Our political Quote of the Day comes from Michael Gerson, President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 until June 2006, as Bush senior policy advisor from 2000 through June 2006, and a former member of Bush’s White House Iraq Group., on conservative activist James O’Keefe’s NPR Video that created a mass Schiller exodus (the resignation of NPR’s fundraiser and its CEO).
His Washington Post piece needs to be read full but here are the key parts. The lede:
James O’Keefe’s guerrilla video attack on NPR has led to the resignation of its chief executive and an ethical debate: When are lies justified in pursuit of a political cause?
It is now clear that O’Keefe’s editing of the raw video from his interview with NPR’s top fundraiser, Ron Schiller, was selective and deceptive. The full extent of this distortion was exposed by a rising conservative Web site, the Blaze. O’Keefe’s final product excludes explanatory context, exaggerates Schiller’s tolerance for Islamist radicalism and attributes sentiments to Schiller that are actually quotes by others — all the hallmarks of a hit piece. Schiller’s comments were damaging enough without O’Keefe reshaping them into a caricature. Both Ron Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, who is not related, resigned.
But the controversy also raises deeper issues about the ethics of undercover journalism. In this case, O’Keefe did not merely leave a false impression; he manufactured an elaborate, alluring lie. The interviewers posed as representatives of a Muslim organization that wanted to donate $5 million to NPR. The stingers bought access to NPR executives with fake money.
But there can be no moral duty to deceive in order to entrap a political opponent with a hidden camera. There is no ethical imperative to provide a prostitute to a weak man and then videotape the scandal, or to provide drugs to a recovering addict and then report the result — or to promise $5 million to a radio executive to get him nodding to leading questions.
The popular justification for this approach is that the other side does it — the ethics of mutual grievance. A liberal journalist calls Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin pretending to be a conservative donor, fishing for incriminating quotes. O’Keefe allegedly attempts to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office phones in New Orleans. Abuses are employed as excuses for equal and opposite abuses. The result is more than a race to the murky journalistic bottom. It is the triumph of a thoroughly postmodern view of politics: Power means everything. Truth means little. Ethical standards are for the weak and compromised. Influence is gained, not by persuasion, but by deception and ruthlessness.
This escalation is really a descent.
Read it in its entirety.
I think the key issue in this case is that the first serious question raised about the video were from a website associated with Glenn Beck, so it was not easy to fall into the typical 21st century “LIBERAL!” scream.
But the larger issue is this: there is an issue of hidden cameras (long a fun game on shows such as Candid Camera, Spy TV and used by documentary filmmakers, as well as in provoked confrontations on film by political filmmakers).
The issue here is a matter of EDITING — editing of an interviewer’s responses to fit a political narrative. Which involves an issue of accuracy/truth.
Those of us who worked as reporters in print or broadcast media grappled with the issue of properly using quotes each day. Most print reporters will not take a quote from a subject on one issue and apply it to a question set up by the writer in print that really is not the answer to the question asked. Generally, you try to edit to be accurate so you compress as much accurate information about the interview into a smaller space than the raw interview results.
The issue of “stings” is one issue for discussion. The issue of only using what a sting victim provided to verbally hang himself is another – -and the issue of misrepresenting it is a whole new animal.
But this technique is getting political scalps. So why would this trend decline? Particularly since it gets hits, ratings, and means outlets are screaming for more of the good stuff? The bar keeps on being lowered as we advance into the new, angrier 21st century.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.