JIM LEHRER: Now: a story about politics and race that was here, and then it wasn’t, and that was a story itself. It moved toward a semi- conclusion this afternoon with a White House apology over the firing of a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee.
It was an abrupt about-face. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs conceded the firing of Shirley Sherrod was hasty and wrong.
ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: Without a doubt, Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology. I would do so, certainly, on behalf of this administration.
JIM LEHRER: It began when the conservative Web site BigGovernment.com posted video of Sherrod from an NAACP event. She described working for a farm assistance group in 1986, and meeting with a white farmer who she said acted superior.
SHIRLEY SHERROD, former USDA official: I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white a person save their land.
So, I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.
JIM LEHRER: That was part of a two-and-a-half minute clip. And, once it got out, the Agriculture Department quickly demanded Sherrod’s resignation. The NAACP also condemned her comments, until last night, when it posted her entire 43-minute speech on its Web site.
In it, Sherrod went on to say, meeting the white farmer actually changed her views.
SHIRLEY SHERROD: Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have vs. those who don’t. You know, and they could be black; they could be white; they could be Hispanic.
JIM LEHRER: NAACP leaders said the full speech makes clear Sherrod’s words were manipulated.
HILARY SHELTON, director, NAACP Washington Bureau: As we dug into it, we realized that, indeed, that videotape had been maliciously edited, and, indeed, what they were presenting to us then wasn’t even close to being accurate.
JIM LEHRER: Late this afternoon, Secretary Vilsack reached Sherrod by phone. He apologized and offered to hire her back.
TOM VILSACK, U.S. Agriculture Secretary: I started off by extending to her my personal and profound apologies for — for the pain and discomfort that has been caused to her and to her family over the course of the last several days.
And then I asked if she would be interested in figuring out a way forward that would take advantage of the extraordinary life experiences that she’s had.
JIM LEHRER: Sherrod had already accepted the administration’s apology, but said she will take some time to consider the job offer.
The Sherrod incident came after the NAACP had called for the Tea Party movement to address allegations of racism within its ranks.
Here now is NewsHour political editor David Chalian.
David, what does this say, this whole kind of strange, if that’s the word, set of events? Boom, boom, boom. All this happened in 24 hours. What does it say about how information is heard and how quickly it is reacted to, boom, boom, boom, these days?
DAVID CHALIAN: You have nailed it, that it is an information issue in that way.
I don’t recall ever seeing an administration make a personnel decision based on the hour-by-hour news cycle. But, in this 24/7 world, you saw the White House, the Department of Agriculture react and act upon incomplete information. And that is why Robert Gibbs hung his head today, and that is why Secretary Vilsack was out there apologizing. They had to admit that they actually took administrative action before they had all the facts.
We in the press, also, many news organizations, showed these clips before we understood the full context of these clips. We didn’t see that full speech at the time. So, again, all the players, the administration, the press, in this game, if you will, took incomplete information to the public.
JIM LEHRER: And the NAACP as well?
DAVID CHALIAN: No doubt. They issued a statement, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Condemning her.
DAVID CHALIAN: They totally condemned her. They wanted to be very clear, too, that they don’t stand for racism on any side of any issue, and yet they retracted that last night and they said they had been snookered.
And I think, to some degree, we all were snookered.
JIM LEHRER: But this came in a tea party climate. There’s a tea party angle to this, is there not, in terms of at least the beginning with the NAACP?
DAVID CHALIAN: That’s precisely right, because where this all started was at the NAACP Convention. They passed a resolution condemning racist elements in the Tea Party, what they called some racist elements in the tea party.
They passed this resolution. And Sarah Palin and other tea party advocates sort of rebuked this resolution. But that is where this started, because then that conservative website you noted, BigGovernment.com, they wanted to show, hey, hey, it’s not just the tea party that has racist elements. Look here at that Agriculture employee.
But, again, it wasn’t the full story. But that is the genesis of it. It was that kind of a response.
JIM LEHRER: And your thinking here — and the reporting illustrates this — that what’s behind all of this is everybody has to act very quickly. The reaction button goes before — well, as the secretary said, before some thinking goes on.
DAVID CHALIAN: Right.
Usually, pundits react to things quickly, and perhaps some political candidates, but not usually the White House and the administration. But it shows the change in our society. This administration, specifically this president, he goes out there day after day bashing the cable channels and all the chatter and the punditry. And he says he pays no attention to that.
This is a case in point, no, they pay so close attention to that hour-by-hour news cycle that they even made uninformed decisions about firing someone in their administration based on that cycle.
JIM LEHRER: Well, there was one element this afternoon, when Gibbs was holding his news conference, and CNN was on, and Ms. Sherrod was on during the news conference. And he responded right there in front — in the — in the news — at the news conference.
DAVID CHALIAN: Instant reaction. As he was offering the apology, CNN had Ms. Sherrod on to turn to immediately and say, do you accept? And she accepted the apology.
So, you’re right. We watched it play out. Even at this last stage of it, as the administration was apologizing, we were still getting a reflection of where we are as a society and how quickly the information moves.
JIM LEHRER: Like it or not, the new world order.
And, quickly, the Tea Party Caucus in the House had its first meeting today. Tell us about that. What is that? And what — what does it mean?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, this is a new caucus inside the — mostly, it’s only House Republicans obviously that are joining it.
Michele Bachmann, a Republican in Minnesota, headed up this idea of, let’s put a Tea Party Caucus together. She got some 33 Republican members to join. And what it is, they’re trying to harness the energy of the tea party movement, without co-opting it, because the tea party activists around the country don’t want this top-down leadership. They don’t want Michele Bachmann or others to tell them what they’re about.
But the Republicans know that that is where the energy inside their party exists, so they want to harness it in some way, without co-opting it.
What’s fascinating to watch, Jim, is the Republican leader split. You don’t see John Boehner, the leader of the Republicans, or Eric Cantor, the number two, joining this Tea Party Caucus. But you do see the No. 3 leader, Mike Pence, or the chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee, Pete Sessions. They are joining this caucus.
So, I think we’re seeing a divide of how closely Republican leaders want to associate themselves with the tea party.
JIM LEHRER: David, thank you.
DAVID CHALIAN: My pleasure.