Why NPR’s Wrongs Don’t Make James O’Keefe Right

James O'Keefe, Ethics Corrupter

And the NPR Ethics Train Wreck continues

Between union hysteria in Wisconsin, carnage in Libya, and tsunamis, the fact that James O’Keefe’s fake Muslim billionaire act exposed more NPR integrity issues was drowned out by shouting, gun shots and water. In fact, the second victim of O’Keefe’s sting may have taught us more about NPR than the first.

In the surreptitious audiotape of  NPR’s continued encounters with the fake potential big bucks donor, NPR’s director of institutional giving, Betsy Liley, is heard advising the supposedly wealthy Muslim donor how the network could help “shield” his group from a government audit if it accepted the $5 million he was offering. It seems pretty clear from the tape that this was not what the sting was set up to prove: what the “Muslim donor” really wants is to get a promise from NPR that it will slant the news content the his way if the gift is big enough. Liley stood her ground on this core journalistic principle admirably—so much for the claim that George Soros bought NPR’s advocacy with his recent gift—but fell into another trap of her own making.

NPR spokeswoman Dana Davis Rehm said in a statement that Liley’s comments on the tape “regarding the possibility of making an anonymous gift that would remain invisible to tax authorities is factually inaccurate and not reflective of NPR’s gift practices. All donations—anonymous and named—are fully reported to the IRS. NPR complies with all financial, tax, and disclosure regulations.” That’s undoubtedly correct; Liley was not merely ethically wrong but also literally wrong, for what she was suggesting almost certainly couldn’t happen. However, the fact that she would say such a thing believing it could happen, or think it was acceptable if it did happen, or try to acquire a large donation by persuading a donor to believe it could happen, all point to the one conclusion: NPR’s culture is ethically compromised, and the organization’s leadership has failed to meet its obligations to create an ethical culture  there. The sting is more disturbing than the earlier one that caught an outgoing NPR executive taking extreme partisan positions that belied NPR’s position that it is objective and unbiased. The comments of Ron Schiller just confirmed what many, including me, thought was already apparent in the tone of NPR’s work. I had also always assumed, however, that the place was professionally and ethically run (excepting the tendency to fire employees for expressing politically incorrect opinions on Fox News).

So this settles it, right? O’Keefe is a hero?

No, he’s not. James O’Keefe, in fact, is an ethics corrupter, an individual who weakens the public’s ethics by encouraging it to accept his dubious values. The fact that the results of O’Keefe’s deception may well have put a decisive nail in NPR’s coffin (at least as far as taxpayer support is concerned) can not justify it, or , more importantly, the flawed ethical philosophy behind it.

Make no mistake: I’m happy that we have those results, just as I think the public benefited from the results of his ACORN deception. But if our culture has to endorse and embrace unfair tactics, dishonesty and lies in order to expose some corrupt or otherwise misbehaving organizations, it is too great a price to pay, by far.  The ultimate damage to the culture will be greater than anything ACORN or NPR could accomplish in Glenn Beck’s most paranoid dreams.

The more a society approves of unethical conduct, the more socially acceptable that conduct becomes. Approving of O’Keefe’s actions doesn’t threaten the “slippery slope,” O’Keefe himself is proof of the slippery slope. We have been willing to tolerate similar deceptions on the part of law enforcement officials and journalists if they uncovered bribe-taking cops, mayors or legislators, or proved housing discrimination. But these were limited exceptions. Neither utilitarianism not absolutism works well without the governing restraints of the philosophy that opposes it. When we fail to apply some absolutism-inspired limits to the utilitarian principle that “good ends can justify unethical means,” society ends up allowing torture. When we don’t temper absolutism with utilitarianism, we end up with women being forced to have babies when childbirth  may kill them.

If we can not place an effective ethical barrier of public disapproval on the slippery slope of justifiable law enforcement and journalistic stings, then the remedy is to return to absolutism, declare lying and misrepresentation as wrong whatever the objective, and condemn all such deceptions. Yes, that would mean that Rep. “Dollar Bill” Jefferson would still have all that money in his freezer and still be in Congress; it would mean that red-lining and housing discrimination might be more prevalent than it is, but it would stop the more damaging long-term result of encouraging the conduct and ratifying the “ethics” of self-promoting vigilantes like O’Keefe. If we  validate dishonesty when the results of it seem beneficial, then we have substantially abandoned honesty as a core ideal.

