The case of Shirley Sherrod, which we along with everyone else have been writing about over the last 24 hours (just scroll down), is full of lessons -- about the danger for the mainstream media in relying on charlatans like Andrew Breitbart to be their assignment editors; about the right's growing obsession with "reverse racism" (and their understanding of how easy it is to get the press to chase stories with a racial tinge); about how right Eric Holder was when he said we're "a nation of cowards" when it comes to race, despite all our talk about it; about how so many Democrats haven't lost their reflex to flinch every time the right criticizes them. There's one other lesson here, one that Tom Vilsack and the White House can hopefully take away from this incident.
Yes, we have a "24-hour news cycle" these days. And yes, good press relations requires moving quickly. But that doesn't mean you have to be a slave to speed. Being fast is important, but being fast and stupid is very, very dangerous for you. In his attempt to be on top of things, Vilsack has ended up looking both dumb and cowardly.
So the next time someone from your press staff bursts into your office and says, "There's a new controversy emerging on Fox News!", it would be a good idea to get all the facts before you start asking for people's resignations and making public statements you'll have to walk back the next day. Even if it takes an hour.
But now, Vilsack has an opportunity to turn this sow's ear into a silk purse. He could apologize to Sherrod, give her back her job, and then give a statement and some interviews about what he's learned from this incident -- appropriately enough, just as Sherrod was trying to make a lesson out of her own evolving feelings and knowledge about race. Nothing humanizes you more than saying, "I screwed up, and here's what we can all learn from my mistake." It could be a teachable moment, and one that makes the administration look a whole lot better, if Vilsack chooses to make it so.
-- Paul Waldman
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