Ex-USDA Official Sherrod At Center Of Media Storm

Suddenly Shirley Sherrod has become a household name, and the outcome of her story is far from clear. Remarks she made at an NAACP meeting were selectively edited and made into an attack video. She resigned under pressure before the full story was known, and on Wednesday the Obama administration apologized.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with the latest in the story of a woman who was, until Monday, an obscure political appointee at the Agriculture Department. Her name is Shirley Sherrod. And today she's at the center of a whirling controversy over race, the media and political activism.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has the story of how she was fired and asked to return to government within the span of a few days.

ARI SHAPIRO: When the conservative website biggovernment.com posted a two-minute video clip of Shirley Sherrod on Monday, the narrative was black government worker admits racism against whites.

(Soundbite of video)

Ms. SHIRLEY SHERROD (Former Employee, USDA): And here I was saying for them to have a white person save their land. So I didn't give him the full force of what I could do.

SHAPIRO: Sherrod was the Department of Agriculture's rural development director for Georgia. It was a potent clip, even more so because she was speaking at an NAACP event and the audience seemed to be eating it up. Days before the video was released, the NAACP had denounced racist elements in the Tea Party.

Andrew Breitbart runs the website that posted the Sherrod clip and he has been a vocal defender of the Tea Party. Here's what he told NPR on Monday.

Mr. ANDREW BREITBART (Tea Party Activist): What is American is innocent until proven guilty. What is un-American is guilty until proven innocent. And in this particular instance, with the left media, they will not even give you the platform to prove your innocence and that is what the Tea Party is so upset about.

SHAPIRO: Breitbart was not talking about Sherrod there, but about what he regards as unfounded allegations of Tea Party racism. The Sherrod clip seems to bolster Breitbart's case. And it quickly entered heavy rotation on cable news, especially Fox.

(Soundbite of news show)

Unidentified Woman: Because a farmer was white, she doesn't extend the full helping hand to him. And she's touting this in this anecdote as though this is, you know, a feather in her cap somehow for her to be congratulated.

SHAPIRO: Responding swiftly, the Department of Agriculture asked for Sherrod's resignation and she complied. White House officials said they were not behind the decision but they supported it. The NAACP released a statement taking a similar position on Sherrod saying: We are appalled by her actions.

But yesterday the video of the full 40-minute speech was released, showing a very different story. Later in her speech, Sherrod describes overcoming her initial bias to realize that race is not what's important. It was a redemption story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHERROD: But working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't, you know. And they could be black, they could be white, they could Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people, those who don't have access.

SHAPIRO: The white farmer she was describing, Roger Spooner, went on CNN to call the criticism of Sherrod hogwash.

(Soundbite of news show)

Mr. ROGER SPOONER (Farmer): She was unbelievable helpful in every way. She saved our farm, she did.

SHAPIRO: Today everyone was backpedaling. Even thought the NAACP had the full video footage when it first supported Sherrod's firing, the organization put out a new statement saying: We have come to the conclusion that we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party activist Andrew Breitbart.

The issue dominated today's White House briefing, where spokesman Robert Gibbs apologized to Sherrod on behalf of the administration. And at the end of the day, Secretary Vilsack called Sherrod. He said they discussed a unique opportunity at USDA that might be of interest to her.

Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): She asked for the opportunity to think about it, which we I certainly respected.

SHAPIRO: In the last year and a half, there has been a pattern of conservative activists blurring the line between journalism and advocacy, and doing it with striking success. An earlier Breitbart project led to the downfall of the community activist organization ACORN. And conservative activists helped to remove White House advisor Van Jones from his Green Jobs post.

Breitbart described this movement in the NPR interview Monday.

Mr. BREITBART: The first 10 years of the blogosphere was basically a checks and balance on The New York Times and The Washington Post, and bloggers saying, that story is not correct. Well, what's happening now is that bloggers are starting to become reporters. They've said to The New York Times, if you're not going to report stories, we're going to report stories.

SHAPIRO: Of course, not all stories are created equal.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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