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PBS Ombudsman

On PBS's Coverage of NPR's Problems

In today's faster-than-a-speeding-bullet media environment, news gets old very fast. Yet many stories still demand follow-up accounts if consumers are to have a fuller understanding of things they think they already know.

One such story involves the now widely publicized, secretly recorded video of two officials from NPR — which was formerly known as National Public Radio — at a luncheon meeting with two impostors who said they were representatives of a Muslim organization that wanted to donate $5 million to NPR. It was all a lie and the recorded sting, orchestrated by conservative activist and provocateur James O'Keefe, caught one of those NPR officials in particular, chief fundraiser Ron Schiller, saying some pretty egregious things.

The 11-minute video went, as they say, viral instantly on the web on March 8 and within 24 hours Ron Schiller and the CEO of NPR, Vivian Schiller (no relation), were gone, and the reputation of the fine news organization that is NPR was unfairly tarnished by the actions of a manager who has nothing to do with news. Mission accomplished.

The resignations, of course, were also big news in all the major newspapers, television networks and online sites. The nightly PBS NewsHour mentioned the emergence of the videos on March 8 and then devoted a seven-minute segment to it on March 9, when the CEO was forced out. Senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown, interviewing New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter, covered the resignations and their impact, the series of blows that NPR management had delivered upon itself in recent months, some history of O'Keefe's previous sting operations against favorite targets of some conservatives, and how he combined use of edited videos with his skill at getting rapid and maximum exposure in the press.

Not My Beat, But . . .

My beat is PBS television, not NPR. But in my column that same week about PBS's efforts to campaign against pending congressional budget cuts, I referred to the explosion at NPR caused by the filmed disclosures and resignations, and said, among other things: "The irony of NPR's latest management screw-up is that the reporting of the episode casts a shadow over NPR while the press has paid relatively little attention to the political activists and actors who lied about their identities."

As it turned out, the aftermath of the sting against NPR has made the entire episode, in my view, an even larger event; one that has received considerable attention in some surprising quarters — with a conservative website leading the follow-up investigation into O'Keefe's methods, and a high-profile conservative columnist taking those methods to task.

Their efforts add to the reason why the fuller story is worthy of more and wider press coverage and discussion, especially on programs like the NewsHour, which is one of the few television platforms where such a discussion could be held for more than two minutes. There has been no NewsHour coverage of this issue other than the initial on-air reports mentioned above. Nor, for that matter, has the PBS hour-long, weekly public affairs program "Need To Know" devoted time to it.

The episode, as more of it has unfolded, presents big and timely questions about what constitutes "journalism" in today's anything-goes media environment, what has been lost by the emphasis on speed, whether "journalistic ethics" has any meaning in this environment, does "undercover journalism" include what used to be called political dirty tricks, and, very importantly, does the mainstream press, in particular, and that includes the news and public affairs component of PBS, pay enough attention to such episodes beyond the news event itself?

Too Good to Check

In case you missed it, here's what happened after NPR parted company with the Schillers.

O'Keefe, to his credit, had actually posted the full two-hour, hidden-camera video on his website on March 8. But that came a few hours after the 11-minute edited version was released to the news media and began appearing initially on some conservative websites such as The Daily Caller.

There is no indication that the mainstream news organizations who used portions of the 11-minute version took the time to check it against the original, even though O'Keefe was a well-known political provocateur who had brought down the community service organization ACORN in 2009, using similar techniques, and who also pleaded guilty in 2010 to a charge of entering federal property under false pretenses in a case involving the New Orleans office of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Except for 'The Blaze'

The first organization that did make a thorough comparison of the two videos was a conservative website called The Blaze, which was created by Glenn Beck, the conservative activist and popular program host on Fox News. The Blaze editor, Scott Baker, wrote, when its investigation was posted on March 10, that "clearly, the NPR executives, particularly Ron Schiller, show poor and, at times, despicable judgment" in their comments. Indeed, Schiller and NPR have not denied that seriously inappropriate remarks, inconsistent with NPR standards, were made during that secretly taped meeting.

