racism in the Department of Agriculture?" He discussed the tape, plugged Mr. Breitbart's Web site and demanded that Ms. Sherrod resign immediately.
By the time Mr. O'Reilly's remarks, which were taped in the afternoon, were broadcast, Ms. Sherrod had indeed resigned, a development that Fox's next host, Mr. Hannity, treated as breaking news at the beginning of his show. He played a short part of what he called the "shocking" video from Mr. Breitbart, and later discussed the development with a panel of guests, mentioning the N.A.A.C.P.'s recent accusations of racism within the conservative Tea Party movement.
"It is interesting they just lectured the Tea Party movement last week," Mr. Hannity said, telegraphing a talking point that would come up repeatedly on other shows.
An accompanying Associated Press photo of a pro-Sherrod protest outside the Agriculture Department showed people with signs, pitchforks, and megaphones and ran under the uninformative headline: "Zaccai Free, center, was among those demonstrating on Wednesday outside the Agriculture Department offices in Washington."
The Times didn't bother to identify the hard-left groups behind the protest, although the names of two were clearly visible on the signs: The Stalinist, pro-North Korea ANSWER Coalition, and the anti-war leftists at Code Pink.
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