What Hath Breitbart Wrought?

OK, this is getting downright strange. When Andrew Breitbart decided that someone ought to answer the NAACP’s attack on the Tea Party Movement and jumped in, most people started getting edgy — Breitbart, as I said, doesn’t bluff.

He delivered the goods. He released a video of an Obama administration official admitting that she had discriminated against a white farmer at an NAACP function — where she was receiving an award.

The reaction was instant and fierce. The NAACP issued a press release condemning the official (Shirley Sherrod, the Department of Agriculture’s Georgia Director of Rural Development), and her bosses fired her posthaste.

Then other details started trickling out. (Trickling, hell — it was a fricking firehose.) It turns out that the video (shot last February) was incomplete. Sherrod was recounting an incident that occurred 24 years ago, when she was working for a “community organizer” type of group (not the government), and she told how she had later realized the wrongness of her actions, returned to the farmer in question, and helped him save his farm — to the point where she and his family became friends.

But the harm had been done. The NAACP took down their press release, but she was still out of her job.

So, what the hell happened? That’s actually two questions.

The first part is, how did Breitbart end up having released a highly-selective and downright misleading video?

There are numerous possibilities.

1) Breitbart was set up by the NAACP, whose event was featured in the video.

Not bloody likely. The NAACP issued a press release condemning Sherrod in very short order, and then had to withdraw it. That says that they believed the video was legit — if they’d set it up, they would have pulled the “gotcha” instead.

2) Breitbart was set up by the Obama administration.

Again, not bloody likely. Their reaction was to immediately get rid of Sherrod, showing that they believed the video was legit, too. If they’d set it up, they too would have defended her and played the “gotcha” card.

3) Breitbart was set up by a third party, who had the complete video and edited it down to just the incriminating section.

Also not very likely. Breitbart knows he has a huge target on his back, and has to be incredibly careful when he makes his big moves like this. Also, Breitbart, I suspect, would have absolutely no problem with burning a source who set him up like this. If someone pulled something like that on him, he’d destroy them.

4) Breitbart deliberately edited the tape to smear and destroy Sherrod.

Still not very likely. Sherrod is “small potatoes;” she’s not really a worthwhile target. Also, the set-up was so shoddy that it fell apart in barely 24 hours. Breitbart has the brains and resources that, should he have wanted to do just that, it would have been considerably more substantial. It’s the equivalent of Bernie Madoff shoplifting. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s just incredibly unlikely. Way too much risk for way too little gain, as well as incredibly pointless.

So, what the hell happened? I’m starting to see signs of a fifth possibility — partly fueled by Breitbart’s own statements (which could be simple self-serving), partly by how things played out.

Breitbart knew the video was deceptive, but released it anyway because he wanted to see how his real target — the NAACP — would react.

I find this plausible, because Breitbart never takes his eyes off his true target. In this case, Sherrod wasn’t the target — the NAACP was.

And that is the second part of the “what the hell happened?” question. What was the response, and why did they react that way?

Not only did they bite on the bait, they bit hard. They found the possibility that not only would the honoree of one of their award banquets freely admit to practicing “reverse discrimination,” but the attendees would not even bat an eye at it. They saw the video, found it entirely plausible, and started damage control operations immediately. Sherrod was thoroughly trashed within hours.

Then things got even more interesting. Breitbart snagged an even bigger fish with his bait. The Obama administration (whose reputation for loyalty is virtually nonexistent — anyone who proves no longer convenient or useful gets tossed under the bus without a second thought or glance) fired her. Because they, too, found the edited video entirely plausible, and didn’t bother to get her side of the story before getting rid of her.

This is an interesting twist on the old “fake, but accurate” riff that many defenders of the Dan Rather/Mary Mapes forged Texas Air National Guard documents regarding President George W. Bush. In this case, it seems that the fear that the video was an accurate representation of a typical NAACP honoree/Obama administration official led those worthies to take immediate action, without bothering to try to get the full story — or even asking Sherrod for her version of events.

There’s another interesting aspect to this that’s come to light. It seems that Sherrod was a key player in a lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of Georgia farmers that took about 10 years to play out. It was settled recently, for several million dollars. Sherrod herself — who had helped initiate the suit — scored $150,000 and in an astonishingly coincidental turn of events, was given a job in the Department of Agriculture that she had been suing for over a decade.

Sherrod was ill-used in this incident — that is indisputable. Breitbart owes her an apology, at a minimum. But the real story here is how the NAACP and the Obama administration reacted to the video. They found the presented video entirely plausible and immediately acted to protect themselves, and to hell with verifying the facts of the story.

One final point: Breitbart took a hell of a risk here by releasing this deceptive video. From now on, all his gambits will be viewed with great suspicion. The ploy he apparently played here — gambling that the NAACP would react first, instinctively, without first carefully considering the matter — was one he could pull exactly once in his career. He’s now marked forever as “a guy who released a misleadingly-edited video,” and his critics will never let that go. It will color everything he does in the future.

Breitbart’s gambit cost Sherrod her job, and put a big dent in his credibility, but it also gave a hell of a black eye to the NAACP and the Obama administration.

I hope he thinks it was worth it.

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