Sherrod Story Shows Ugly Side of 24-Hour News

Shirley Sherrod

The old United Press International wire service had a slogan: "Get it first, but first get it right." In the wake of the Shirley Sherrod story, it's worth asking whether more and more the second half of that slogan has been dumped into the trash bin.

It's now clear that no one - not conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who posted the original clip, not the NAACP, which condemned Sherrod, not the Agriculture Department official who ordered her to resign - none of them had seen the whole speech.

There's another part to this story: the deep-seated desire of people who turn to news and opinion sites to reinforce their pre-existing beliefs, reports CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

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For instance, the idea of an Obama administration official harboring anti-white sentiments fits an idea espoused by one of Fox News' most popular voices, Glenn Beck.

"This president has exposed himself over and over again exposed himself as a guy who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. I don't know what it is," said Beck on Fox News.

This doesn't mean Fox would knowingly air a false or misleading tape. It may mean that the original incomplete and out-of-context video clip seemed to fit an idea that would resonate with many in the audience. This is not an impulse confined to any ideological slice of the public.

In March 2006, a young black woman who worked as a stripper accused three members of the Duke lacrosse team of raping her. The story was treated as a textbook case of racist, privileged white athletes committing a viciously violent act. Only later in reports such as Ed Bradley's "60 Minutes" piece did it become clear that the charges were wholly false.

"Were you at all concerned that your students and some members of your faculty were engaged in a rush to judgment and that their actions might actually have thrown fuel on the fire?" said Bradley.

"We had public officials speaking as if it was almost a certainty that this thing had happened. These charges engaged people's deepest fears, deepest anxieties and dreads," said Duke University president Richard Brodhead.

If there's any encouraging aspect to this, it's that many of the players quickly took a hard second look. Last night, Fox News on "Special Report" took a cool, clear-headed look at the story.

"I think this story has been totally screwed up," said Juan Williams.

Wednesday White House press secretary Robert Gibbs publicly apologized to Sherrod and no fewer than three commentators on the conservative National Review website cautioned outlets on the right to use care before rushing to judgment.

"It was wrong. It was entirely wrong. And if there's an hour long or a 30 minute-long speech and you are putting up seven seconds of it and you haven't seen the rest of it then you need to say I am putting up seven seconds and I haven't seen the rest of it," said National Review editor Kevin Williamson.

If you're an optimist, you might look at all this as what the President calls "a teachable moment." Maybe we should all wait see if we've learned anything the net time.