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Bill O'Reilly apologizes to Shirley Sherrod for 'not doing my homework'

July 21, 2010 |  6:46 pm

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly offered a rare mea culpa Wednesday, apologizing for airing a controversial tape of a speech given by a black U.S. Dept. of Agriculture official that was edited to make it appear she was racist.

Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign Monday after conservative activist Andrew Breitbart posted a video clip of Sherrod’s speech at an NAACP dinner on his website BigGovernment.com in which she appeared to say that she had once discriminated against a white farmer. The edited clip did not include the portion of the speech in which Sherrod said the episode had taught her the importance of overcoming personal prejudices.

The video sparked a conflagration in the blogosphere and cable news that at first outraced the facts. O’Reilly was the first on cable to air the video, calling for Sherrod’s resignation Monday night. (By the time his taped show aired, she in fact had already resigned, a fact Fox News noted on the screen.)

On Wednesday, he said he should have gotten the full story first. “I owe Ms. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework, for not putting her remarks into the proper context,” he said on "The O'Reilly Factor," adding that his own words had been taken out of context by critics in the past. “I well understand the need for honest reporting.”

The rapid-fire denunciation of Sherrod, followed by hasty backtracking by her critics, underscored how quickly controversies can mushroom and then disintegrate in the current media age. Her resignation made headlines on cable news Monday night, getting covered extensively by Fox News’ prime-time commentators and reported on CNN before the context of her remarks was clear.

On Wednesday, the White House apologized to Sherrod, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack offered her a new position with the agency.

Both Sherrod and the NAACP – which first condemned her remarks, then reversed itself -- put the blame in part on Fox News for hyping the story, a charged the cable news channel rejected.

Michael Clemente, senior vice president of news editorial, said the network’s news programs reported the story with caution. “When I heard about this Monday morning and saw it on Breitbart’s website, I said, ‘OK, could be a story, let’s check it out,’ ” Clemente said. “We did the normal fact-finding we would do on any story.”

At an afternoon editorial meeting Monday, Clemente urged the staff to first get the facts and obtain comment from Sherrod before going on air, according to internal notes from the meeting that were provided to The Times. “Let’s make sure we do this right,” he said.

Sherrod ended up resigning Monday afternoon, hours before O’Reilly broke the story on his show. The first reported piece on Fox News, by correspondent James Rosen, aired on Tuesday morning, and included a second video clip that added context to Sherrod’s comments.

But Fox’s commentators showed less restraint. O’Reilly continued to condemn Sherrod’s comments on his show Tuesday night, saying she made a mistake, even after it had emerged that her words had been misrepresented.

On Wednesday, the host said that he “did not analyze the entire transcript, and that was not fair.” Still, O’Reilly called her a "longtime liberal activist" and said the language Sherrod used suggested that she “very well may see things through a racial prism." He said she belonged in the private sector, not working for the government.

-- Matea Gold

twitter.com/mateagold

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