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On the Media: Even when in error, Andrew Breitbart is on the attack

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.

A Fox News executive released notes from an internal meeting to show that the network’s news producers had been urged to treat the video story with caution. But anchor Shepard Smith zinged some, including programs on his own network, for swallowing the story whole.

“We didn’t know who shot it, we didn’t know when it was shot, we didn’t know the context of the statement,” said Smith, adding that Breitbart’s history didn’t inspire great confidence. “In short — we did not and do not trust the source.”

Too bad that message didn’t reach the operators of Fox’s websites and commentator Bill O’Reilly. FoxNews.com posted the story on Monday, and the FoxNation.com website followed with the video and the accusatory headline: “Caught on Tape: Obama Official Discriminates Against White Farmer.” That night, O’Reilly called on Sherrod to resign. (She had already agreed to leave her post before the O’Reilly segment aired.)

O’Reilly at least apologized for proceeding without all the facts. (Though he then proceeded to backhand Sherrod for two days running, suggesting she might be too dangerously left wing for government service.)

The Fox corporate rep who took my phone call this week wouldn’t explain why Fox’s Web newsers made the same mistake — failing to recognize that the Breitbart video was a clip job or that Sherrod’s story dated to a quarter-century ago, long before she worked for the feds.

But never mind all that silly detail. Breitbart had unleashed his stink bomb. It had wafted through the media atmosphere just as he had hoped. If he had intended to exonerate the racial intentions of Tea Party activists, a topic worthy of discussion, he had failed. Instead, he stirred the race cauldron. And most of the go-go guys and gals in the Washington press corps would focus only on the White House’s lame response.

And if the fomenter of this fakery got any nasty questions, why respond to them? Breitbart could take advice from his ACORN-busting pal Giles, who last year told an audience how video provocateurs should respond to criticism.

“Above all, attack, attack, attack,” Giles said. “Never defend.”

Twitter: latimesrainey

james.rainey@latimes.com


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