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Latest NPR scandal gives oxygen to untrustworthy information peddlers



npr-schiller-sting_full_600.jpgWhen I first heard about the latest scandal facing NPR, I wondered: Why is anybody paying attention to what James O'Keefe has to say?

O'Keefe is the guy who first came to the world's attention by dressing as a pimp and getting employees at various offices of the voting rights group ACORN to give him advice on tax breaks from a brothel. Later, he was arrested for trying to interfere with the telephone system of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and exposed when he tried to trick a female CNN correspondent into walking onto a boat he had filled with sex toys.

(he's also a protege/ally of Andrew Breitbart, the guy who used manipulated video to falsely accuse African American USDA worker Shirley Sherrod of racism during an NAACP speech).

Now, O'Keefe has a video which shows NPR's outgoing fundraising chief meeting with people who claim to be from a Muslim educational fund, calling tea partiers "seriously racist" and "fanatically involved in people's personal lives." Turns out, he was speaking with O'Keefe and his operatives, who are not shown; eventually they tried to get NPR to accept a $5-million check from them, which the organization refused to do.

And it has sparked the expected media tsunami. The man who actually made the comments, chief fundraiser Ron Schiller, had already announced last week he was leaving for another job closer to his Aspen home -- NPR says that was not related to the video scandal -- and now it seems that process has been accelerated and his resignation was moved up from May 5 to Tuesday.

npr-logo.jpgSchiller himself has also apologized in a statement posted to NPR's website: "While the meeting I participated in turned out to be a ruse, I made statements during the course of the meeting that are counter to NPR's values and also not reflective of my own beliefs. I offer my sincere apology to those I offended. I resigned from NPR, previously effective May 6th, to accept another job. In an effort to put this unfortunate matter behind us, NPR and I have agreed that my resignation is effective today."

I'll admit here that I have been providing commentaries to NPR for several weeks on TV issues and so I know people at NPR and have appeared on its air as a contributor. It's why I took my time even considering a blog post on this issue; I don't have a problem dinging the organization when it does wrong, and I've criticized them publicly in many venues for how they handled firing commentator Juan Williams.

james-okeefe.jpgBut allowing information peddlers like O'Keefe to get away with crossing whatever lines they choose to capture embarrassing video turns my stomach as a media critic and journalist. So I'm sure some people will read my post and think I'm compromised.

No matter. Information thugs like Breitbart and O'Keefe shouldn't be rewarded with attention and results for using the kind of techniques which would rightfully get most nationally-known journalists fired. And though I used more measured language, I also criticized the website editor who pranked conservative Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker by pretending to be a big campaign donor, comparing him to O'Keefe back when those audio tapes surfaced.

And what exactly did O'Keefe capture here? A guy who doesn't make news decisions for NPR and is leaving the organization expressing his personal views about the Tea Party movement. He also said Muslims should have a greater voice at NPR, which makes sense to me -- a major goal of good journalism is to present a diversity of perspectives. Schiller also said something that has been obvious to industry observers for many years, though it is counter to NPR's party line; public broadcasters such as NPR and PBS have to position themselves to survive if conservatives in Congress ever succeed in eliminating the organization's government funding.

healthystatetile.jpgIf the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is defunded by Congress, it may not hurt NPR, which says it gets 2 percent of its funding from the entity. But it will likely hurt PBS, which gets 15 percent of its funding from them (how would you fare if your pay were cut 15 percent?). In the Tampa market, a CPB grant funds the Healthy State Collaborative, a network of reporters throughout the state developing stories on health issues for local public broadcasters and NPR over two years.

There are other such projects across the country -- an important way for public radio stations to get more reporters working stories in underserved markets. Without CPB funding, those journalism jobs would disappear.

O'Keefe is a conservative activist who seems to specialize in creating shocking videos which place right wing targets in the worst light possible. He's not above lying, gaining illegal entry and twisting facts to make his case. We can't even trust that the supposedly unedited video of Schiller posted by Project Veritas truly is unedited, because O'Keefe has already shown what he's willing to do to make his points.

NPR has reacted by speeding Schiller's exit from the organization and condemning his remarks as "contrary to what NPR stands for," which leads to an assumption that enough of the video was true to prompt a hasty departure (Schiller is unrelated to NPR CEO Vivian Schiller).

But amid all the controversy over his remarks, there are few words left for the information war Breitbart and O'Keefe are clearly waging. Their lack of standards will taint every news organization, as potential sources grow more wary of accepting that a journalist is genuine.

This isn't just about a reputable news organization using hidden cameras to gather footage -- this is a video produced by people who have already foisted misleading stories on the public, shaped to serve their ideological needs. This, from a group which criticizes mainstream media for a liberal bias?

And when the population increasingly doubts the independence or integrity of mainstream news organizations, they will cleave to the outlets which confirm their views and worst fears.

Some will say i'm reacting as a liberal, or reacting as an NPR contributor. But I think the actions of people like O'Keefe and Breitbart will poison the world's media ecology far more than any loose-lipped fundraiser ever could.


[Last modified: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 2:08am]


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