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Planned Parenthood and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

As unsettling as it is to hear the Planned Parenthood employees delivering their bureaucratic responses on the tapes, they did not commit or even conspire to commit crimes. And despite Rose's brash opinion that "the only professional response" was to call the police to the scene, the employees handled the situation like most normal people would: they answered the questions they were asked, and notified the authorities immediately afterward. In every case, the counselors were clearly concerned about the girls, and saw it as their responsibility to provide them with reproductive care. The videos may prove Planned Parenthood employees sometimes look the other way when they provide medical assistance, but they don't prove they work for an out-of-control "criminal enterprise."

The Lila Rose videos weren't the first time activists have trumped up a misleading video to score political points. Last year, James O'Keefe (who helped inspire Rose's sting operations), performed a similar series of stings at the offices of ACORN, a group that helps secure low-income housing for the poor. The resulting videos showed employees playing along, but did not acknowledge the ACORN staffers had called the police after the impostors left. O'Keefe and his publisher, right-wing media mogul Andrew Breitbart, refused to admit they had dishonestly edited the tapes to stage a scandal, and O'Keefe continued with other sleazy projects. Even though prosecutors in New York and California, as well as a federal investigation, all cleared ACORN of wrongdoing, the damage was done: innocent employees were fired, Congress voted to strip the group of its funding, and ACORN later filed for bankruptcy.

In July 2010, Breitbart struck again, this time posting a video that showed Shirley Sherrod, a Georgia-based USDA employee, appearing to admit to an NAACP audience that she had once discriminated against a white farmer. Breitbart wrote 1,400 words on a conservative website denouncing Sherrod and the NAACP for their "racism." As the video got wall-to-wall play on Fox News, the NAACP denounced Sherrod's remarks as "shameful," and the White House and USDA officials both criticized her. She was immediately fired. But after the white farmer in the story defended Sherrod to the media, the NAACP found the full tape of her speech in its archives, and the unedited version showed Sherrod's story was the opposite of how Breitbart had characterized it. Instead of bragging about her racism, she had been describing an incident where she overcame her gut reaction and did the right thing. The White House, the NAACP, Sherrod's boss, and even Fox's Bill O'Reilly apologized for jumping the gun. (Breitbart refused to apologize or correct his story.) But again, the damage had been done: an innocent person had been publicly humiliated, stripped of her job, and left lying on the political battlefield.

2/25/2011 5:00:00 AM