Citizen journalists of the right: Watch out for the other side

March 14, 2011|Susan Reimer

National Public Radio fired its CEO and its lead fundraiser last week and another fundraiser was suspended after the latest in video stings orchestrated by conservative activist James O'Keefe.

Just as the funding for NPR's parent company, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was under scrutiny in Congress, a video surfaced showing Ron Schiller, president of the NPR Foundation, making disparaging remarks about tea party members and saying that the CPB could survive without federal money.

In the video, made my Mr. O'Keefe's Project Veritas, Mr. Schiller is meeting with two men posing as members of a Muslim charity and offering NPR $5 million.

CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron Schiller) resigned as a result, and another fundraiser was put on administrative leave after a second secret taping showed that she responded equivocally to a request from the impersonators that NPR hide the $5 million donation from the IRS.

It is just the latest example of "gotcha" reporting in support of a cause.

Mr. O'Keefe also participated in a 2009 video sting of the Baltimore chapter of the voting rights group ACORN by posing as a pimp looking for housing tax breaks for his business. ACORN subsequently lost federal funding and went out of existence.

Mr. O'Keefe took a job as a worker for the U.S. Census and recorded a trainer explaining how to pad time sheets. He and a cohort visited the Department of Housing and Urban Development offices in Detroit and Chicago and videotaped an exchange in which they asked to set up a kickback scheme using the Obama administration's federal home loan tax credit.

Neither of these video stings went anywhere, but his undercover videos of New Jersey teachers partying at a union convention and speaking too candidly about tenure surely strengthened Gov. Chris Christie's' attempts to control the teachers union.

Mr. O'Keefe was arrested in the offices of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, where he hoped to prove that her phones did work and she was dodging calls from constituents angry about her support for health care reform.

And he tried, but failed, to lure a female reporter for CNN — who had been covering him — onto a boat filled with sex toys.

In a similar sting operation — and in which Mr. O'Keefe and his group were not involved — anti-abortion activists arranged for two actors to pose as sex traffickers and videotaped them asking Planned Parenthood for medical care for (non-existent) prostitutes as young as 14. Republicans in the House of Representatives acted to defund Planned Parenthood but have not yet been successful.

What we have here is a mash-up of citizen journalism, conservative activism and micro video cameras. The goal appears to be to catch those who work for institutions that you do not support doing something improper, or saying something stupid, and using those recordings to turn public opinion against their cause.

Mr. O'Keefe might say that he is simply exposing the secret agendas of organizations like National Public Radio or ACORN for all to see, or that he is exposing a truth that traditional journalists have not reported.

But there is a principle in traditional journalism that you identify yourself as a reporter and you do not secretly record conversations. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, after all, never posed as anybody but themselves.

There is another side to this story, of course. A reporter for an alternative weekly posed as one of the billionaire Koch brothers in a telephone conversation with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, to whom the brothers had made large donations, and recorded Governor Walker talking about his union-busting plans.

So, electronic stings are not the exclusive tool of conservative activists, just as saying something stupid is not confined to liberals.

In this new world, you can say something candid over a quiet lunch or on what you thought was a private telephone conversation and find it on YouTube or the Internet before supper. A common element of human nature — that is, to say something pleasing or conciliatory to someone to whom you are speaking — can be your undoing.

The undercover sting may be an effective tool for law enforcement, but I don't believe it is a step forward for the First Amendment.

However, if this is the future of citizen journalism, the James O'Keefes of the world had better watch out for the other side. They might be packing cell phone cameras, too.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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