But Baker and another editor, Pam Key, after a careful review, identified eight areas of the original video that are either misleading, questionable or deceptively portrayed in the edited version. They point out, for example, that after one of the impostors talks about the "acceptance of Sharia," the strict Muslim legal code, the distributed video cuts to the NPR executive saying, "Really? That's what they said" in a jovial and upbeat way. But Baker's report makes clear that the raw, full video shows Schiller "was actually recounting an unrelated and innocuous issue about confusion over names in the restaurant reservation."

Other analysis shows that some of the derogatory descriptions of Tea Party members in the edited version were attributed, in the full version, to views expressed to Schiller by two Republican acquaintances.

In conclusion, Baker writes that he is of the view that "undercover reporting is acceptable and ethical in very defined situations. It is another thing to approve of editing tactics that seem designed to intentionally lie or mislead about the material being presented."

Gerson Weighs In

The Blaze's original investigative comparison gave rise a week later, on March 17, to the most full-throated editorial attack on O'Keefe's brand of journalism and that, too, came from a conservative Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Gerson asks: "When are lies justified in pursuit of a political cause? It is now clear that O'Keefe's editing of the raw video from his interview with NPR's top fundraiser, Ron Schiller, was selective and deceptive . . . O'Keefe's final product excludes explanatory context, exaggerates Schiller's tolerance for Islamist radicalism and attributes sentiments to Schiller that are actually quotes by others — all the hallmarks of a hit piece. Schiller's comments were damaging enough without O'Keefe reshaping them into a caricature . . .

"But the controversy also raises deeper issues about the ethics of undercover journalism. In this case, O'Keefe did not merely leave a false impression; he manufactured an elaborate, alluring lie . . . There is no ethical canon or tradition that would excuse such deception on the part of a professional journalist.

"O'Keefe's defenders," Gerson continued, "contend that he is not really a journalist but a new breed of 'citizen journalist.' This can be defined as someone who simultaneously demands journalistic respect and release from journalistic standards . . . These tactics are not a new brand of gonzo journalism. They are a sophisticated version of the political dirty trick . . . But there can be no moral duty to deceive in order to entrap a political opponent with a hidden camera . . . or to promise $5 million to a radio executive to get him nodding to leading questions.

"The result," he concludes, "is more than a race to the murky journalistic bottom. It is the triumph of a thoroughly postmodern view of politics: Power means everything. Truth means little. Ethical standards are for the weak and compromised."

Other Voices

Time magazine columnist James Poniewozik, also on March 17, also used The Blaze's investigation for a powerful column headlined: "Hatchet Job: The Video Hit Piece that Made Both NPR and Its Critics Look Bad." Poniewozik wrote that O'Keefe's edited video and the media's immediate devouring of it "shows how sadly easy it is to take advantage of the attention space and metabolism of media today."

NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, in conjunction with Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute in Florida, also produced a comparison of the two tapes on March 14, and on March 18 NPR's Bob Garfield, host of the On the Media program, went head-to-head with O'Keefe in a lengthy, illuminating and combative exchange, definitely worth listening to. O'Keefe defends his approach as "a form of guerrilla theater. You're posing as something you're not, in order to capture candid conversations from your subject."

Online editions of the New York Times on March 14 and the Los Angeles Times the next day contained news reports picking up on the work of The Blaze. What I thought was a particularly good analysis of the journalistic implications of this episode was posted on March 21 by Dave Davies at WHYY.

But overall, it seems to me that the subsequent issues raised by The Blaze, Gerson, Garfield, O'Keefe and others are central to today's media environment and worthy of a wider debate and a broader audience, including, and perhaps especially, on PBS.

And This, Too . . .

Finally, there are other aspects of this episode that I, personally, find disturbing. Lumped together, they include: the attempt by political critics to label, and essentially seek to smear, NPR news as "liberal," meaning biased; the failure of an essentially leaderless NPR — they've now lost the CEO and a few months ago lost longtime news chief, Ellen Weiss, in the Juan Williams firing episode — to fight back in a prominent way and defend the news-gathering operation, which is among the very best in the country and has some 30 million weekly listeners; and the tendency that political attacks can produce, which I assume NPR news executives will resist, to move from the center to the right to prove they are not biased.

I'm not a student of NPR but I have listened enough over the years to place it in the centrist category, where most of the news divisions of America's major news organizations are. It is important that they not get pushed to either side of that position by pressure from those who have no interest in news and news analysis they'd rather not hear.

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