Guilty By Sound Bite

Posted July 22, 2010, at 8:29 p.m.

Public servants must carry the weight of their pasts. If a lawmaker seeking higher office was once a member of a group that advocated violence, for example, he must explain why he no longer is a member, and how his views have changed. Past allegiances and views may disqualify people for future service, or they may not, depending on the explanation of that part of a person’s life.

But when a public official is attacked on the basis of a sound bite taken out of context, and the attack results in the official losing her job, it’s evidence of a political climate dangerously like the that of the Joseph McCarthy era.

The latest victim of attack by video clip is Shirley Sherrod, who worked, until earlier this week, for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the agency’s director of the rural development office in Georgia.

Ms. Sherrod’s demise began when conservative activist Andrew Breitbart posted a video on his website of a speech Ms. Sherrod, an African-American, gave to the NAACP in March. In it, she described an incident from 1986 when she perceived a white farmer seeking USDA services to be acting “superior.” Ms. Sherrod explained how she vowed then to do the bare minimum to help the white farmer.

Mr. Breitbart condemned Ms. Sherrod’s actions as racist, and conservative commentators on Fox News took up the story. The NAACP also condemned her, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack forced Ms. Sherrod to resign.

But there is more to the story. In the full speech, Ms. Sherrod told the story about the white farmer to illustrate how she had to overcome her own prejudices. Through the incident, she said, she realized those who were struggling — no matter their skin color — needed help. The farmer has de-fended Ms. Sherrod after the video clip became fodder for conservative commentators. And the NAACP has now reversed course, claiming it was “snookered” by Fox News.

If it were an isolated case, the story could be dismissed as political posturing. But conservative commentators like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity and their network Fox News have clearly mounted a campaign against the Obama administration by unearthing obscure clips of appointed officials. The statements often seem shocking or at least reflect an extreme political perspective. That the statements were made when the subject was young, or that the statements are so far removed from context as to be meaningless does not deter the commentators from denouncing the officials.

These claims, furthered by Fox, have gone too far. Any claim about the administration coming from one of its commentators ought to be given the same credibility as a Bigfoot sighting.

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