Former USDA Official Vindicated

Shirley Sherrod is weighing her new career options after collecting apologies from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the White House over her abrupt dismissal earlier this week. Sherrod was pilloried after a selectively edited video clip suggested she used racial criteria in deciding which farmers to help.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And Im Mary Louise Kelly.

Two days after Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign from the Agriculture Department, she's been offered a new job there. It's a labyrinthine story involving race, politics and the role activists play in the media.

And we have NPR's Ari Shapiro here to help us walk through it. Good morning, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So before we get to Shirley Sherrod's redemption, let's start with her vilification. Remind us how she lost her job in the first place.

SHAPIRO: Well, credit or blame goes to Andrew Breitbart, a conservative activist, who on Monday posted a two-minute clip on his Web site, BigGovernment.com, of Sherrod giving a speech to a chapter of the NAACP. Sherrod at the time was - on Monday, she was the Department of Agriculture's Rural Development director for Georgia.

And in the clip of this speech, she appeared to describe discrimination against a farmer because he was white.

Here's what she said in that clip.

Ms. SHIRLEY SHERROD (Former Georgia Director, Rural Development, Department of Agriculture): And here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So, I didnt give him the full force of what I could do.

SHAPIRO: This was a potent clip for conservative activists, because Andrew Breitbart - who posted it - had been trying to argue that the NAACP was, itself racist, after the NAACP had just criticized the Tea Party for racism.

The clip was all over cable news and the Obama administration pretty quickly asked Sherrod to resign, which she did.

KELLY: Okay. So thats the part of the story where she gets cast as the villain, loses her job, then the plot thickened. What happened next?

SHAPIRO: Well, she went from villain to hero pretty much overnight when the full tape came out. It turned out this clip was from a 40 minute speech that was a redemption tale, about how she overcame her initial prejudices, to understand that race is not whats important.

Here's a clip from the longer version of this speech.

Ms. SHERROD: Well, working with him made me see that it's really about those who have, versus those who dont.

Unidentified Man: Thats right. thats right.

Ms. SHERROD: You know, and they could be black. They could be white. They could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then, that I needed to work to help poor people; those who dont have access.

SHAPIRO: So the Obama administration, which had initially been internally congratulating officials for having nipped a potentially difficult story in the bud, was suddenly faced with apparently having fired somebody who was misrepresented by conservative activists, which was a real problem for them.

The white farmer, who Sherrod was talking about, was on cable TV, talking about how wonderful Sherrod was. And the White House was left trying to explain how a conservative activist was basically able to distort a political appointee's speech, to get her ousted from the government, basically overnight.

KELLY: Well, and how did the White House end up explaining this? How did they explain how her remarks were taken so out of context?

SHAPIRO: Spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked this question again and again, yesterday, and he made basically two points. One was the White House was not responsible for this - this was a decision made at the Department of Agriculture, by the agricultural secretary. And his second point was Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology by this administration and we hereby apologize to her.

Here's a cut from yesterday's briefing.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): I think we live in a culture that things whip around, people want fast responses, we want to give fast responses. And one of the great lessons you take away from this, is to ask all the questions first.

KELLY: So that was Gibbs' briefing at the White House. Then the latest twist came when you mentioned the Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, he held a news conference of his own. What'd he say?

SHAPIRO: He said Im sorry. I take full responsibility. Im to blame. He said that he had offered Sherrod a different job at USDA. He described it as a position, "a unique opportunity at USDA that might be of interest to her," was the exact quote. She told him she wanted some time to think about it.

And here's a bit of what Secretary Vilsack said at his briefing yesterday.

Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): I've learned a lot of lessons from this experience in the last couple of days. And one of the lessons I learned is that these types of decisions require time. I didnt take the time. I should have. And as a result, a good woman has gone through a very difficult period. And Ill have to live with that for a long, long time.

KELLY: Hmm. And, I guess, Ari, safe to say, not the first, certainly not going to be the last that we see this kind of thing with activists and bloggers managing to really drive the agenda in Washington.

SHAPIRO: That's right. It's the latest in a series of incidents like this. It happened with the White House Green Jobs advisor Van Jones, who was driven out of his job, partly by conservative activists. It happened with the organizing group ACORN.

And in all of these instances, I think the mainstream media and the government is learning that they have to be careful to analyze what is a real scandal and what might be, as in this case, a distortion of the facts.

KELLY: Ari, thank you.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Ari Shapiro.

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