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Shirley Sherrod and the Right: A Day That Will Live in Infamy

The entire Shirley Sherrod affair is so disgusting, such a stomach-churning episode of right-wing lies, propagandists posing as “journalists,” and craven political cowardice and gullibility, that it’s hard to know who to be most enraged at.

Andrew Breitbart, a particularly vile propagandist of the American right who presented a severely edited videotape of a speech by the Agriculture Department official to falsely label her an anti-white racist? Fox News, several of whose miserable excuses for journalists relentlessly plugged the entirely false story before and after Sherrod was fired? Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who had a minion call Sherrod on a cell phone and insist that she pull over to the side of the road and text in her resignation before any of the relevant background facts about the “scandal” emerged? The White House, which, apparently frightened of appearing in any way linked to black racism, stood by the forced resignation even when it became clear that Sherrod’s speech was nothing like what Breitbart suggested? Even the NAACP acted poorly in this sorry episode, saying it was "appalled" by Sherrod’s words and later "concurring" with her firing. (To its credit, the civil rights group quickly recognized its error, retracting its comments yesterday and saying it had been “snookered” by Breitbart and Fox’s falsehoods.)

Here’s the story in brief, for those few people who still don’t know about it. On Monday, Breitbart — the same loathsome character who publicly called Ted Kennedy a “pile of human excrement” a few hours after the senator’s death — aired a video of Sherrod speaking to an NAACP banquet in Georgia last March. In his edited version, Sherrod is shown talking about initially not wanting to help a white man who was facing the loss of his farm because of her anger toward white racists. But the tape presented by Breitbart, who was furious about the NAACP’s recent criticism of racism within the ranks of the Tea Parties, left out the crucial conclusion of what was really Sherrod’s tale of redemption — that in the course of the 1986 case she was discussing, she came to realize that “the struggle is really about poor people,” and that her anti-white feelings were wrong. She said the case changed her entire outlook. (And in fact the farmer and his wife were all over the media yesterday, saying that Sherrod had saved their farm, was a fine and caring woman, and should get her job back.) and Fox Nation, both parts of Fox News, immediately picked up Breitbart’s fairy tale and began plugging it, as did Fox News' Bill O'Reilly (who demanded Sherrod's resignation in taped comments run after she quit) and a number of other right-wing media outlets. (Many of these reports, following Breitbart, claimed that Sherrod’s actions in the 1986 case had occurred while she was an Agriculture employee — a complete falsehood.) That prompted Vilsack to have her thrown out of her job as the department’s director of rural development in Georgia (to the applause of an array of Fox hosts and guests) — an act that Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen rightly described today as pure political “cowardice.” Vilsack didn’t bother to hear Sherrod’s side of the story first, and he didn’t watch the full videotape. Incredibly, even as the true story began to emerge, Vilsack said he was sticking by Sherrod’s ouster, because, “rightly or wrongly,” perceptions about her comments could make her job more difficult. Then, early this morning, the Associated Press quoted an unnamed White House official saying President Obama had been briefed on the situation but was supporting Vilsack’s decision.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of wilting of White House officials under pressure from the political right. They fired Van Jones, a White House environmental advisor, after Fox’s Glenn Beck made false claims that he was a “black nationalist” and former “radical communist” who was using green jobs as a form of “stealth reparations.” They repudiated an accurate 2009 Department of Homeland Security report that was leaked and then attacked by right wingers for supposedly defaming conservatives — a charge that was patently false.

Let’s take a closer look at a couple of the other actors in this nasty little episode.

Andrew Breitbart is a former editor for the right-wing Drudge Report (which also participated in the plugging of Breitbart's video) and a columnist for the arch-conservative Washington Times who sometimes substitutes for Michael Savage, a radio talk show host who regularly makes racist remarks on the air (and who, I should say in the interest of full disclosure, has attacked me personally many times). It was one of Breitbart’s websites that aired videos made by right-wing activists of ACORN employees giving advice concerning prostitution, and that later suggested that ACORN was destroying incriminating documents. (California Attorney General Jerry Brown investigated, concluding there was no criminal activity depicted on the “severely edited” tapes Breitbart aired.) Breitbart also has claimed that Congressmen John Lewis and Andre Carson “made up” a story about being repeatedly called “n------” during a walk through a Tea Party rally. His evidence? There was no videotape of the insults.

Breitbart recently blogged about the “insufferable a-------” he claims populate the mainstream media. Ironically enough, given the revolting role he played in the defaming of Shirley Sherrod, John Lewis and others, he described “the racket that is modern journalism,” saying that journalists “lie when they claim to be objective.” Elsewhere, in his first column about Sherrod, he crowed that “the new media will not be silenced.”

Which brings us to Fox News, that infamous purveyor of falsehoods, wildly skewed reporting and propaganda posing as real facts (some of Fox's "journalists" even later suggested that Fox had never plugged the Sherrod tape story). As my colleague Alexander Zaitchik wrote on this blog Monday, the network has “a long history of crude and transparent race-baiting.” And Zaitchik wasn’t even talking about the Sherrod spectacle — he was writing about Fox’s current obsession with the “scandal” of the Justice Department dismissing part of a voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party, a black racist hate group. On MSNBC last night, Rachel Maddow did a serious takedown of Fox’s rantings about Sherrod.

The United States faces many serious problems in the year 2010, from a crashed economy to the largest oil spill in our history. But no American should ignore another serious threat to our integrity as a nation and a culture: the far-right propagandists, their media and political enablers, and the political cowardice that allows complete falsehoods to destroy perfectly innocent human beings.

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