Pod people: Forgiveness & ethics

In this week’s Crossroads podcast we discuss media coverage of Newt Gingrich’s comments on the importance of forgiveness to him. We also discussed the ethics of James O’Keefe’s NPR sting.

I thought it might be worth sharing two other discussions of the latter topic. Pete Wehner at the conservative site Commentary writes about some of what made the NPR sting so interesting and newsworthy:

That said, the technique that James O’Keefe used to snag Schiller does, on reflection, leave me a bit queasy. I understand that sting operations can serve a useful role. But surreptitiously recording conversations of either NPR executives or governors (see the liberal blogger, pretending to be conservative donor David Koch, who taped a phone conversation with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) can easily cross into dangerous terrain. Human nature is weak and can be easily exploited. I and virtually every person I know have said things in private conversations that we would not want recorded and broadcast publicly. And when you add to the mix people who are play-acting and goading their interlocutors, concerns about how the tape was subsequently edited, not to mention the offer of a multimillion-dollar donation, and you are in questionable ethical territory.

I don’t pretend to know where the line should be drawn between responsible investigative journalism on the one hand and irresponsible entrapment on the other. Deceit in the cause of some other aim and some other good is sometimes morally justifiable; sometimes it’s not. But I do know that the tendency we all have to battle is to take delight in watching our ideological opponents trip up in a sting operation but squawk when our allies step into a similar trap, to react one way when James O’Keefe does the recording and another if a liberal blogger or 60 Minutes does it. In thinking through what’s fair, it’s probably worth taking into account this question among others: how would I feel if I were on the receiving end of the sting operation?

And at the Baltimore Sun, television critic David Zurawik writes of his changing views on sting operations. He began by condemning them but now thinks they might have value. He writes:

After listening to a week of discussion and watching the Sunday morning shows today, it astounds how some members of the mainstream media can overlook certain facts that challenge their belief systems.

In discussing the ethics of the bombshell video that conservative filmmaker James O’Keefe made of Ron Schiller, the former head of fund raising at NPR, the conventional wisdom heard again Sunday morning is that mainstream TV news organizations used to use hidden cameras, but, by and large, they don’t any more.

Not true, and the evidence is staring everyone in the face — even as they ignore it.

He shows examples from CBS News and NBC News from the last couple of weeks. He acknowledges it’s a complicated issue, then writes:

In trying to re-formulate my thinking on this, I am starting to believe that such techniques of hidden cameras and microphones might be one of the only ways to get at the lies some people in the media tell us. I am not yet saying they are ethically acceptable, but rather that they are one of the only techniques that have proven effective with media and political liars.

In my view, there’s no doubt that these stings are an effective way to get at the lies. Lying to obtain information is always a possibility. That doesn’t make it ethically defensible, however. What do you think?

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  • Jerry

    Since you ask about lying, I think a Christian would or should be motivated by what the Bible has to say about lying. To me the summary is God is the Truth and Truth is the Father of truth.

    John 8:43-47 says, “Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.”


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    There is something a bit unique about the Commentary column. He mentioned the sting on Gov. Walker in the same breath with the O’Keefe sting.
    The logical thing for the media to have done in discussing O’Keefe would be to bring in the Walker case which happened only a few days before, I believe. But most of the news or media sites I looked at discussing the O’Keefe case seem to have gotten amnesia about the Walker sting. The sites I found that mentioned the Walker case brushed it off repeatedly as just a “prank” which, after all was quite funny and revealing. But later when discussion of O’Keefe came up, he apparently had earned a place for himself in the nether regions of Hell. Yet, whether you approve or disapprove of such stings–they were extremely similar.

  • northcoast

    Isn’t it more deceptive to assume the identity of an individual whom your target knows and trusts than that of someone who is a total stranger to the target? (I owe this to James Taranto.) Also, hasn’t “60 Minutes” used hidden cameras and false identities in its exposes?

  • Dave

    This comment is more about deceit than journalism. In the 1970s I was part of an organization that sent around faux couples called “checkers” to realtors in an integrating inner-ring suburb. Each realtor would get two visits, from a white “couple” and from a black “couple,” who would meet later and compare notes. My staunch support for checkers then makes it impossible for me now to disapprove journalistic deceit categorically, including not being who one pretends to be.

    That being said, the checkers did not try to prompt realtors into incriminating conversations; that would be blowing cover. The treatment of each “couple” might be unexceptionable; it was the comparison that mattered.

  • Judy Harrow

    There’s an additional problem with the O’Keefe/NPR sting, apart from any ethical issues about sneakiness. It was a two hour tape, edited down to just over 11 minutes. The editing takes some statements grossly out of context, essentially lying by omission. Here’s the link to a detailed account.