This morning, Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia-based official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who was asked to resign after a conservative activist misrepresented remarks she made about her initial hesitance to help a white farmer save his land to make her look racist, sat down with Today‘s Meredith Vieira. At the end of the interview, Sherrod was asked if she would accept the new position Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is offering her — a place in the USDA’s Office of Outreach to focus on combating discrimination in the agency against black, Hispanic, Native American and female farmers. Sherrod said she would weigh the offer once she saw it in writing, but was inclined to decline. “I would not want to be that individual that the department and everyone is looking to to solve the issue of racism in the USDA,” she said. “It takes a lot more to get that job done.”
I don’t think that’s the answer we expected. If Hollywood were scripting this story, Sherrod would hear those apologizes from Vilsack and the White House (and Bill O’Reilly), and accept that presumably higher position at a press conference with an Aaron Sorkin-penned speech about what it means to fight for change. Of course, that’s also where the film would end. We wouldn’t actually see the daily battles that follow. Or the stress of not only doing your job but also worrying about how the media will cover — it’s no longer just about grading — your performance. In Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz’s excellent piece tracking the circus that led to Sherrod’s resignation and the continuing coverage, which has become this week’s Greatest Show on Earth, he writes, “Sherrod may be the only official ever dismissed because of the fear that Fox host Glenn Beck might go after her. As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tried to pressure her into resigning, Sherrod says Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook called her Monday to say ‘do it, because you’re going to be on Glenn Beck tonight.’ And for all the focus on Fox, much of the mainstream media ran with a fragmentary story that painted an obscure 62-year-old Georgian as an unrepentant racist.” Can you blame Sherrod for not wanting to sign up for more of that? We like to believe that public servants have a passion that overrides all the noise that comes with the job, and clearly they must. But if we keep going the way we’re going, when they weigh the good they can do versus the toll it takes on their lives, the scales may read differently.
Maybe there is hope. As Kurtz notes, “Ironically, Beck defended Sherrod on Tuesday, saying that ‘context matters’ and that he would have objected if someone had shown a video of him at an AA meeting saying he used to pass out from drinking but omitting the part where he says he found Jesus and gave up alcohol.” Watch Sherrod’s interview with Vieira below. Watch Glenn Beck here.
What to make of all this, PopWatchers? Is the shift to covering news in real-time killing the vetting process and giving too much sway to bloggers with an agenda? Or do you think in general, the truth prevails, even if it takes some time to come out? Is modern media scaring good people away from public service?