Where Do You Go To Get Your Reputation Back?

Next week marks the fifth anniversary of one of the most disgusting episodes in the history of what David Frum once called the “conservative-entertainment complex.” It was an episode that saw the Obama administration at its most cowardly, and an Obama administration official at her most courageous. It was an episode that revealed, in a way that could not be spun or obscured, the depravity of modern American political culture.

On July 19, 2010, Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was forced out of her position by the Obama administration after she was smeared as an anti-white racist by a prominent right-wing blogger. Once it was revealed by responsible media outlets that Sherrod was not an anti-Caucasian bigot, she was offered a new position by the now-embarrassed administration, which she properly declined.

In a comprehensive review of the Sherrod smear scandal, the New York Times noted the depths to which right-wing media entities would sink to destroy real or perceived political adversaries:

Ms. Sherrod appeared on a round of morning talk shows, one day after [Obama administration officials] offered their profuse apologies to her for the way she had been humiliated and forced to resign after a conservative blogger put out a misleading video clip that seemed to show her admitting antipathy toward a white farmer…

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 full video of Ms. Sherrod’s March speech to an N.A.A.C.P. gathering in Douglas, Ga., shows that it was a consciousness-raising story. Ms. Sherrod’s father was murdered in 1965 by white men who were never indicted; she spoke about how in response, she vowed to stay in the South and work for change. She married the Rev. Charles Sherrod, a civil rights leader and cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Later, as director of a nonprofit group in Georgia formed to help black farmers, long before she went to work for the Agriculture Department, Ms. Sherrod received a request to help a white farm couple, Roger and Eloise Spooner, and she confessed in the speech that the request had given her pause. She did help them, however, and as the fracas over her firing became public this week, the Spooners came to her defense, saying Ms. Sherrod had gone out of her way to accompany them to see a lawyer and, in effect, had helped them save their farm.

“If we hadn’t have found her, we would have lost everything, I’m afraid,” Mrs. Spooner, 82, said in a telephone interview.

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, [Bill] 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, [Sean] 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…

Fox’s 10 p.m. show also covered the resignation as breaking news. Ms. Sherrod later said Fox had not tried to contact her before running the video clip repeatedly on Monday. (A Fox spokeswoman said the O’Reilly program had contacted the Agriculture Department for comment. On Wednesday, Mr. O’Reilly said he owed Ms. Sherrod an apology “for not doing my homework.”)

By Tuesday, Ms. Sherrod’s forced resignation was the talk of cable television news, and it was becoming clear that the Breitbart video clip had been taken out of context. After seeing the full video, the N.A.A.C.P., which had initially applauded Ms. Sherrod’s resignation, had reversed itself, saying it had been “snookered” into believing she had been acting with racial bias.

I never bought for a minute the idea that the right-wing blogger who was responsible for the Sherrod smear planned this obnoxious operation in response to Obama administration supporters suggesting that the Tea Party movement was racist. I believed then and still believe today that the right-wing blogger in question actually bought into the crazy, Limbaugh-inspired idea that Obama had a chip on his shoulder and surrounded himself with other African-Americans who felt the same way. In that right-wing blogger’s deranged mind, Obama and Sherrod were out to get whitey, and thus his story was simply a riveting revelation of “reverse racism.”

The smearing of Sherrod was shameful, but let’s not forget that there were quite a few folks who saw right through this nonsense from the beginning, including then-MSNBC star Keith Olbermann:

Olbermann’s colleague Rachel Maddow also recognized the ridiculousness of the Sherrod scam, and properly placed it within the context of America’s history of right-wing race-baiting. Had the rest of the mainstream media demonstrated the integrity Olbermann and Maddow showed at the very beginning of this made-up controversy, Sherrod would have never been dismissed from her job in the first place.

The right-wing blogger who launched his crazed crusade against Shirley Sherrod died in 2012. The survivor of his attack is still with us, her heart still strong, her courage still inspiring. Shirley Sherrod was and is invincible. If somebody asks you what the term “shero” means, tell her all about this amazing lady.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.