The first time I heard about the conservative, red-baiting crusade against Van Jones, I thought, this is ridiculous, even funny. “Will a ‘red’ help blacks go green? White House appoints ‘radical communist’ who sees environment as racial issue,” was the headline on an influential far-right website known as World Net Daily. What is this, 1952?

I’m not laughing anymore.

There’s a lot to say about the way Van Jones was hounded out of Washington by Fox News opinator Glenn Beck and his allies. Much of it has been said in the last couple of days. Because others have done a good job digging into the back-and-forth about Jones, I don’t want go there. Nor do I  want to defend everything that he has said or done. He clearly made mistakes, most notably and recently signing a so-called Truther petition in 2001, an act for which he has since apologized.

But I’ve covered Jones on a handful of occasions in the last few years, and I’ve really been impressed. So I want to add a few observations about him, about the controversy and about where this is leading:

1. The charge that Van Jones is a communist is laughable. Van was a political radical and a prison reform activist after he graduated from Yale Law School during the 1990s, but so what? Like many of us, he evolved. I first heard him speak about social justice to a conference of Business for Social Responsibility, a liberal business group, a few years ago and he wowed the audience.  He then  became a leading advocate for green jobs and environmental justice. He told me in a column in 2007 that the environmental movement has “to start talking the language of work, wealth and health, which is the language of everyday Americans.” he says. (”Work, wealth and health” could be a Republican slogan.) He spoke last year at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, along with the likes of Bill Ford and Bill Clinton, and he wowed the crowd of well-to-do business people. He’s a progressive, like millions who voted for Obama. A communist? Give me a break.

2. Glenn Beck has identified his next targets. In a message to his followers on Twitter last week, Beck wrote: “Watch Dogs: FIND EVERYTHING YOU CAN ON CASS SUNSTEIN, MARK LLOYD AND CAROL BROWNER. Do not link before burning to disc.” Sunstein has been nominated to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Lloyd is associate general counsel and chief diversity officer of the FCC, and Browner is the White House climate change czar. I don’t know Lloyd, but Sunstein is a brilliant and iconoclastic economist who will bring fresh ideas to Washington and Browner, while hard-edged, ran EPA during the Clinton administration. Who’s going to want to serve the government in a climate as poisonous as this?

3. The mainstream media blew this story. You’d think that a drumbeat of irresponsible attacks on a charismatic black White House official would get the attention of The Times or The Washington Post, but no. I don’t think The Times had a word about this until Jones quit, by which time it was too late.  Worse, the press has yet to hold Glenn Beck and his allies to account. To follow the story as it unfolded, you had to be reading David Roberts on Grist (who has tracked it for weeks) or  Alternet (this story challenges Beck’s lies) or this Gawker post digging into the factsr or David Weigel’s tenacious reporting in The Washington Independent.

4. What about Rupert? Now that he owns The Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch would like to be treated with respect. But Fox News doesn’t even try to live up to its standard of “fair and balanced.” While strong opinions are fine, Beck is a smear artist who, at one point, said of Jones: “This is a convicted felon, a guy who spent, I think, six months in prison after the Rodney King beating.” Uh, no–never convicted, no time in prison. In fact, Jones was arrested while serving as a volunteer legal monitor of a march protesting the Rodney King verdict and the charges were subsequently dropped. Here are the facts from someone who was there at the time. That Murdoch permits (encourages?) distortions on his network is shameful. I’d love to see the WSJ tackle Fox News, but I won’t hold my breath.

5. What about Obama? The White House didn’t exactly cover itself in glory by standing behind Jones.

GreenBiz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther blogs at www.marcgunther.com.

Photo credit: Eclectek via Wikimedia Commons