NPR gets stung

One of the GetReligion posts I’ve had in my guilt file for weeks is a look at the ethics of undercover journalism. Following the stings of various Planned Parenthood offices, where undercover journalists exposed employees willing to break rules and laws in order to help an underage sex ring, a lively debate broke out among pro-lifers. Some defended the morality of the undercover journalism while others said that lying can’t be defended, even if it does expose wrongdoing.

If you’re interested in this debate, Public Discourse ran a series of arguments and responses. (Here’s Christopher Tollefsen first, then Christopher Kaczor‘s response; Tollefsen again, and then Hadley Arkes‘s response; Tollefsen for a final time, Carson Holloway, and Bill Doino. The best pro-sting defense was by Peter Kreeft.)

I thought I would cover the debate once it received more mainstream coverage but it didn’t receive any, to my knowledge. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think I could defend lying to a source for a story. I’m aware most media outlets have run undercover investigations that involve at least some deception.) Following the Planned Parenthood sting, we had the prank call to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker from someone pretending to be a Koch brother. The latest sting targeted NPR. You can watch the edited video above or the unedited, 2-hour video here.

The Associated Press story is so bad I wouldn’t bother reading it but the Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi had a helpful write-up:

The former head of NPR’s fundraising arm says in a surreptitiously recorded video by a conservative activist that members of the tea party movement are xenophobic and racist and that NPR would prefer to do without subsidies provided by the federal government.

In the video, released Tuesday morning by conservative filmmaker James O’Keefe, NPR executive Ron Schiller disparages conservatives in general and tea party members in particular, saying some of its followers are part of an “anti-intellectual” movement.

Schiller and another NPR fundraiser, Betsy Liley, believed that that two of O’Keefe’s operatives were representatives of a Muslim philanthropy. The video was shot at Cafe Milano in Georgetown during a lunch meeting set up to discuss a $5 million contribution to NPR by the equally fictitious Muslim Education Action Center, which one of the men tells the NPR executives is connected with the Muslim Brotherhood, a political organization with suspected ties to terrorists.

On the video, Schiller, who formerly headed the NPR Foundation but left the organization last week, says: “The tea party is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives and very fundamental Christian – I wouldn’t even call it Christian. It’s this weird evangelical kind of movement.”

He adds that “tea party people” aren’t “just Islamophobic, but really xenophobic, I mean basically they are, they believe in sort of white, middle-America gun-toting. I mean, it’s scary. They’re seriously racist, racist people.”

He goes on to say that NPR “would be better off in the long run without federal funding.”

That was probably not the way NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller (no relation) thought the week would go after her big speech in defense of NPR on Monday. She has since been ousted by the NPR board in an effort at damage control.

So most interest in this story is just political. But the religious comments are fascinating. In addition to the Christian comments above (which indicate that for all his disparaging of Americans who lack elite education, Schiller could use a remedial course in basic religious terms and definitions) he also took part in an interesting exchange about Jews.

First, let’s look at The Daily Caller‘s lengthy explanation of the comments on Jews:

When the man pretending to be Kasaam suggests to Schiller that “Jews do kind of control the media or, I mean, certainly the Zionists and the people who have the interests in swaying media coverage toward a favorable direction of Israel,” Schiller does not rebut him or stop eating. He just nods his head slightly.

The man posing as Kasaam then joked that his friends call NPR, “National Palestinian Radio,” because, according to him, NPR is the only media outlet that covers Palestinians’ perspective. Schiller laughed.

When the ersatz Islamists declare they’re “not too upset about maybe a little bit less Jew influence of money into NPR,” Schiller responds by saying he doesn’t find “Zionist or pro-Israel” ideas at NPR, “even among funders. I mean it’s there in those who own newspapers, obviously, but no one owns NPR.”

Now let’s go back to the Post characterization:

On the latest tape, the two men told Schiller and Liley that they were Ibrahim Kasaam and Amir Malik and wanted to donate “about” $5 million to NPR because, “the Zionist coverage is quite substantial elsewhere.”

Schiller disputes that, however, and defends NPR’s impartiality, saying, “No one owns NPR.”

Well, that’s one way of putting it. If you skip over the part where he says Jews control the newspapers and laughs at the National Palestinian Radio joke.

To their credit, the folks at NPR have reported this story well, including mentioning at least part of the controversial Jewish remarks made by Schiller. On the other hand, the “All Things Considered” piece completely ignored the Jewish issue. The AP didn’t have room for a mention. Neither did the New York Times.

