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Who gets to tell Shirley Sherrod's story?

Does Andrew Breitbart just need a hug?

Mind you, I'm not volunteering to do the honors. From every picture of his snarling face that I've seen, I would no more approach him with open arms than I would a pit bull on the street. I like having arms.

But maybe someone else can try to take this cornered creature and find a way for him to rejoin humanity.

Breitbart is the blogger who launched our latest racial storm when he posted part of a speech by a Department of Agriculture worker, a black woman, saying how she did less than she should have to help a white farmer. She was quickly denounced, even by the NAACP, and fired by President Obama's agriculture secretary before, almost as quickly, a different version emerged: The farmer and his wife said Shirley Sherrod did help save their farm, and the rest of her speech shows her speaking about how her eyes were opened to viewing people beyond their race.

It was one of those moments of clarity that all too rarely break through the shouting and the gotchas and the rushes to judgment that cloud our state of continual outrage. The NAACP and the feds, having behaved quite cowardly, reversed themselves. But Breitbart remains unrepentant.

He's refused to apologize to Sherrod, first saying it's not about her but the NAACP. Never mind that she's the one who was fired. In his eyes, she's mere collateral damage because he's at war with the civil rights group. Then he went on to further trash her, telling Politico, "If anybody reads the sainted, martyred Sherrod's entire speech, this person has not gotten past black vs. white."

How many different ways is this outrageous? Did Sherrod climb up on a cross and nail herself to it? And besides, the whole framing of this as whether Sherrod is evil or saintly, one or the other, is exactly what was so wrong about the initial slice of her speech — it failed to provide context before or account for any change of behavior after her initial reluctance to help the farmer.

And finally, which person has "not gotten past black vs. white" here: Sherrod, who admits to her past wrong and offers a present view that "we all have to work together," or Breitbart, whose parting statement to Politico was that if someone uncovered a white USDA worker speaking about a black farmer that way, "the reporter would be getting a Pulitzer Prize right now." 

Where this story goes next is anyone's guess. But you know that even now there are people furiously searching under every rock for the next gotcha in this endless tit-for-tat.

And today, of course, it's just too easy to get the alleged goods on someone: We leave so many digital breadcrumbs behind, the angry e-mail sent during a moment of weakness, the Facebook picture taken during one particularly wild spring break.

The thing that saves most of us from one of these public, career-melting gotchas is that, so far, no one needs us to make their larger point — as Sherrod was, as a pawn in the larger, and ridiculous, debate over whether that it's the tea party or the NAACP that's really racist.

The one positive thing out of this whole sorry incident is that we heard from the kind of voices normally silent in these pitched and public battles — the actual participants.

The farmer, Roger Spooner, rose to the defense of Sherrod, even though she had characterized him rather harshly in her speech as an arrogant man who talked down to her. Spooner says she saved his farm, and that charges of racism are "hogwash."

At this point — this incident happened more than 20 years ago — who treated whom dismissively matters less than that they both arrived at a point where they speak warmly of one another and refuse to let someone else rewrite their story.

People change, and usually it's because of their personal experiences and not because some scandalous blog proves so persuasive.

That's why I'd like to think there's still hope for Breitbart to change, whether he wants to or not.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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