The New York Times provided decent front-page coverage of the emerging scandal that took down top executives at National Public Radio, a hidden-camera sting that caught top fundraiser Ron Schiller making prejudicial remarks against Republicans in general and the Tea Party movement in particular. The backlash resulted in the resignation of Ron Schiller as well as NPR President and chief executive Vivian Schiller (no relation).
But Times media reporter Jeremy Peters took an incomplete look at the recent rash of hidden-camera hoaxes on Saturday under the strongly worded headline “Partisans Adopt Deceit As a Tactic for Reports.” Peters falsely implied that "gotcha" journalism had faded from view, ignoring two recent examples in the mainstream media, one from NPR itself.
Peters focused on three recent incidents, two involving conservatives taping liberal groups caught embarrassing themselves and getting results – Lila Rose’s sting of Planned Parenthood resulted in the firing of a clinic manager, and James O’Keefe’s hidden-camera hoax of NPR executives supposedly meeting with a Muslim group resulted in a boardroom meltdown. Also, a leftist journalist posed as billionaire philanthropist Koch to try and embarrass Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, to little effect.
The reporter in disguise has largely faded from mainstream American journalism. But the tactic is alive and well in the hands of passionate partisans.
As their pursuit of the “gotcha” moment has become part of the cost of life in the public eye, one question is how willing politicians will be to advance their agendas on the backs of these muckrakers 2.0.
In just the last month, surreptitiously recorded conversations have embarrassed NPR and Planned Parenthood, organizations long under assault from conservatives, as well as Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican and target of the political left for his anti-union stance.
The latest episode came this week, when the conservative provocateur James O’Keefe released a video that included an NPR fund-raiser who makes disparaging remarks about the Tea Party. This led to the resignation of the radio network’s chief executive, Vivian Schiller.
Defensible or not, use of the tactics seems to be growing.
But in fretting over the journalistic ethics of these stunts, Peters ignored hidden-camera reports by mainstream journalists, including a recent one from NPR itself. The Media Research Center’s Alex Fitzsimmons noted an NPR correspondent employed the same tactics used by O'Keefe, going incognito for a sting operation aimed at exposing U.S. border agents who target Muslims for "interrogation" for the March 10 “Morning Edition." And MRC’s Scott Whitlock documented how the undercover ABC News show “What Would You Do?” searches for bigotry across America.
Peters rolled on, as if those sorts of programs were rarities in mainstream journalism:
By and large, American news organizations are wary of the toll stunts like Mr. O’Keefe’s can take on their credibility. Some attempts by mainstream media outlets to mask their reporters’ identities, in fact, have caused a backlash.
One of the most significant examples was the case involving ABC News and Food Lion, in which the supermarket chain sued the network, claiming fraud and trespassing. Producers for the program “Primetime Live” lied on job applications and obtained jobs in the back rooms of Food Lion stores, where they recorded employees engaging in unsanitary and dangerous practices like bleaching spoiled meat.