So a couple of questions. What do you think about the ethics of such undercover journalism stings? What do you think this video tells us, if anything, about the culture at NPR? Keep in mind that the sting caught someone on the fundraising side of the organization. And why does it seem the media aren’t interested in the controversial comments about Jews controlling the media?

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  • Corey

    Don’t forget the excellent Peter Kreeft piece:

  • Mollie

    Corey, I can’t believe I forgot that one. I added it above.

  • Jerry

    I think we’ll see more and more people playing “gotcha”. But I would not call what is going on journalism but political activists pretending to be journalists to get ammunition to be used in a political battle. In other words, why they do what they do puts them outside the journalistic sphere no matter for whom they work.

    And my hackles go up anytime I read the word “suspected” because I want to know if that’s guilt by association for underhanded purposes or, if not, why they are suspected and by whom.

  • Dave

    What do you think about the ethics of such undercover journalism stings?

    I think sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Let’s not hear any cries of dishonest dealing when someone starts hitting conservative institutions with video stings.

  • Mike Hickerson

    It might become harder for news organizations to ignore Ron Schiller’s remarks about Judaism and the media. He was supposed to leave NPR for the Aspen Institute, and I figured that position would be in jeopardy when I saw that David Koch (frequently linked to the Tea Party) was on the Aspen Institute’s board. Sure enough, David Weigel of reports that Schiller is no longer joining Aspen and adds another wrinkle: Schiller was supposed to become director of the Harman-Eisner Artist-in-Residence Program. Harman-Eisner…as in Sidney Harman, the new owner of Newsweek, and Michael Eisner, the former chairman of Disney. Both Harman and Eisner are Jewish.

    Then again, maybe it is easy to ignore the issue. The WSJ doesn’t mention Schiller’s remarks or the position he was supposed to begin.

  • Steve Martin

    If people want to be idiots and say, or do stupid things…fine.

    But why in the world should my tax dollars go to fund these people???

  • joye

    Really? I thought Peter Kreeft’s is the weakest of those you link (relying, as it does, upon gut feelings or “moral common sense” and explicitly eschewing reason–phrased very prettily, admittedly, so that I had to read it several times to realize what he was saying). Frankly, I thought it unworthy of him.

    It’s been a really bitter internecine debate, actually, and I hate to see the same points inevitably get hashed out again here on GR. I have to say that I’m glad the matter hasn’t gotten much coverage in the mainstream press, because the strawmanning, tu quoque (which we already have an example of from Dave in comment 4) and ad hominems from all sides have been extremely embarrassing. One side: fastidious Nazi collaborateurs, the other side: consequentialists baying for blood and vengeance.

    In many ways, it’s a continuation in a new arena of many of the same arguments that are being passionately debated in religious circles regarding torture. Kreeft’s line “if torture, then a fortiori lying” is highly significant. In Catholic circles at least, it’s important to understand this, that a lot of bad blood being stirred up was there already because of the torture debate.

  • Ben

    My news organization doesn’t allow deception to get a story, and I actually don’t think such a policy is that rare in US journalism. Were I not under their rules, I would consider some of these methods in cases where you just cannot get the information otherwise. But I would set the bar much higher than petty political point scoring, which the NPR and the “Koch” stings feel like to me. I would save it for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” massive corruption, extrajudicial killings by governments, that sort of stuff if one could be so lucky to be working on such material.

  • Ben

    Joye –

    I’m intrigued by the comparison to the torture debate. I can see a certain parallel about mistreatment leading to unreliable information. Is that what you mean?

  • mattk

    I listen to NPR every day. I also resent that they get money from the U.S. Tresurey. And I hate Hate HATE Terry Gross’s coverage of anything to do with Christianity. That said, I don’t think this is a journalism story because, as you stated, it was a fundraiser. His job was to bring in the bucks. Now, if Ira Glass or Nina Totenberg had said those things it would be different. That would be a journalism story. But this? Not a journalism story.

  • mattk

    What do you think about the ethics of such undercover journalism stings?

    I remember a story I saw on TV when I was a kid. It was an undercover investigation of a mental hospital. The staff was neglecting and abusing patients. And I remember another one about 20 years ago of a grocery store that was changing the expiration date on food. In each of those cases it was a considered journalism when the reporter lied to get the story. I don’t see how those reporters on those stories were any different from what O’Keefe does.

