Short of announcing the discovery of a zero-calorie potato or juggling piglets at the state fair, a mid-level bureaucrat for the USDA wouldn't stand much chance of breaking into the national news conversation.
That would have been true if not for the work of a furiously partisan Internet operator and a group of all-too-credulous media accomplices, namely some Fox outlets, that made sure this week that we all knew the name of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rural development director for the state of Georgia.
The ongoing grand national distraction might be called the Ballad of Shirley Sherrod — a dreary, dispiriting tune with lyrics about a woman crucified, resurrected and yet still vilified with a fury fitting of a Third World terrorist.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack moved precipitously and mistakenly when he fired Sherrod, then had to admit his mistake and offer to hire her back. That story understandably drew scrutiny and a pile of questions from the Washington press corps.
But certain media outlets have played the story and the political ramifications for the Obama administration (and there are questions to be answered) as if they sprang out of the ether. There's a continuing rush to talk about effect, and very little desire to talk about cause — the steaming pile of misinformation delivered on a platter by one individual with a giant ax to grind.
Andrew Breitbart, the conservative agitator behind websites like Breitbart.com and BigGovernment.com, likes it this way. Stirring the pot, gobbling up chunks of cable television time, doing whatever it takes to further his political beliefs, even if it means putting one woman's reputation through a meat grinder.
The severely edited video posted on Breitbart's BigGovernment.com shows Sherrod, who is black, telling an NAACP gathering in March that she had once scrimped on assistance to a white man in danger of losing his farm. Not included in the video posting was the bulk of Sherrod's talk, in which she recognized the error of her ways a quarter of a century ago and helped the white man, saving his farm. As a result, the farm advocate and the white family formed a lasting friendship.
Breitbart headlined the video as "proof" that "the NAACP awards racism," when in fact it showed one woman trying to teach a lesson about the shortcomings of racial discrimination.
Conservatives including David Frum and Ann Coulter have acknowledged that the video Breitbart posted is a fraud. But Frum, a former speechwriter in the Bush White House, wrote that he has seen this act too many times to expect Breitbart to apologize for "distributing a doctored tape to defame and destroy someone."
Indeed, anyone who has watched television in recent days has seen an unrepentant Breitbart insisting he did nothing wrong. His previous encounters with controversy reveal a similar pattern — make no concessions, savage critics, change the subject and keep attacking. Don't bet he's finished with Shirley Sherrod.
I saw this up close last year when I wrote about the "sting" that a couple of young videographers performed on the liberal activist group ACORN. Breitbart posted and touted the videos as proof of liberal evil. He became enraged when I urged him to release the unedited tapes so the public could see everything that happened between ACORN workers and videographers James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles.
Breitbart said he was compelled to post the Sherrod video because it proved that it was the NAACP, not the Tea Party movement, that harbors racists. He was ever-so dismayed that others in the media made Sherrod the object of censure.
Right. Then why did his original posting on Monday morning specifically call out Sherrod — declaring that the video of her speech offered "evidence of racism coming from a federal employee."
Those assessments amount to the aggravating circumstances to Breitbart's original crime: the failure to present the speech in its full context. He has said in interviews that when a source passed him the video in April, it had already been edited.
Assuming that's the truth, didn't this self-styled truth-teller have an obligation to get the full speech or a response from Sherrod? He apparently did none of those things. And he inflated the story by claiming Sherrod was admitting using her federal position to discriminate, when she made no such admission and, in fact, worked for a nonprofit at the time of the anecdote about working with the white farmer.
Many news outlets reported on the controversy and the video, most jumping in after Sherrod had resigned. But it was the select few — led by conservative bloggers and some segments of the Fox News empire — that embraced the attack from the start.