This is what can happen when an oaf with all the journalistic credibility of Jayson Blair meets Clifford Irving and armed with a mouse pad and a tea bag decides to embark on an Internet Inquisition.
We live in fascinating times when any one of us can walk the streets and literally carry around the rest of the world in the palm of our hand. Blackberries, iPhones and all manner of emerging technologies link us ever closer together. But these very same devices, in the hands of the jack-booted Stasi of cyberspace, can just as easily — and quickly — become a form of touchpad waterboarding.
By all accounts — until a few days ago — Shirley Sherrod was a relatively anonymous government bureaucrat, working as a U.S. Agriculture Department director of rural development in Georgia, not exactly the Lech Walesa of peanut subsidies.
But that was before the Mongo of the MacIntosh, a chap by the name of Andrew Breitbart, decided to pillory Sherrod as a racist based on less evidence than The Ox-Bow Incident.
Breitbart, who haunts a right-wing blog, came upon a piece of video of Sherrod addressing a NAACP banquet a few months ago in which she discussed her journey from prejudice to racial awakening.
Sherrod recalled a moment nearly 25 years ago while working for a nonprofit community organization when she didn't afford a white farmer in financial distress as much help and consideration she may have given to a black farmer. The clip ran less than three minutes in a speech that lasted roughly 45 minutes.
Well! Before you could say "Fair & Balanced," Breitbart was pimping the clip all over his blog and Faux News had jumped on the bandwagon to label Sherrod the biggest racist since Lester Maddox last swung his ax handle.
But that wasn't the worst of it for this woman. Within hours of the posting of the video, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, demonstrating all the spine under fire of Monty Python's knights of the round table, and fearing perhaps the likes of Glenn Beck might start sobbing uncontrollably in his general direction, canned Sherrod before she even had time to return to her office to offer her side of the controversy.
Also allowing himself to be chumped by Breitbart was the NAACP's Benjamin Jealous, who decided to throw Sherrod under Rosa Parks' bus.
Ah, but there was far more to the story. Moments after her initial remarks about the white farmer, Sherrod discussed her epiphany in realizing she had been wrong, that she realized poverty and financial crisis are oblivious to color. And as the full story unfolded, the farmer and his wife whom Sherrod helped save a quarter of a century ago, Eloise and Roger Spooner, quickly came to her aide. They praised Sherrod for her tireless efforts to protect them from bankruptcy and foreclosure of the family farm.
Jealous quickly claimed he had been "snookered" by the Breithart video. Vilsack, who had previously insisted his decision to fire Sherrod was unequivocal, ironclad, irreversible and final, started backpedaling and suggesting maybe the Star Chamber treatment of his employee might deserve a second look.
But Jealous hadn't been snookered. He had merely allowed himself to be gutlessly cowed by an a propagandist, who learned his trade of disinformation as an acolyte of Matt Drudge, which is a bit like sitting at the right hand of Jack the Ripper to learn how to become a butcher.
By the end of the week, Vilsack was offering (or perhaps pleading with) Sherrod to return to government employment and the Obama administration was looking like it couldn't find its keister with the help of Jacques Cousteau, Tonto and Edmund Hillary — all because of a hapless poltroon with a blog.
To be sure, the paramount issue here is fundamental fairness. Certainly Sherrod should have been given an opportunity to defend herself against a demagogic Luca Brasi of the right, to whom a keyboard is a weapon of mass disinformation.
Yet this incident also speaks to other troublesome byproducts of the new era of communications we live in.
In the endless, insatiable 24-hour news cycle, the vicious beast of the microphone and the camera have to be ceaselessly fed and satiated. There is no time — or at least the dubious perception exists that there is no time — to make the effort to ensure someone's reputation, their career, their dignity, does not become cannon fodder to appease the drive-by bloviators of the chattering classes.
What Shirley Sherrod had to endure is also symptomatic of an increasingly dangerous trend, where anyone with access to the Internet (read: everyone) can say pretty much whatever they want about anyone they want without fear of exposure, or accountability, or editing, or any obligation toward accuracy, or most certainly any remote thought given to sheer common decency.
That's a Tower of Rabble — and it's only growing taller. Sadder, too.