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Rush to Judgment

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The Shirley Sherrod episode is a painful reminder that most of us are too quick to allow prejudices to trump judgment. Sherrod's saga began when conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart decided to post a clip to his website from a speech Sherrod gave in March to an NAACP conference. In the clip, it appeared that Sherrod had refused to directly help a white farmer save his farm because she was only interested in helping blacks.

As it turns out, the clip Breitbart used was only the beginning of the story that Sherrod was sharing with her audience, a story of how she overcame prejudice and learned that skin color shouldn't matter when someone needed help.

But Breitbart's clip and the Obama administration's quick rush to judgment in anticipation of a media firestorm led to Sherrod's dismissal from her Agriculture Department job. And now, with Sherrod's full story out, everyone from Breitbart to the Obama administration to the media looks bad. There may be different levels of culpability -- Breitbart bears the brunt of the blame in my opinion for publicizing an edited and misleading clip -- but few people came off well in this story.

But instead of admitting their errors, many of the players have simply pointed fingers. Breitbart blames the NAACP for implying that the tea party is a hot-bed of racial animus, which he claims motivated his airing of a clip that he thought proved the NAACP tolerated racism of its own. Liberal bloggers and news organizations blame Fox News Channel for railroading Sherrod out of her job. And the White House claims no one there was involved in the decision to force Sherrod to resign, blaming Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for the call.

One of the few people who has shown some class in this sorry episode is FNC's Bill O'Reilly. He was the first one on the network to call on Sherrod to resign Monday night because of what he called her "unacceptable" remarks, but his show actually aired after she had already done so. And Wednesday, he issued an apology and accepted blame "for not doing my homework ... and not putting her remarks into proper context."

But almost no one did his homework on this story. Why? Because people accepted as fact a narrative that fit their own prejudices. A conservative angry that his fellow conservatives were being labeled as racists looked for vindication by blaming the accusers for their own brand of racism. An administration that views the Fox News Channel and conservative activists as the source of its decline in public approval tried to get ahead of a negative story by firing the subject of the story. And the liberal media blame Fox for provoking the firing even though it didn't use the story until after the administration had already pulled the plug on Sherrod.

In fact, according to Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz, a senior vice president at Fox News sent out e-mails to news staff before any story ran, warning: "Let's take our time and get the facts straight on this story. Can we get confirmation and comments from Sherrod before going on-air. Let's make sure we do this right." But Sherrod's forced resignation rendered the warning moot.

In the days before the 24-hour news cycle and the instant dissemination of information on the Internet, reporters had time to check their facts and sources. They may have had the same prejudices they do today, but those prejudices didn't find immediate outlets, and there were editors insisting that facts be checked and sources corroborated. But in the free-for-all world of blogs and the politically polarized world of cable news, scooping a story often seems to matter more than its accuracy.

We'd all be a lot better off if we took a deep breath next time a sensational story hits the airwaves or Internet. A healthy skepticism of stories that are too good to be true when it comes to confirming our own prejudices would do all of us a world of good. Not all the good guys are on our side, nor all the villains on our opponents'.

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