Running scared at the USDA

The forced resignation of U.S. Department of Agriculture manager Shirley Sherrod after a misleading video purporting to show her making racist comments appeared on conservative media outlets this week raises any number of questions about the Obama administration's apparent willingness to jump to conclusions before getting all the facts.

What's clear, however, is that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ought to be ashamed of the unseemly rush to judgment that suggested his agency puts a higher premium on limiting political damage than on ferreting out the truth.

The two-minute snippet of video posted by right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart deliberately took remarks out of context from a substantially longer talk that Ms. Sherrod gave earlier this year to an NAACP group in Georgia.

In Mr. Breitbart's excerpt, Ms. Sherrod, who is African-American, is made to appear to boast of having refused help to a farmer threatened with foreclosure during the 1980s simply because he was white.

Mr. Breitbart said he decided to release the tape after the NAACP criticized the tea party movement for failing to condemn racist groups on its fringe. He claimed his video proved the NAACP was itself racist for applauding Ms. Sherrod's discrimination against white farmers.

In fact, as the full speech revealed, Ms. Sherrod never said any such thing. On the contrary, she said just the opposite, telling the group that her work with white farmer Roger Spooner had convinced her that black and white farmers were all in the same boat and equally deserving of help.

Moreover, she went on to explain that the experience with Mr. Spooner had forced her to recognize and overcome her own prejudices, and she urged others to do so as well.

After the full story came out, Mr. Spooner and his wife, Eloise, both appeared on cable TV to praise Ms. Sherrod's efforts on their behalf. Mrs. Spooner tearfully acknowledged that without Ms. Sherrod's help the family almost certainly would have lost their home.

There's no mystery as to why conservative Fox commentator Sean Hannity, a partisan ideologue, immediately jumped on the Breitbart video to brand the NAACP with the racist tag and demand Ms. Sherrod's immediate resignation.

But what's the Obama administration's excuse? Ms. Sherrod says that before the video even aired on Fox, a USDA official contacted her to demand her resignation and gave the impression that the White House had approved the request.

What's just as striking is that higher-ups at the agency itself apparently were so preoccupied with insulating themselves from potential political fallout that it never occurred to them to check for themselves whether Mr. Breitbart's allegations of discrimination were true.

That the administration caved so cravenly to Mr. Breitbart's provocations is unnerving to say the least. It hardly inspires confidence when people see government manipulated into flinching like a whipped dog at the slightest irritant.

And that raises an even larger question: If the administration is primed to panic over every real or imagined public relations blip generated by the 24-hour news cycle, no matter how baseless or absurd, how can it ever be counted on to stand up for the principles of fairness, decency and common sense on the issues that really matter?

Editor's note: An early version of this editorial misstated the timing of Fox News' broadcast of the video behind the controversy. The video was aired after Ms. Sherrod submitted her resignation. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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