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On the Media: NPR video stings ethics too

Secret recordings like the ones that took down NPR's Ron Schiller and embarrassed Republican Gov. Scott Walker signal a disturbing move away from transparency in news gathering.

March 11, 2011|James Rainey
  • The video comes from Project Veritas and is another in political activist James O'Keefe's undercover exposes. In the video, now departed senior vice president for fundraising Ron Schiller, shown, and NPR institutional giving director Betsy Liley are at lunch in Washington with two Project Veritas "investigative reporters" identified as Shaughn Adeleye and Simon Templar, who posed as "Ibrahim Kasaam and Amir Malik." They were allegedly interested in having their organization donate $5 million to NPR.
The video comes from Project Veritas and is another in political activist… (www.theprojectveritas.org )

Here come the blockbuster news alerts. First: Governor of Wisconsin ready to demonize unions by planting protests with anti-labor thugs. And then this: Top NPR executive cozies up to nefarious Muslims, loathes real, God-fearing Americans.

Talk about big news! Talk about changing the conversation! Talk about … a load of hooey, brought to you by your friendly purveyors of ambush "journalism," secret recordings and ham acting designed to draw out the worst in others.

Hidden video and audio recordings mesmerize us because they appear to offer a view into a secret world, where the unvarnished truth about newsmakers springs forward with remarkable clarity.

But what the guerrilla media performances really show are things we already know: that humans are frail, that they often try to accommodate the person in front of them, no matter how loutish or lame-brained — and that their ill-considered remarks can't be understood in a vacuum.

Never mind that, though, because deceit works. You can play it on a continuous loop on cable TV. Right-wing hit man James O'Keefe III's hidden video knocks out the top fundraiser at National Public Radio, Ron Schiller, whose fall tips over an even bigger domino, Vivian Schiller, the head of the radio network. Just a couple weeks earlier, left-wing blogger Ian Murphy's phone fakery has Democrats in Wisconsin calling for the head of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The new fakery arrives largely on the back of something real and winning — the influx of an untold number of new voices into journalism as computers and the Internet have lowered the cost of entry to zero. But revolutions don't come without collateral damage. In this case, some of the new crowd operate as you would expect of lone wolves — without oversight, rules or even a solid definition of what game they are playing.

So secure your phone line (as if that were possible), batten down your e-mail account and watch your back, because if you lead anything resembling a public life in America today, a dark-hearted prankster could come gunning for you next.

O'Keefe, previously responsible for torpedoing federal funding for social service nonprofit ACORN, likes to style himself as a "modern day muckraker." But New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen more accurately pegged the dodgy, law-breaking O'Keefe as "a performance artist who profits from the public wreckage and institutional panic his media stunts seek to create."

Less is known about Murphy, the author of the sting against Wisconsin's Walker. The 33-year-old writes for the BuffaloBeast.com blog and describes his politics as "extreme left wing," according to the Washington Post.

Murphy considered mimicking a laudatory Hosni Mubarak in the call, but he couldn't master the accent. So, instead, he faked a growly voiced David Koch and pretended that the wealthy industrialist and conservative donor was calling the Wisconsin state house. The blogger marveled at how easily he talked his way past a couple of aides and into a 20-minute phone call with Gov. Walker.

While Murphy taped the conversation, the governor prattled with obvious pride about how he would beat the public employee unions. He compared himself to President Reagan, firing the nation's air traffic controllers.

When the fake Koch suggested "planting some troublemakers" among the union crowds at the Wisconsin capitol, the governor did not hesitate. He said "we thought about that" but quickly dismissed the idea as counterproductive.

Reactions to that provocative exchange tended (as with other such stings) to say more about the audience than about the governor's true intentions. Democrats seized on the "troublemaker" musing as proof the governor would stop at nothing to beat down working-class people. Republicans said it meant nothing.

Let me (the holder of serious concerns about public employee pension costs, but not one ready to end collective bargaining) suggest a third alternative: We have no idea what the governor really intended.

Thuggery? Maybe. But it's also possible he was merely hewing to the all-too-ubiquitous political routine — parroting the words of a supporter. And, on this occasion, he went about that business in a particularly ingratiating way, thinking he had one of his party's biggest patrons on the line.

O'Keefe, 26, brought a much more public résumé to his latest nasty little set piece.

The onetime student actor and Eagle Scout made his biggest splash in fall 2009, when a series of hidden camera videos at offices of the lefty activist group ACORN showed workers all-too-willingly going along with schemes that (if real) would have set up underage immigrant girls in houses of prostitution.

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