  • Chris

    Mr. Schiller was in a public place, having a conversation/meeting that could have been easily overheard, and that was part of his professional duties. If the organization that approached him regarding making a donation to NPR had been completely genuine, he still showed a tremendous lack of judgement, and an almost touching confidence that what he said would never be repeated. Regardless of the ethics of the “undercover journalists” that stung him, the fact remains that he said and did things that were quite unprofessional. I think the following opinion piece at the Washington post is pertinent.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Interesting moral debate. The moral strictures in Judeo-Christianity about lieing are, I believe (I’m no Biblical scholar), based on the commandment: “Thou shall not bear false witness AGAINST thy neighbor.”
    Those who play-acted as Moslems and “lied” about THEMSELVES were not fabricating untruths about the NPR executives and giving false witness against them–just providing a rope wherein they could hang themselves with their own words–and they obligingly did so, confirming the suspicions of many about NPR.
    Didn’t Jesus say to not say anything in private that you wouldn’t want shouted from the rooftops. O”Keefe and company were lucky NPR execs are fools and master double-talkers as well. And they should get my tax money????.
    To later hear Schiller claim–”That wasn’t him!” as far as anti-Semitism goes is bizarre as an excuse. For that means he would say anything –no matter how fraudulent or bigoted–to get a huge donation for NPR.
    And this anti-Semitism of the liberals is something that needs to be uncovered. It is apparently virulent on many college campuses. Yet the stereotype is still that conservatives are the ones likely to be the carriers of the anti-Semitic virus, not liberals.

  • joye


    You can phrase both debates vaguely in such a way as could easily be talking about either:
    Both sides grant that the greater cause is just.

    One side believes that the action is good because it is to the ultimate or greater good, or falls under principles such as double effect.

    The other side believes that the action is bad because the action itself violates human dignity, and that double effect doesn’t apply because double effect only applies to actions that in themselves are moral but have forseeable but unavoidable negative consequences, not to actions that are inherently immoral.

    The first side accuses the second of being in an ivory tower and not understanding the real world, of not caring about the innocent, of being cowardly, of sympathizing with the enemy, etc.

    The second side accuse the first of becoming like the enemy in thought and thus handing the victory to the enemy, of bloodthirst and desire to take vengeance for themselves, and most importantly, of consequentalism and relativism.

    Both sides accuse each other of pride.

    The first side is prone to whipping out a worst-case scenario. For the torture debate, it’s the “ticking bomb” scenario of a nuclear weapon in a major city or someone who has kidnapped your own children. For the lying debate, it’s Nazis at the door looking for Jews or Peter Kreeft’s example of someone raping your kid and having only words to stop them. (One might comment that these “hard cases” are similar to the pro-choice heart-string puller about, say, a pregnant 12 year old girl who has been raped by her father, but most of the people on side one would be highly, highly offended at the idea that they are being anything LIKE pro-choice advocates.)

    To admit my own bias, as if my snark there didn’t give it away (although I tried to be as neutral as possible in the rest of it), I’m on the second side in both cases.

    The overlap between the torture and lying positions isn’t 100%, but it’s not hard to see why they would overlap a lot.

  • joye

    One last thing to add–I see major shades of the Dan Rather “fake but accurate” meme in all this. It’s okay to lie, to use deceptive video editing, to set someone up, etc, if that means that “the real story” gets out.

    The idea that a deception might not be a deception because it serves a larger truth is very seductive, is it not? It’s no wonder it has ensnared both left and right wing.

  • Lily

    As a former fund raiser, I think Chris @ 12 had the best input on the subject. The video reflects badly on both the fund raisers and the organization because no high level fund raiser would pull that kind of stunt if it wasn’t the organization’s and/or board of director’s ethos.

  • Hector

    Deacon Bresnahan,

    You can build a stronger case against lying in any circumstances, based on things like “Let your communication be Yea, yea or Nay, nay, for anything beyond that comes of evil’, and “Outside the gates are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie’. Those verses don’t seem to specify that the bearing false witness must harm out neighbour.

    I wouldn’t agree with the absolute case against lying- it’s certainly an evil but sometimes a necessary evil. Lying to the Nazis would be the right thing to do, I think, and I’m sympathetic to the Lila Rose case. The NPR case is something totally different though. No lives were at stake (unlike with people lying to the Nazis or to Javert, unlike Lila Rose lying to the abortion clinics, unlike an undercover cop deceiving a drug dealer), simply a difference of political opinion. I think the commandment against lying can be overriden in extreme circumstances, but this circumstance (in which NPR was not doing anything murderous or grossly immoral, just employing some people with questionable opinions) is not one of them.

