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Redemption, after a rush to judge Shirley Sherrod

WASHINGTON — Ousted Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod, who was caricatured as a racist in a selectively edited Internet video, on Wednesday achieved something almost unheard of in overheated Washington: swift and utter vindication.

Two days after Sherrod was fired from her job overseeing rural development in Georgia, both the White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to her. Vilsack also offered her another unspecified position with the department. Sherrod said she would consider it.

"This is a good woman," Vilsack said. "She's been put through hell. I could have done and should have done a better job. I'll learn from that experience. I want this agency and department to learn from this experience, and I want us to be stronger for it."

He was far from alone in vowing to learn from the episode that began when Andrew Breitbart, a conservative activist and blogger, posted the video from a March 27 speech Sherrod, 62, gave at an NAACP event. By the time it played out two days later, it had vividly revealed how Washington's political culture is driven by impulse and self-interest — often instead of judgment.

"Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgments without a full set of facts," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at his daily briefing, which CNN broadcast on a split screen with a live shot of Sherrod watching from its studio.

In the snippet of video on Breitbart's website, Sherrod, who is black, admitted to having been reluctant to help a white farmer who sought her aid 24 years before, when she was working for a nonprofit agency established to help black farmers.

What the clip did not show was the larger point Sherrod had made, one that was the opposite of the perception it created. She told the NAACP audience that her first encounter with the white farmer had prompted her to examine and move beyond her own biases — and to come to the aid of the farmer and his family, who now credit her with saving them from losing their farm.

"There is no difference between us," she said. "The only difference is the folks with money want to stay in power. It's always about money, y'all. God helped me to see that it's not just about black people. It's about poor people. I've come a long way."

None of that made the cut in the video clip that led to her firing.

In the reaction that followed the release of the edited video, Sherrod not only was fired from her USDA post but was denounced by the Obama administration, the media and even the civil rights organization whose local chapter had invited her to speak.

Sherrod mounted her own defense in a series of appearances on CNN, and the farmer, Roger Spooner, and his family backed her up. ("I tell you what, I never was treated no better than Shirley," Spooner said as his wife, Eloise, nodded in agreement.) But not until the NAACP released a video of the full speech Tuesday night did it become clear how misleading the excerpt was.

In an interview Wednesday, Breitbart said he first learned of Sherrod's speech in April, when a source he declined to name sent him a DVD copy of it. But the DVD did not work. He said he forgot about the speech until last week, when the NAACP denounced "racist elements" of the tea party movement.

Angry at the NAACP's move, Breitbart said he contacted the source again and obtained two edited clips over the weekend.

After Breitbart first referred to the existence of the video clip during a radio interview last Thursday, Sherrod tried to contact Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan through e-mail accounts created for employee feedback. But they are checked infrequently, a spokesman said.

As a result, USDA aides did not learn of the video clips until Monday, after Breitbart had posted them.

Obama officials rejected accusations that they overreacted out of fear of inciting critics.

Presidential aides insisted that no one at the White House pressed Vilsack to dismiss Sherrod, despite her claims that they had. But when the facts became clear, and the public view of Sherrod flipped from vilification to sympathy, the White House let it be known that someone there — it wouldn't say who or when — pressed the agriculture secretary to reconsider.

Vilsack was especially sensitive to the issue. Since taking over, he has made it a priority to rectify the injustices of a department with a long history of racial discrimination.

After publicly apologizing to Sherrod, Vilsack met with Congressional Black Caucus members on Capitol Hill on Wednesday afternoon. According to a spokeswoman, he was there to apologize and to listen.

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said his group had been "snookered" by the reports that began circulating in the conservative media on Monday. Jealous has since called Sherrod to apologize. "Fox News seems to have adopted a strategy of exacerbating those anxieties and playing to those anxieties. They seized this opportunity," he said.

National NAACP officials say they had tried but were unable to get more information from its local chapter about Sherrod and the speech. But no one, apparently, thought to call her before they denounced her.

Redemption, after a rush to judge Shirley Sherrod 07/21/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 22, 2010 3:17pm]
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