WASHINGTON - The Obama administration issued an extraordinary public apology Wednesday and offered to reinstate a federal official who was fired over a misleading snippet of video posted on a conservative website.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who said the decision to fire Shirley Sherrod was his, called her to apologize and to ask if she would return to the Agriculture Department.
The events came as an embarrassment to Obama administration officials, who have sought to depict themselves as immune to the blogosphere and demands of the 24/7 news cycle.
In this case, though, the administration fired the woman based on Vilsack's reading of a video transcript that left the false impression that Sherrod, a black Agriculture Department official, had deliberately not helped a white man save his farm in 1986, when she worked for a Georgia nonprofit.
Vilsack decided to force Sherrod to resign as the video went viral, putting pressure on the White House to respond.
"This is a good woman. She's been put through hell," Vilsack said Wednesday. "I could have done and should have done a better job."
He did not describe the new position, but hinted that it might involve a promotion to dealing with civil rights claims. A contrite Vilsack said in a late afternoon news conference that Sherrod told him she would consider it.
Vilsack denied he had received any "pressure" but said he discussed his actions with a White House liaison.
In interviews, Sherrod has said that department undersecretary Cheryl Cook phoned her on Monday and told her the White House wanted her to resign.
Sherrod said Cook told her the story would be mentioned on the cable show hosted by Fox News network conservative commentator Glenn Beck, a harsh White House critic.
The White House denied it sought Sherrod's resignation.
Vilsack's news conference followed a press briefing by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who also apologized.
Underscoring the influence of instantaneous media coverage, Sherrod was shown in a CNN studio viewing Gibbs' briefing, and smiled as the apology was being expressed.
"I think without a doubt, Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology," Gibbs said. "I would do so certainly on behalf of this administration." He said "everybody involved made determinations without knowing all the facts and all the events."
The Obama administration was far too credulous, said Marty Kaplan, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. A 21/2-minute video on a website with a point of view should not have spurred it into quick action, Kaplan said.
"It's surprising to me, and not very complimentary, that anybody who is in a position of authority is so naive as to believe that, 'Well, it must be true because I saw it on the Internet,' " Kaplan said.
The story began Monday, when Andrew Breitbart, a conservative media entrepreneur, posted a 21/2-minute video snippet from an address by Sherrod to a local NAACP meeting in Georgia.
In it, Sherrod discusses her dealings with a white farmer. She says she was reluctant to give him the "full force of what I could do."
That touched off a fury in conservative media, which have forced White House retreats in the past. Fox's Bill O'Reilly said, "Ms. Sherrod must resign immediately."
But the NAACP weighed in, too, calling Sherrod's statements "shameful."
A fuller picture emerged Tuesday when the NAACP saw and released the full 43-minute video of Sherrod's appearance. Far from embracing racism, Sherrod said in her Georgia address that the encounter with the white farmer taught her that poor people of all races need help.
"They could be black, white, and Hispanic," she said, adding, "It made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people."
Those who knew Sherrod quickly defended her, including the wife of the white farmer.
"We probably wouldn't have [our farm] today if it hadn't been for her leading us in the right direction," Eloise Spooner of Iron City, Ga., told the Associated Press. "I wish she could get her job back because she was good to us."
The full video caused the White House to reconsider.
President Obama, briefed on the matter Tuesday morning, had supported the firing. That night, with the unedited video of Sherrod's speech out, White House officials backpedaled. They asked Vilsack to review the firing.
The agriculture secretary issued a statement after 2 a.m. Wednesday saying he would consider "new facts" in the case. By then, the NAACP had retracted its criticism, saying it had been "snookered" by the snippet posted on Breitbart's site.
With each hour, Sherrod picked up sympathy. Even Fox's O'Reilly expressed remorse: "I owe Ms. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework and for not putting her remarks into proper context," he said in a script.
The Obama administration, sensitive to criticism it is beholden to liberal interests, has a history of relenting once an issue catches fire in the conservative media.
For weeks last summer, Beck complained about Van Jones, the administration's point person on green jobs. When news spread that Jones had signed a controversial petition about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he was out of a job within days.
Similarly, federal officials spent months deflecting conservative criticism of the nonprofit group ACORN, then cut ties with it after Breitbart posted video of its employees, shot in a private sting operation, as they apparently advised two people how to run a brothel. ACORN officials who sought to defend the group were told it had become a "distraction."