Radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to introduce his famous comment segments by saying “And now, the rest of the story.”
Maybe Harvey could have helped out news outlets and especially U.S. Department of Agriculture officials who jumped on a videotape this week of now-former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod.
Sherrod submitted her resignation Monday at the request of her superiors soon after they became aware of a 38-second videotape of some remarks Sherrod made to a local NAACP chapter in Georgia some 20 years ago. The video was posted online by a blogger who reportedly wanted to make a point about racism in the NAACP.
In the video, Sherrod, a black woman, was telling a story about how she initially hesitated to be as helpful as she could to a white farmer who was seeking assistance.
The tape seemed damning, but here’s “the rest of the story.” A viewing of the full videotape make it clear Sherrod was telling the story to make the point that working with this farmer had helped her realize that “it wasn’t a black and white issue.” The farm couple confirmed that Sherrod not only had helped them save their farm but also became their friend.
Unfortunately, that part of the story didn’t travel nearly as quickly as the 38-second video. News outlets picked up the video and passed it along. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack saw the videotape and said Sherrod must resign. No one wanted to take the time to listen to Sherrod or pursue other facts in the case.
The result was an extremely embarrassing situation for Vilsack and the Obama administration. Vilsack made a public apology to Sherrod on Wednesday and admitted that he made a decision without knowing all the facts. “I am accepting the responsibility with deep regret,” he said.
Vilsack and others are trying to distance President Obama from the decision, but Obama also called Sherrod on Thursday to apologize. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama had been briefed on the situation and acknowledged “an injustice had happened and, because the facts had changed, a review of the decision based on those facts should be taken.”
Gibbs usually chooses his words carefully, but he picked the wrong one this time. The “facts” of this case hadn’t changed at all. Facts don’t change. The problem here is that no one bothered to find out the facts before “an injustice” was committed.
Sherrod has been offered a new job at the USDA — probably a promotion with higher pay. Understandably, she has indicated she’ll have to think it over.
The Sherrod situation has caused a lot of discussion about racism and racial relations in the United States. The country needs to have more such discussions. However, the real message in this situation has more to do with fairness. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it also opens up many opportunities to present “facts” without bothering with “the rest of the story.”
Even if it takes an extra day, it’s up to officials to make sure they have all the information they need before making potentially embarrassing decisions. Vilsack and other members of the Obama administration learned that lesson the hard way this week.