Truthiness, or something like it

This week, the head of the Department of Agriculture, Ted Vilsack, fired a black employee after a video clip made its way around the Web of the civil servant seemingly admitting to racism.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the White House had intervened on behalf of the employee, Shirley Sherrod, the former head of Agriculture’s rural development office in Georgia, eliciting an agreement by the head of the agency to review the firing.

The termination was prompted after a two-and-a-half-minute video of Sherrod speaking at an NAACP event in March hit the Web over the weekend. In the clip, Sherrod allegedly spoke about discriminating against a white farmer 24 years prior.

The video of Sherrod was used as fodder in the flap between the NAACP and the Tea Party, who have accused each other of racism, pushing the civil-rights group to be more sensitive to criticisms of discrimination in its ranks.

Sherrod and her defenders contend the clip was taken out of context, noting that she went on to discuss how she had overcome racist feelings by working with the white farmer.

In a society where news breaks 24 hours a day, and every citizen journalist (not to mention every career reporter) is trying to get the scoop, sometimes good, old-fashioned fact-checking goes by the wayside. Never mind making sure that a quote or statement is used in context.

With the upcoming election season already ramping up, cutting through the spin is going to take some extra effort.

While each side can be counted on to frame an argument in the way that most flatters its side and is least flattering to an opponent, there will probably be fragments of truth all over the place. Which puts news consumers in general and voters specifically in the difficult and time-consuming role of fact-checker and researcher.

With so much news online, it’s easy to surf a handful of websites and consider yourself well informed. If anything, this firing serves as a cautionary tale to the NAACP and the Department of Agriculture: Though the agency might have a “zero-tolerance” policy on discrimination, it is best to get the story straight first, then act.

Having a careful, measured approach would, hopefully, help avoid rash behavior, which is often difficult to undo or rectify. It also helps avoid costly, drawn-out lawsuits.

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