  • Hector

    ….and actually, probably the strongest Judeo-Christian arguments doesn’t rely on scripture at all, it relies on natural-law arguments about the natural end of speech, and what speech is meant for.

  • J. Lahondere

    Is there a full transcript to this conversation or something? It seems to me that this man repeatedly asserted that he was stating his own opinion and not speaking for NPR when he said many of these things. I am uncomfortable passing any kind of judgment before seeing how the actual conversation played out.

  • Ray Ingles

    It’s worth noting that NPR states ( it was in the process of vetting the “Muslim Education Action Center” and hadn’t accepted the proposed $5 million donation.

    J. Lahondere, I don’t know of a transcript but the story above does link to what’s apparently the unedited video.

  • mattk

    Hector and Deacon Bresnahan,

    There seems to me, that the Commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” is different from saying “don’t lie”. That sounds like a legal proceeding to me. In such a proceeding uncovering the truth is the most important thing. Contrast that idea with David’s lie in 1st Samuel 21. The former is a court room. The latter is in a war. I guess we should try to figure out if Okeefe is operating in a moral place that is more like a court room where one set of rules applies or more like a battlefield where another set of rules applies.

  • Harold

    I want to circle back to whether these activists are “journalists” and whether what they were doing falls into journalistic ethics. While journalists have sometimes gone undercover–although that is increasingly uncommomon–they haven’t then done “a sting” without the help of police. They haven’t provoked anyone to do misbehave, but merely observed it undercover without provocation. Even in the case of the controversial “To Catch a Predator” stings, they were provoking in cooperation with the police.

    In the the ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and NPR situations, the activists were play-acting to provoke a specific response. That’s quite different from what journalists do. This provocation was then used by conservative media to drive home a political point. I’m not really sure that’s journalism at all.

  • Dave

    I endorse Harold’s journalistic observations.

  • tmatt

    We are dealing with a complicated three-layer puzzle.

    The activists create the event; the event does yield quotes and info that enters the marketplace. There are activists on the left and right on these issues.

    The quotes are then used by journalists in advocacy, European publications AS WELL AS IN mainstream, hopefully American-model publications. It gets muddy.

    That’s the reality of where we are today.

  • Mike Hickerson

    On the issue of the undercover activism, I think James O’Keefe is closer to filmmakers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock than to mainstream journalists. Moore, Spurlock, and O’Keefe begin from defined positions and create/publicize situations designed to expose the truth (in their view, anyway). It also reminds me of local TV segments set up to catch crooked contractors in the act of defrauding someone.

  • Dave

    Terry @#24:

    This is an evolution of what could be called the Drudge Cycle. Something no MSM would touch on their own, gets reported (or asserted) in a declasse medium like the Drudge Report. It’s then reported in the MSM that Drudge said thus-and-such — not the story itself, formally, but the fact that Drudge said it. Thus is the firewall between “responsible” and “fringe” journalism eroded. Stings take the Drudge Cycle to a more intense level.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: There seems to me, that the Commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” is different from saying “don’t lie”.

    Matt K,

    Again, Jesus took the ‘false witness’ commandment and made it much tougher (as did Saint John). Moreover, if you subscribe to the medieval, Scholastic tradition of moral reasoning, lying is inherently morally problematic even without appealing to scripture, because it uses the function of speech contrary to its natural end, which is to convey our sincere thoughts. There are reasons to generally be truthful that aren’t limited to the commandment about false witness.

    Now I think there are some extreme circumstances in which the obligation to be truthful is overriden by other factors- protecting human lives would be an important once, hence the examples about the Nazis, undercover cops, and so forth. But there’s a general moral presumption that we ought to be truthful, I think, and it goes beyond just the courtroom. Even though that general moral rule may be overriden in extreme cases, we should obey it in general. I’m not convinced that revoking public funding for NPR is a genuine life-threatening emergency that is morally equivalent to lying to the Nazis or to an abortion clinic.

    As for Michael Moore, while I have no particular brief for him, I’m not aware that he misrepresents who or what he is. At this point everyone in the country knows who Michael Moore is, so if you have an interview with him you know what to expect. The better comparison to James O’Keefe would be Sasha Baron Cohen (and I do think that Baron Cohen’s ‘interviews’ are somewhat morally problematic).