NPR fallout: James O'Keefe's manipulation recasts journalism as a bad reality TV show
Now that NPR's own media reporter David Folkenflik has sifted through the so-called "sting video" assembled by conservative activist filmmakers James O'Keefe, discovering that O'Keefe edited excerpts to make NPR fund-raising executives look bad as possible during a lunch meeting, we are once again left with the question I posed last week.
Why are media outlets still paying attention to this guy?
Folkeflik reported Monday that some comments by then-chief fund-raiser Ron Schiller were taken out of context in an 11-minute video O'Keefe compiled from two hours of footage taken by associates posing as representatives from a Muslim education fund.
The first big news outlet to ask this question was conservative pundit Glenn Beck's website the Blaze, which countered the anything-goes ethic of some right wing commentators by asking tough questions about the editing and context.
Some of the worst comments attributed to Schiller, where he calls the conservative Tea Party "racist," stood as his own words. But he also stressed often than donations do not buy news coverage, noted many times he was expressing his own opinions and seemed to be quoting comments from other Republicans in some Tea Party insults attributed to him.
All of which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows O'Keefe's previous work and associations. As I noted last week, he has a history of selectively editing his videos and even breaking the law to get his material. His mentor, Andrew Breitbart, has never fully explained how he wound up disseminating a video of a former USDA worker speaking at an NAACP banquet that he originally said showed evidence of racism against white people, but actually revealed the opposite when the full video was released by the civil rights group.
O'Keefe and Breitbart have turned the media's breakneck speed, addiction to conflict and attraction to scandal against itself, with dire results. O'Keefe even posted the longform version of his NPR video, well aware that most outlets would not take the time to sift through its full two-hour length before writing their first stories. Apologies from writers for Slate, Politico and Time for not being more skeptical about O'Keefe's work do little good after two top executives have lost their jobs.
By their actions, O'Keefe and Breitbart seem to argue that the process of gathering material doesn't matter; that you can use dishonest means to trick subjects into revealing themselves. But they stumble on the same essential dishonesty that twists every reality TV show into a cheap display; when you don't fully show how a sting was set up, viewers can never trust that they are seeing whole truth.
Journalism has a long history of such stings. One of the most legendary, The Mirage Tavern, involved the Chicago Sun Times teaming with a better government advocacy group to buy a bar in the city and document the culture of corruption in city code enforcement. The series of articles that resulted was, according to legend, denied a Pulitzer Prize because judges didn't want to encourage lying to get stories.
But a central component of successful journalism stings is transparency about the process. The audience must know what reporters did to get the story and have the sense that the reactions they are seeing from the subjects are genuine.
In other words: You can lie to many people in creating a journalism sting, but you can never lie to the audience.
That is something O'Keefe and Breitbart are trying to change. they want the world to focus on the heat of the scandal and the burn of the embarrassment, without looking closely and what actually happened when their stings unfolded. Like bad reality TV producers, they will massage the subject's reaction if it doesn't deliver what they want and provide selective context on what their subjects actually knew while the sting was going down. Did Schiller think he was talking to a group connected to the Muslim Brotherhood? Or is that just what O'Keefe wanted us to think?
NPR says that, even after considering how the condensed video was edited, Schiller said enough to warrant his immediate departure. But it is also obvious that O'Keefe's methods should have been criticized and examined more closely in the initial reporting,
Journalism shouldn't be put together like a cheap reality TV show. In work like this, the process does matter.
And the next time O'Keefe provides a seemingly embarrassing video, it should at least be met with all the skepticism a good critic would bring to an episode of The Bachelor or Flavor of Love.
(Full disclosure: I occasionally provide commentaries on TV to NPR as a freelance contributor)