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The Shirley Sherrod saga, and how the media discusses race

This week, a sweeping Wall Street reform bill was signed into law, with great ceremony, by President Obama — a hard-fought victory to follow his success at passing health care reform. But you might not have heard much about it on Wednesday.

What you may have heard more about was the messy, sometimes nasty, and racially tinged sideshow between the NAACP and the Tea Party over who is, and is not, racist. The dust-up damaged the reputations of a number of people, including the agriculture secretary, a woman who worked for him, the purveyor of a misleading videotape and assorted members of the media.

Here’s how it started: Monday morning, conservative provocateur Andrew Brietbart, publisher of, posted a 38-second clip of Shirley Sherrod, the aforementioned Agriculture Department employee, speaking to a Georgia chapter of the NAACP. In the clip, Sherrod appears to suggest that she discriminated against a white farmer because of his race.

The clip spread all over the Internet, and then jumped to Fox News

Both the USDA and the NAACP released strongly worded condemnations of Sherrod, and the same day she submitted her resignation at the request of an agriculture department official.

But the next day, a more complex version of the story began to emerge.

The farm couple whom Sherrod was accused of discriminating against appeared on CNN. They called her a lifelong friend and credited her with saving their family farm.

By late Tuesday, the NAACP had posted the complete video of Sherrod’s remarks and, far from telling a story of racial discrimination, Sherrod, whose own father was murdered by a white farmer in segregated Georgia, had been relating a story of overcoming racial divisiveness.

By 2 a.m. on Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak had issued a statement saying he would reconsider her forced resignation.

Fox News began condemning the Obama administration for pressing for Sherrod’s resignation without a proper investigation into her remarks.

And by the end of business on Wednesday, Vilsak had issued a formal apology to Sherrod and offered her a new job at the USDA.

To put this incident in context, and understand how the modern media handles issues of race, Jon Meacham spoke with Terence Samuel, author of “The Upper House: A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate,” and editor-at-large of The Root, an online magazine that focuses on issues of interest to African-Americans. The Root is owned by The Washington Post Company.

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