Monday, March 14, 2011

Duplicity as Journalistic Ethics

Peter Wehner


One of the reasons the secretly recorded video of National Public Radio’s Ron Schiller was so damaging is that he confirmed the impression many people have of those who work at NPR — that they are not simply liberal but also contemptuous of conservatives, of Christians, of Israel.

The Tea Party, according to Schiller, is Islamophobic, xenophobic, and racist. Zionists are in control of American newspapers — but thankfully, not NPR. Mr. Schiller’s views may not reflect the attitude of everyone associated with NPR, but he obviously fit right in with its culture and ethos (who can forget Nina Totenberg saying she hoped that Jesse Helms or one of his grandchildren would get AIDS from a blood transfusion). And given how disgracefully NPR treated its former employee Juan Williams, conservatives could be forgiven for a touch of schadenfreude.

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?


Dear Mr. Wehner:

I agree to a point with your thoughtful post today in Contentions about clandestine tapings for journalistic purposes. While often an enthusiastic recipient of the news so gained, I am, as are you, troubled by the invasion of privacy, and outright deceit, in gaining information.

I’m not a journalist and haven’t studied journalism’s canons of ethics. But it seems to me to be the obverse of journalistic ethics to record private conversations in rigged circumstances in which all expectations of privacy are dashed and then go public with the gathered information.

Where I respectfully disagree with you is in your readier contemplation, than mine, as I read you, of the propriety of journalistic “entrapment” in some circumstances. Our difference is one of emphasis. I’d feel more than “queasy” about O'Keefe's false pretences. I’d like to be referred to your understanding of the categories of circumstances, understanding the differences between criminal and journalistic investigation, when false pretences might be justified.

A quick internet search of journalistic ethics discloses these seemingly applicable principles:

“Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone's privacy.”

“Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

“Minimize Harm: Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”

My own to hand, first-time-thinking-about-it formulation consists of a strong presumption against duplicitous practices to be overridden only in the investigation of serious felonious conduct when there are no other reasonable means of gathering the information and when the means used are not themselves criminally or civilly unlawful.

On this formulation, and on the ethical principles above cited, O’Keefe’s "outing" of Schiller seems glaringly violative and news outlets ought not have accepted the story, the latter being an ideal never, I’d think, to be realized in practice.

Yours truly,
Itzik Basman

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