OK, let’s see: The White House. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack. The media in general. Andrew Breitbart. Benjamin Jealous. The NAACP. Fox News. All of these players are standing around the kitchen, hit by the mess surrounding Shirley Sherrod. Shirley is fine, but everyone else has been splattered, like when the lid is left off the blender.

Somebody, not yet identified, shot some video of Ms. Sherrod describing her path to working as a public servant at the Department of Agriculture. This unknown person edited the video with a hatchet and, according to Andrew Breitbart, sent it to him. Breitbart watched it, used his keen reporter’s eye and ear to miss the hack editing, and dropped it in the “Play Me” box at Fox News. And for about 48 hours it was played and played. The rest of the media was bored by unemployment insurance extensions being stonewalled by the sweat-hog branch of the U.S. Senate, or thought Wall Street reform ranked lower than Lindsay Lohan, so they decided to watch the Fox tapes until they thought it looked like news.

So much hot air blew out of the Fox News latrine it threw Benjamin Jealous and the NAACP into temporary brain lock, addled both Secretary Vilsack and even the usually cool, “no drama”, Obama White House into making a silly decision. In a ginned up panic, they sacked Ms. Sherrod to cover…well, what exactly? Nobody knows, and there are apologies, sheepish looks and backtracking all over Washington.

Some of this mess is about race. (Who would make such a tape in the first place? For what reason?) But it is also about two other things that nobody wants to face.

First, this was a shocking display of cowardice by all sorts of people. A coward shot and edited this tape and dropped it off to Breitbart anonymously—like any coward. Breitbart and the cowards at Fox didn’t even pretend to be journalists, or honest, or honorable. They did the cowardly and greedy thing and ran with it. Greedy because they thought it would be good for ratings for a day, and cowardly because they could either pretend to be outraged (job requirement for working at Fox) or if it unraveled, well they have freedom of the press, right?

The cowardly “lamestream” media were afraid of being beaten to a story, afraid they would be late to the party, regardless of accuracy. Secretary Vilsack and his backers at the White House let themselves come down with a case of leading by a sinking feeling in the gut (and we all know how well eight years of gut-based decision-making have gone.)

And in all the backtracking, apologizing and head shaking a second thing is being lost. Shirley Sherrod’s story is about government doing good and helping the poor. Her story of getting aid to a poor White farmer so he could keep his farm is a tremendous tale of the power of the government to not only act, but to function positively in ways the “free market” cannot or will not. This is not something Fox News, nor their masters on Wall Street, nor Republicans want to have aired. If Ronald Reagan’s famous maxim of “government is the problem” is shown wrong, then one political party is not only wrong, they are completely out of ideas.

Ms. Sherrod’s tale also stands up the poor against the wealthy, the little person against the Goliaths of our time. It is a report from the battle line of class warfare, where one skirmish actually went the way of the poor, not the rich. Her story is one about class in America, a subject we are not supposed to mention in polite company, let alone address politically. Yes, the poor we will always have with us, in all colors and accents in their English and in all parts of the country. But thanks to Ms. Sherrod – and the government she is better than but still might choose to work for – one of the poor among us got to keep his farm. Hurrah! The rich lost a round.

Carl Eeman is author of “Encampment: A Novel of Race and Reconciliation” (2009, Melange Press).