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On the Media: NPR video stings ethics too

Here come the blockbuster news alerts. First: Governor of Wisconsin ready to demonize unions by planting protests with anti-labor thugs. And then this: Top NPR executive cozies up to nefarious Muslims, loathes real, God-fearing Americans.

Talk about big news! Talk about changing the conversation! Talk about … a load of hooey, brought to you by your friendly purveyors of ambush “journalism,” secret recordings and ham acting designed to draw out the worst in others.

Hidden video and audio recordings mesmerize us because they appear to offer a view into a secret world, where the unvarnished truth about newsmakers springs forward with remarkable clarity.

But what the guerrilla media performances really show are things we already know: that humans are frail, that they often try to accommodate the person in front of them, no matter how loutish or lame-brained — and that their ill-considered remarks can’t be understood in a vacuum.

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Never mind that, though, because deceit works. You can play it on a continuous loop on cable TV. Right-wing hit man James O’Keefe III’s hidden video knocks out the top fundraiser at National Public Radio, Ron Schiller, whose fall tips over an even bigger domino, Vivian Schiller, the head of the radio network. Just a couple weeks earlier, left-wing blogger Ian Murphy’s phone fakery has Democrats in Wisconsin calling for the head of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The new fakery arrives largely on the back of something real and winning — the influx of an untold number of new voices into journalism as computers and the Internet have lowered the cost of entry to zero. But revolutions don’t come without collateral damage. In this case, some of the new crowd operate as you would expect of lone wolves — without oversight, rules or even a solid definition of what game they are playing.

So secure your phone line (as if that were possible), batten down your e-mail account and watch your back, because if you lead anything resembling a public life in America today, a dark-hearted prankster could come gunning for you next.

O’Keefe, previously responsible for torpedoing federal funding for social service nonprofit ACORN, likes to style himself as a “modern day muckraker.” But New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen more accurately pegged the dodgy, law-breaking O’Keefe as “a performance artist who profits from the public wreckage and institutional panic his media stunts seek to create.”

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Less is known about Murphy, the author of the sting against Wisconsin’s Walker. The 33-year-old writes for the BuffaloBeast.com blog and describes his politics as “extreme left wing,” according to the Washington Post.

Murphy considered mimicking a laudatory Hosni Mubarak in the call, but he couldn’t master the accent. So, instead, he faked a growly voiced David Koch and pretended that the wealthy industrialist and conservative donor was calling the Wisconsin state house. The blogger marveled at how easily he talked his way past a couple of aides and into a 20-minute phone call with Gov. Walker.

While Murphy taped the conversation, the governor prattled with obvious pride about how he would beat the public employee unions. He compared himself to President Reagan, firing the nation’s air traffic controllers.

When the fake Koch suggested “planting some troublemakers” among the union crowds at the Wisconsin capitol, the governor did not hesitate. He said “we thought about that” but quickly dismissed the idea as counterproductive.

Reactions to that provocative exchange tended (as with other such stings) to say more about the audience than about the governor’s true intentions. Democrats seized on the “troublemaker” musing as proof the governor would stop at nothing to beat down working-class people. Republicans said it meant nothing.

Let me (the holder of serious concerns about public employee pension costs, but not one ready to end collective bargaining) suggest a third alternative: We have no idea what the governor really intended.

Thuggery? Maybe. But it’s also possible he was merely hewing to the all-too-ubiquitous political routine — parroting the words of a supporter. And, on this occasion, he went about that business in a particularly ingratiating way, thinking he had one of his party’s biggest patrons on the line.

O’Keefe, 26, brought a much more public résumé to his latest nasty little set piece.

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The onetime student actor and Eagle Scout made his biggest splash in fall 2009, when a series of hidden camera videos at offices of the lefty activist group ACORN showed workers all-too-willingly going along with schemes that (if real) would have set up underage immigrant girls in houses of prostitution.

The videos made ACORN look bad, no question. But then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown found what officials in other places also had — that the closer you looked at O’Keefe’s stings, the more you saw selective and misleading editing, designed to put the organization in the worst possible light. Any mitigating behavior, or reasonable reactions, hit the cutting room floor.

O’Keefe got even skeevier for his next act. He entered the office of a U.S. senator, Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), and with a group of his stooges seemed intent on tampering with the phones. O’Keefe eventually admitted to the crime of entering federal property under false pretenses and was put on probation.

His follow-up was to have been another undercover mission, in which a memo revealed that the O’Keefe team intended to lure CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau to a yacht tricked out with sex toys. Somehow this was supposed to embarrass Boudreau. Instead, it exposed the unscrupulous videographer. After the scheme was short-circuited by one of his chagrined colleagues, O’Keefe claimed the sex boat plan was never real. That’s believable, of course, because it says right there on O’Keefe’s Project Veritas website that the organization is designed to “achieve a more ethical and transparent society.”

Fast forward to February, when a couple of O’Keefe accomplices posed as Muslim activists and — with the promise of a $5-million donation to NPR waiting in the wings — got NPR executive Ron Schiller (no relation to now-ex-CEO Vivian) to come to a swanky Georgetown restaurant.

If you watch what is purported to be the full video on the Project Veritas website, you will see the impolitic statements by Schiller that brought him down. He pontificated about how intelligent liberals are and how the Republican Party has been co-opted by nutty, gun-loving extremists.

But you will also see and hear something else. You will see a fundraiser who (not unlike Gov. Walker) appears extravagantly polite, even unctuous, in the face of a potential donor. You will see someone who rejects underhanded suggestions by his phony guests that NPR would be better off limiting the number of conservatives on the radio network. Most important, you will see someone who repeatedly pushes aside intimations that NPR bend its news coverage for a financial supporter.

Schiller admonishes the duo that there is a “big firewall” between those who raise money and those who report the news. He describes how public radio funders have dropped to the wayside in the past when they learned they couldn’t influence coverage “in any way, shape or form.”

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Much of what Schiller said about what mattered most — the attempts of shady and ill-defined potential donors to influence the news — could have come right out of the journalism ethics textbook. But that didn’t matter this week.

All that mattered was that somebody produced a video that sounded really, really bad. And that a new era of news, beyond ethics, now seizes the day.

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey


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