Plenty of blame to go around, but not in equal amounts

PLENTY OF BLAME TO GO AROUND, BUT NOT IN EQUAL AMOUNTS…. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to Shirley Sherrod yesterday, and today she spent some time chatting with President Obama, who expressed “regret” over this week’s events, and urged her to continue “her hard work on behalf of those in need.” At this point, Sherrod says she’s unlikely to return to the USDA, but time will tell.

The New York Timesreport noted the bigger picture: “Pretty much everyone else [other than Sherrod] had egg on his or her 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 a new job that would give her a ‘unique opportunity’ to help the agency.”

That seems like a fair assessment, though it’s probably worth emphasizing the fact that some faces should have more egg right now than others.

I’m not going to defend the administration’s handling of this matter. On Monday, faced with a race-related story that the media was likely to obsess over, officials panicked and made a rash decision without getting all the facts. At the time, it probably seemed like a smart political move — react quickly and move on — but it backfired. The desire to quickly put out a fire before it spread led to an embarrassing overreaction.

I am, however, inclined to defend what the administration did next. Less than a day after forcing Sherrod’s ouster, everyone from Vilsack to the president’s press secretary had admitted publicly that the administration made a mistake. Sherrod deserved an apology, and she got one. Within 36 hours of the forced resignation, Sherrod was on the phone with the president directly.

Ideally, an administration avoids making dumb mistakes, but it matters how an administration corrects those missteps once they happen. In this case, there’s something to be said for the president’s team doing the right thing — acknowledging the mistake quickly, sincerely apologizing, and swiftly trying to put things right.

We had an administration for eight years that never admitted an error, and always found someone else to blame, no matter what. This administration is taking a more mature, responsible approach, and it’s a sign of progress.

But the blame the administration deserves pales in comparison to some of the other players in this mess. Josh Marshall’s item this morning rings true.

…Breitbart got a piece of video he knew nothing about and published it with a central claim (that it was about Sherrod’s tenure at the USDA) that he either made up or made no attempt to verify. No vetting, no calls, no due diligence, not the slightest concern to confirm anything or find out what was true. Even setting aside the fact that, as Josh Greene ably notes, most of Breitbart’s scoops center on race and/or race-baiting, for anyone else practicing anything even vaguely resembling journalism, demonstrated recklessness and/or dishonesty on that scale would be a shattering if not necessarily fatal blow to reputation and credibility.

Yet most of the coverage has been along the lines of Breitbart sparks debate about racism or White House pratfall on prematurely canning Shirley Sherrod. Indeed, ABC tonight is sending out an exclusive on Breitbart, which is … a puff piece about how he got his start in new media.

Or what about the Fox News? To use to terminology of infectious disease, Fox was the primary vector of this story. And to the best of my knowledge, there’s been not only no disciplining of anyone in the news room but as far as I can see no retraction, apology (with the exception of a semi-retraction, on a personal basis, from Bill O’Reilly) or even discussion of their primary role in an obvious smear. The only ‘press criticism’ I’ve seen is this piece by my friend Howard Kurtz which can’t be called anything but a white-wash, even including a self-serving internal email leaked from Fox about taking a careful, thoughtful approach to the story. (My god!)

The administration’s overreaction, to be sure, matters, and I can only hope officials have learned a valuable lesson here about the media and smear campaigns. But to make Obama and/or Vilsack out to be the principal culprit in this fiasco is to badly miss the point.