The White House and Agriculture Department behaved very badly indeed in this instance, for they summarily dismissed Shirley Sherrod -- actually, they required and got her immediate resignation -- within hours, if not minutes, of the posting of the video on one of Breitbart's websites, even before the thing had entered common knowledge and heavy rotation on the cable channels.
But then, the cable channels didn't actually behave any better. FOX of course was leading the charge to pillory and ostracize Ms Sherrod, and most of the other "news" channels just mindlessly followed suit. Were it not for the fact that Shirley Sherrod was in Georgia, near enough to CNN's headquarters in Atlanta, the record might not have been corrected.
But she was in Georgia and she made many appearances on CNN to counter the lies of Andrew Breitbart -- who also made many appearances on all the shows, though they never appeared together -- and to denounce FOX and challenge the White House and Agriculture Department for yielding to hysteria stirred up by FOX and Breitbart.
Ultimately, CNN made a special biographical program to explain to viewers who Shirley and Charles Sherrod are in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and what they have done in the context of rural Georgia and the preservation of farmlands and farm life for blacks and whites.
Breitbart seemed like a goon and the Government seemed out of touch and hysterical to say the least.
Ultimately, the Sherrods came out of last week's media-storm -- and White House and USDA stumble-bumming -- smelling like roses, whereas Breitbart was pummeled from every direction imaginable. Yet, according to Palace wags, he'll survive, stronger than before. He did not back down. Nor, unlike the Government, did he apologize.
I've made a number of points about this incident:
- 1) One man, Andrew Breitbart, was able to paralyze and control both media and the Government for nearly a week, by simply posting what turned out to be a misleadingly edited video clip on his website. Though the Sherrods came out of this looking very good, Breitbart was the master of what went on. Simply by posting his deceptive video clip, nearly every other story was jettisoned, a dedicated public servant was forced out of her position with the Federal Government, an action that then required "walking back" and numerous apologies for not "hearing the whole story." The media -- all of it -- was completely consumed with the saga for day after day. The media was being driven by Breitbart, and to a much lesser extent by Shirley Sherrod.
- 2) What happened demonstrated the weakness of the Government and the mindlessness of the media. Combined, the two appear to hold nearly tyrannical power over Americans, but the facts shown here demonstrated just the opposite. In fact, it was Andrew Breitbart who controlled both. That is extraordinary, and it is very dangerous. It's not so much "who" was the controlling entity, it is that the apparatus of both media and the Government could be controlled by a single individual at all. This not only indicates weakness, it implies irrelevance. When you think about what that means in the context of the WaPo's "Secret Government" series, it should put the Dread into nearly everyone.
But the fact was that pointing out the implications of what happened was met with a chorus of denial and boos. It's very hard to recognize how weak our Government really is when we are being told over and over again that it is a tyranny. Well, yes, it is, but it is a surprisingly weak tyranny. If one man, Andrew Breitbart, can control it so easily, think what a more public minded individual might be able to do.
Breitbart used a time-honored tactic, that of the "whistle-blower" to put his evil plan in motion. He had video "proof" of racists within the Government and at the NAACP, and he was blowing the whistle on them.
For its part, the Government -- apparently in the person of Cheryl Cook, Deputy Director of the USDA and one assumes a career civil servant -- demanded the immediate resignation of Shirley Sherrod even before the "proof" was in wide circulation or in fact had circulated beyond Breitbart's site much at all. This is stunning, and there are many implications. Was Ms Cook monitoring Breitbart and FOX on the internet? Did she report what Breitbart had "discovered?" Was it her recommendation and decision to terminate Ms Sherrod with prejudice? And was that decision then made the policy of the Government? What a mess. And who, exactly, is Cheryl Cook to be making these decisions -- if that's what happened?
We don't know. Ms Cook has been in seclusion from day one, unaccountable and inaccessible. Is she a factional player? We don't know. All I can say is that I have seen this sort of thing happen in Federal service. Without a fair hearing -- or any hearing at all in some cases -- employees will be forced out, either through resignation or firing, on the accusation of some impropriety or other without evidence or proof, or as I have seen happen, when the actual evidence contradicts the accusations. It happens suddenly, without warning, and sometimes with such determination that the victim has no chance to respond until after the events have transpired. I was one of the ones who intervened when this situation developed in my agency. So far as I knew, it was not a partisan issue, but it was an issue of hysteria ginned up by someone with a grudge who then was able to convince a supervisor to act in ignorance and haste.
The first time I saw it happen, I thought it was an aberration; then I saw it happen again. And then I realized this behavior was part of the institutional culture and that, when there was no intervention, the perpetrators could be handsomely rewarded, even if the victim eventually sued and won.
Ultimately I realized it is a self-protective action by the institution itself. Although there are real people involved, and there may be personal issues at the bottom of it, the process is often so mindless -- literally -- that it is not a personal matter. It is the Institution reacting to some perception of threat.
Based on what I've seen in the past, my suspicion is that Shirley Sherrod had been targeted and was being monitored prior to this incident, probably due to her history and her apparent newness to the Agency as an employee, as a "potential threat." Knowing something of who she was (she had pressed and won an enormous discrimination suit against the very Agency that now employed her) I'm sure close tabs were being kept on her and her activities. Although I have no idea who Cheryl Cook is or if she is a factional player in the USDA (wouldn't surprise me if she were), my instinct says she acted on her own to "protect the agency" from potential harm once she saw that Sherrod was being targeted by Breitbart. How she learned of that becomes a matter of some interest. I would guess that she was contacted directly by... someone. But I'm noodling here. What really happened will probably never be investigated let alone known, and Cheryl Cook will probably get an award. That's how these things work.
-- To be continued