By Peter Nicholas and Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau (July 21, 2010)
The Obama administration issued an extraordinary public apology Wednesday and offered to reinstate a federal official who was fired after she appeared to make racial comments on a misleading snippet of video.
When it became clear that her comments had been taken out of context, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to Shirley Sherrod by phone to apologize and to ask if she would return to the department.
The events came as an embarrassment to Obama administration officials, who have sought to depict themselves as immune to the blogosphere and demands of the news cycle.
In this case, though, the administration fired the woman based on Vilsack's reading of a transcript of a video on a conservative website that left the inaccurate impression that Sherrod, a black Department of Agriculture official, had deliberately not helped a white man save his family farm in 1986 when she worked for a Georgia nonprofit.
As the video went viral, putting pressure on the White House to respond, Vilsack made the quick decision Monday to dismiss Sherrod.
"This is a good woman. She's been put through hell," Vilsack said Wednesday. "I could have done and should have done a better job." Vilsack said the decision to fire Sherrod had been his and his alone.
He did not describe the new position, but hinted that it might involve a promotion to a position dealing with civil rights claims. Sherrod said she would consider it, a contrite Vilsack said in a late afternoon news conference.
The White House role in the firing remains unclear. Vilsack denied he had received any "pressure" but said he discussed his actions with a White House liaison.
In interviews, Sherrod has said that a department undersecretary, Cheryl Cook, phoned her Monday and told her the White House wanted her to quit. Sherrod said that Cook also told her the story would be mentioned on the cable show hosted by Fox network conservative commentator Glenn Beck, a harsh White House critic.
The White House denied that it sought Sherrod's resignation.
Vilsack's news conference followed a briefing by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who apologized on behalf of the administration. Underscoring the influence of instantaneous media, Sherrod was shown in a CNN studio viewing Gibbs' briefing, and smiled as the apology was being expressed in real time.
"I think without a doubt Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology," Gibbs said. "I would do so certainly on behalf of this administration." He added that "everybody involved made determinations without knowing all the facts and all the events."
The story began Monday when Andrew Breitbart, a conservative media entrepreneur, posted a 2½-minute video of Sherrod addressing an NAACP meeting this year in which she discusses her dealings with a white farmer. She said the farmer came in acting "superior" to her. "I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farm land and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land," Sherrod said. In those moments, Sherrod says she was reluctant to give him the "full force of what I could do."
That touched off a fury in conservative media outlets, which have forced White House retreats in the past. Fox's Bill O'Reilly said, "Ms. Sherrod must resign immediately."
The NAACP weighed in too, calling Sherrod's statements "shameful."
A fuller picture emerged Tuesday when the NAACP released the complete, 45-minute video of Sherrod's appearance. Far from embracing reverse racism, Sherrod said the encounter with the white farmer taught her that poor people of all races needed help, which she resolved to give. She described helping the man save his farm.
"They could be black, white and Hispanic," she said, adding that "it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people."
The full video caused the White House to reconsider. Obama had been briefed on the matter Tuesday morning before it was released and voiced support for the firing.
Later that night, with the unedited video circulating, White House officials changed their stance. They asked Vilsack to review the firing, which he agreed to do.
The Agriculture secretary issued a statement after 2 a.m. Wednesday saying he would consider "new facts" in the case. The NAACP retracted its early criticism, saying it had been "snookered'' by the video posted on Breitbart's site.
With each hour, Sherrod picked up more sympathy. The Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement saying: "It is now apparent that Secretary Vilsack did not have all of the facts available to him and overreacted."
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said in an interview: "The offer of reinstatement should certainly be made. That's a minimum of what should be done in this instance."
Even one conservative Fox commentator expressed remorse: "I owe Ms. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework and for not putting her remarks into proper context," O'Reilly said in a script prepared for his show.
The Obama administration, sensitive to criticism that it is beholden to liberal interests, has a history of relenting once an issue catches fire in the conservative media.
For weeks last summer, Beck complained about Van Jones, the administration's green jobs czar. When news surfaced that Jones had signed a controversial petition concerning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he was out of a job within days.
Similarly, federal officials spent months deflecting conservative criticism of the nonprofit Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now. But federal agencies cut ties with the group after Breitbart posted video of its employees apparently advising two people how to run a brothel.
In the Sherrod case, the Obama administration was far too credulous, said Marty Kaplan, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.
"It's surprising to me, and not very complimentary, that anybody who is in a position of authority is so naïve as to believe that, well, it must be true because I saw it on the Internet," he said.
Originally appeared on Los Angeles Times.