If you notice political pundits walking around with neck braces this weekend, it may be because they were whiplashed by the story of Shirley Sherrod.


She’s the Agriculture Department official who was given the bum’s rush out of her job after she made a speech that was clipped by a blogger, that was posted online, that seemed to be racist, that lay in the house that Jack built. Or something like that.


Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack (who up until now was pretty much just the answer to a trivia question) apologized for unceremon-iously heaving her from the loft. Seems her comments were taken out of context: that the speech was made long ago, and it was actually about the need to overcome racism in all its nasty forms. Imagine.


The real issue here, however, is not racism. It’s reactionism. For years, Washington and the political media have ramped up the feeding frenzy mentality that passes for news in the same sense that BP passes for an environmental group. The appetite for scandal begat a hunger for instant scandal begat a craving for anything that even looks like scandal, even if the facts haven’t fallen into the furrow.

After all, why coax the seed of truth, when you can pile up the fertilizer of sensationalism? The water falls from the blogosphere, or is piped in by political schemers, many of whom have only a passing familiarity with the truth even on their best days. Their real passion lies in winning. Both sides have pursued this kind of instant, public pillorying with such gusto that each is now terrified of it.


So something like the Sherrod story splashes across the headlines, the damage control police start ringing their alarm bells, and before there is even reasonable time for facts to be determined and weighed, rash action is launched. (As an aside, notice how quickly Washington can move when political image is at stake instead of, oh, say, jobs or the Gulf of Mexico.)

I’m neither defending nor condemning Ms. Sherrod, because I don’t know enough about her case. But others had no problem choosing their course of action, with no more information. And as a result, the Ag Department, the administration, and many in the D.C. media are reaping a bitter harvest.

– CNN’s Tom Foreman is a regular on “AC360 ”/www.ac360.com and “Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull.”

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