NPR loses in ‘gotcha,’ but what was won?

by | Mar 13, 2011 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Maybe I’m confused, but if someone tricked me into a lunch by pretending to be someone else, secretly hid a camera, goaded me into comments during a private conversation – then released only the juiciest parts on the Internet, I’d at least have the right to be ticked off, right?

Apparently not. When this happened to Ron Schiller, chief fund-raiser for National Public Radio, he resigned. So did NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, even though she had nothing to do with the comments.

I’ve heard about liberal guilt. But whatever happened to fighting back?

The sleazeball behind this latest “gotcha” incident is James O’Keefe, who is all of 26 years old, calls himself an investigative journalist without formal training and thinks nothing of lying and fraud as long as it perpetuates his strong conservative viewpoint.

Thus he sent his operatives to a lunch posing as Muslim charity workers. Posing, as in faking. They offered to make a phony $5-million contribution to NPR. Phony, as in lying. The offer was not accepted (did anyone notice this?) yet the poseurs continued to engage Ron Schiller in a conversation that ultimately led to the tea party. (We don’t know the whole conversation because, as of press time, O’Keefe still hadn’t released it).

Schiller, who clearly said he was speaking as an individual, not an NPR employee, made some disparaging remarks about the tea party, as if no one has ever done that before.

But when the edited comments were released, chaos ensued. The right wing screamed it was evidence that public broadcasting should be de-funded. The left distanced itself from Schiller’s “inappropriate” remarks.

And nobody asked the obvious question:

When did this become journalism?

Why so little criticism of O’Keefe?

Let’s get a few things straight. I’m not here to defend or attack public broadcasting. That’s a debate for another day.

But there used to be certain rules for reporting. No matter what your opinion of a subject, you did not pretend to be a person you were not. You didn’t give a fake name or a fake workplace. You didn’t hide cameras and mikes during phony conversations.

Yes, investigative journalists might fade into the background and war correspondents might keep their identities quiet for safety reasons.

But having a private lunch with a businessman – totally as a setup to trap him? This isn’t “Serpico.” You’re not cops on a sting.

And yet this “Punk’d” version of news is now so accepted, no one makes nearly the stink about O’Keefe as they do about his victim. Supporters say O’Keefe revealed the true liberal bias of NPR – so somehow the ends justify the means.

Well, besides the fact that Schiller was a fund-raiser, not a news exec, and the business and editorial sides of public broadcasting are notably separate, let me ask you this. You’re a salesman. A big customer makes a dirty joke. Do you lecture him – or just laugh along because deep down you need the sale? You’re a business owner, and a customer turns the conversation political. Do you stop and make a stand? Or do you maybe utter a few agreements and later, on the way home, tell yourself, “I didn’t even mean that.”

When the tables are turned

Well, now imagine that those moments were recorded and smeared across the world. Wouldn’t your first reaction be, “Hey. That guy was a fraud! And that was private!”

Of course you would. But when it’s someone else, we prefer to say, “Aha!”

We’d better be careful if what passes for journalism becomes nothing more than dogmatic espionage. It’s the cheapest, laziest form of news – hide a camera and call it a story. There’s no context. No thoroughness. Just “watch this and get shocked.”

Of course, if you did such a thing to a conservative broadcast exec, he might call his opponents something inflammatory, too – like “Nazis.” Wait. That actually happened. Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, called NPR execs “Nazis” not very long ago. He said it for the record.

Funny. He still has his job.

If you really wanted to show a liberal bias to NPR, you could try to prove it by studying hundreds of its broadcasts. But studies take time and effort and they’re not as cool. Hiding a camera and playing “gotcha” is more fun.

Which is what O’Keefe and crew do. Sorry, folks, the guy is no hero. Journalistically, he’s a coward. And I don’t get why NPR rolled over for his stunt.

Maybe you can’t shoot the messenger. But come on. You can at least criticize him, can’t you?

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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