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A Conservative Propagandist Returns to Attack NPR

March 20th, 2011 · No Comments

It is an article of faith with the political far right that the mainstream news media are, in the words of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the “lamestream media.”

The conservatives are correct – the mainstream news media often are lame.  But, it’s not because the news media are liberal, which is the point of Palin’s name-calling.  In fact, the mainstream news media far too frequently accept conservative propaganda as news.  That’s not liberal, just lame.

James O'Keefe at Courthouse

James O'Keefe at Courthouse, 2010

The most recent example of lameness came in the news media’s response to the latest stunt by conservative activist James O’Keefe.  On March 8, 2011, O’Keefe posted an 11 minute, 38 second video on his Project Veritas website (whose tagline is “Promoting Modern-Day Muckrakers”). Two of O’Keefe’s associates presented themselves as representatives of a Muslim organization, and asked leading questions of NPR Foundation executives Ronald Schiller and Betsy Liley in what was presumed by them to be a fundraising lunch meeting.  A hidden camera captured the audio of the meeting and a shot of Schiller.  Schiller reportedly called Tea Party activists “racists” and suggested that National Public Radio would be better off without federal funding.

Critical citizens might remember O’Keefe from his 2009 hidden-video operation against what was then the nation’s largest community organizer, ACORN, or similar attempts to catch embarrassing soundbites of Planned Parenthood and the New Jersey Teachers Union on tape.  They might also recall something missing from O’Keefe’s website: his January 2010 arrest with three accomplices for gaining access to the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) under false pretenses — dressed as telephone repairmen, with hidden camera in tow. O’Keefe pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, and received three years of probation, a fine, and required community service.

O’Keefe calls himself “an investigative journalist and filmmaker” – the very titles of the mainstream media he says he disdains, but titles he appropriates in an attempt to lend his political propaganda an air of legitimacy.

The power of O’Keefe’s work is not in truth-telling. His methods fall short as journalism, and his final products are edited to misrepresent and eliminate meaningful context in order to produce stigmatizing soundbites that feed a conservative narrative.  Once the story hits the conservative media – Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the National Review, Rush Limbaugh and his radio and web acolytes – it quickly jumps to the rest of the mainstream media.  The “lamestream media” isn’t the right’s enemy in this, but often its willing accomplice when it comes to a “breaking” news story with apparently damning video.

In Fall 2009, O’Keefe released the now infamous ACORN videos, in which he and Hannah Giles (portraying a prostitute), visited several ACORN field offices across the U.S., and baited a few poorly trained ACORN employees to apparently agree to assist with illegal tax and immigration schemes. They recorded their stunt with a hidden video camera and—it is now clear—they selectively edited the tapes for release, later splicing in video footage of O’Keefe dressed up in an outlandish pimp costume (hat, sunglasses, fur coat, and walking stick) with racist overtones. (The complete original videos were never released by O’Keefe, Giles, or their conservative media patrons.)  With the help of Glenn Beck’s continuing promotion of the videos on Fox News, they became a national story.

Despite that ACORN had not been charged with any crimes related to the videos, Congress voted to ban ACORN’s work on any federal contracts, and private nonprofits including the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Ford Foundation and the Mott Foundation withdrew their funding from ACORN. By April 2010, the organization, which had become a target of Republicans for working to register low-income voters (who vote predominantly Democrat), to prevent home foreclosures, and to establish living wage ordinances, had completely folded.  Ultimately, an internal review by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, an investigation by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, and the Brooklyn (New York) District Attorney’s office all found ACORN innocent of any wrongdoing.

For O’Keefe and his political allies, killing off ACORN counts as a big win. The fact that ACORN was finally exonerated seems to make no difference.  His web site falsely touts that he “exposed systematic corruption in multiple offices, such as the facilitation of child prostitution, human trafficking and tax evasion.”

One would think that an effective news media would be extraordinarily skeptical of any new claims made by O’Keefe, given that he was wrong in his characterization of ACORN, he was caught red-handed in criminal misrepresentation in Landrieu’s office, and his sole methods of reporting – deception and hidden cameras – are recommended by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics as an approach of last resort.

But, the news media seem to lack any institutional memory of O’Keefe and his partisan goals.  After the release of the NPR video on March 8, NPR put Ronald Schiller and Betsy Liley on administrative leave while the situation was investigated.  Fair enough.  But NPR and politicians immediately began to make decisions based on O’Keefe’s video without verifying all of the facts.  On the same day, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) made his quick conclusion:  “This disturbing video makes clear that taxpayer dollars should no longer be appropriated to NPR…top public broadcasting executives finally admitted that they do not need taxpayer dollars to survive.” Under pressure, Ronald Schiller, who had scheduled to leave NPR in a few months for another job, resigned later that day.

By March 9, NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ronald) resigned.  Ironically, a news organization succumbed to O’Keefe’s video before anyone investigated the complete raw video of the interviews.  As with the ACORN case, the politically charged over-reaction to O’Keefe’s videos came too soon before the real work of investigative journalism.  By March 14, NPR reporter David Folkenflik and others questioned O’Keefe’s prior pattern of unethical behavior and documented that Schiller’s soundbites in O’Keefe’s video were taken out of context.

But, by that point, the die had been cast, and O’Keefe had successfully swamped the conservative echo chamber and the mainstream media with his narrative frame:  that NPR doesn’t deserve federal funding.  It would take a lot of work to undo that narrative frame, and the Republican leadership in the House wasn’t going to wait for the record to be corrected.  On March 17, the House of Representatives voted along partisan lines to cut all federal funding for NPR.

Given that the mainstream media’s unending appetite for “scandalous” hidden video stories – no matter their lack of ethics and veracity – we can expect O’Keefe’s work to continue with the willing help of the “lamestream media” in publicizing his propaganda. Citizens interested in real transparency and democratic dialogue should push back, and publicly insist that the news media not lend its credibility to O’Keefe’s partisan videos.  Going one step further, citizens can practice ethical journalism themselves, and tell the real story of institutions and people unfairly attacked by O’Keefe.

Photo of James O’Keefe, May 27, 2010 on courthouse steps, courtesy Ryan Gravatt, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Courthousesteps.jpg

Tags: ACORN · Journalism · Journalism Ethics · NPR · Politics · Public Broadcasting

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