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Loose and fast with the facts - Joel Hall

The unfortunate story of ousted U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official, Shirley Sherrod, is just part of a more unfortunate, and perhaps, more frightening story about the modern state of society.

In the battle of those on the political Left and Right, to skewer each other, we have gotten to the point where the facts don't matter, so much so that we'll trample on the lives of innocent people just to make a point.

In the past few weeks, a public debate has raged between leaders of the Tea Party movement and leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) about which group is the most racist. After the NAACP declared the mostly white and conservative Tea Party to be a racist organization, the Tea Party fired back, declaring the NAACP to be an archaic institution, inherently racist toward whites.

Last week, in order to support the Tea Party's stance, conservative activist, Andrew Breitbart, released an edited video of comments Sherrod made during an NAACP dinner four months ago. During that dinner, Sherrod described how 24 years ago, she helped a poor, white, Southern farmer reclaim his farm after the legal community failed to come to his aid. Nearly 20 years prior to her encountering the farmer, Sherrod's father was allegedly shot and killed by a white man, in what was said to be a racially motivated shooting. During the dinner with the NAACP, Sherrod said she was originally reluctant to help the white farmer, because she had come to equate whiteness with access and privilege.

In seeing the man struggle, she learned that poverty, more so than race, keeps people down, and that race shouldn't come into consideration when helping the poor. Breitbart's video, however, failed to include the complete story and used only snippets, purportedly to prove the NAACP supports racism.

Armed with little more than rumors from a blogger, major media outlets ran with the story. Pundits from Fox News ran the story, labeling Sherrod as a Marxist and demanding that she step down as the Georgia director of rural development for the USDA. In an effort to defend itself from Marxist labels, the White House did just that, essentially forcing Sherrod to step down from the post.

Apparently seeking to parry what it considered to be an attack from the Tea Party, the NAACP also threw Sherrod under the bus, decrying publicly that they didn't support Sherrod's 'racist' comments. While leaders of the NAACP had total access to the original video footage, they failed to even look it over before taking the defensive. In the end, any shred of credibility Breitbart had was destroyed, the White House and the NAACP were forced to eat their words, and Sherrod, a woman who had spent most of her life working on behalf of the poor, was out of a job.

The soul reason this all happened was because those on both the Left and the Right were more concerned about proving the other wrong than in finding out the truth for themselves. Achieving an ideological victory became more important to all the parties involved than actually doing their homework.

Several years ago, the career of veteran CBS journalist Dan Rather was all but destroyed because he failed to do his homework. In an effort to shame the Bush administration, he relied on an unreliable source for information, which turned out to be bogus. Rather was forced to leave his profession because he violated one of its most basic rules; but, sadly, nothing that severe will likely befall the journalists who mishandled Sherrod's story. The only thing that has changed between Dan Rather's time and now is that political objectives have now become more important than facts. Journalists and regular citizens now rely on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and all sorts of second-hand information, if it produces the answers they want to hear.

If the truth is something our society holds in high esteem, right now, we're not acting like it.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.