O’Keefe almost certainly has tapes of other stings he has attempted when he didn’t get what he was looking for. Don’t you think so? He is certainly not going to reveal those, but it is gullible to assume that he has a 1.000 batting average. I also assume that his splashy ACORN success spawned a lot of imitators. Is getting rid of the indefensible government support of NPR and the incompetent community service of ACORN really worth the price of accepting a new cultural ethic that declares that lying is good as long as it exposes wrongdoing? That is what excusing O’Keefe means. Unlike journalists and law enforcement, his mission isn’t to uncover wrongdoing, it is to uncover wrongdoing on one side of the ideological spectrum. He operates with no known ethical or legal restraints, as journalists and law enforcement official do. He has been guilty of heavily editing his tapes:those who embrace deception will not be troubled by misrepresentation.  And he isn’t fair to the public or his victims; for example, he intentionally held back the Liley tape to trap NPR into making a “rogue executive” excuse for Schiller which would look disingenuous when another employee was exposed. NPR had a right to know everything that had come out of O’Keefe’s sting before it responded. Strategically holding back damaging information is not the act of a public advocate, but of a partisan combatant.

We can’t trust O’Keefe; isn’t that obvious? You can’t trust anyone who will lie to achieve his ends. If he’ll lie to NPR, he’ll lie to us. O’Keefe isn’t a seeker of truth, he’s a walking, talking advertisement for lying. His successes threaten our society more than his targets do, because of the long-term risks of accepting his values.

I am pretty sure that I know what will happen. O’Keefe will over-reach and self-destruct. Not having scruples usually has this compensating side-effect: without ethical instincts, it is impossible to recognize the lines that should never be crossed. The only question is how much he corrupts our ethics and cultural integrity before it happens.

The best way to minimize the damage while we wait is to resist the temptation to praise him or excuse him, because when we do those things, we are endorsing dishonesty, unfairness, and utilitarianism without limits.

30 thoughts on “Why NPR’s Wrongs Don’t Make James O’Keefe Right

  1. What O’Keefe did was not only to expose the criminality of ACORN and NPR by giving them a “what if?” forum, but likewise exposed their stupidity born of insular arrogance. When he and Hannah Giles walked into one ACORN office after another- even while in the process of releasing their tapes for distribution from earlier encounters- they were greeted and accepted in the same sympathetic bent. No one but a total imbecile would have believed them to be an actual pimp and prostitute to begin with. It was like having Archie & Betty walk in and announce they were now in the child prostitution business! Such was the stunning stupidity and depravity of ACORN across the country. All O’Keefe did was record the results.

    In this new ploy with NPR, O’Keefe managed the same thing. Only this time it wasn’t with a local office, but at lunch with a top executive. Schiller not only accepted these two actors as the stereotypical Moslem agitators- come to put money into his group in return for slanted news- but virtually embraced them and parrotted their evil causes. Stupid… and corrupt.

    As the late Alan Funt would have said, “… people caught in the act of being themselves”. That’s what was important. O’Keefe, on every occasion, has both outrageously and deliberately overplayed a scenario, thus giving the other people every opportunity to either spot his sting or report him to the police for his characters’ criminality. But, on virtually every occurrance (including the Schiller meeting) he and/or his agents were accepted and solicited with help and advice in false plots of corruption and/or the most nauseating of crimes. He just gave them the scenario and forum. Their own depravity did the rest.

    O’Keefe left nothing out. He didn’t edit the “good parts”. He didn’t even have to, for there were none. Therefore, what he did wasn’t a “hit piece”- along the lines of a Mapes/Rather jihad. And, unlike those others, he went (with ACORN) right into the heart of the “lion’s den”, putting himself at risk; both legally AND physically. He was betting, in all cases, that his marks couldn’t see beyond their own avarice and dearth of basic ethics. And he won all bets.

    But it was the American people who’ve cashed in. O’Keefe showed us their naked faces; what they are in truth behind the carefully contrived media masks. It’s what we needed to know, too. All of these people operate as they do with the backing of public monies. All of them exert influence over public affairs that can affect the future security, prosperity and morals of this nation. And all have (or had) political backing from the highest levels of government.

    In my opinion, O’Keefe has served his country better and at a younger age than have few others in our history. He proved, for all to see, the proof of two old adages. “Stupid is as stupid does”. And… “You can’t cheat an honest man”.

    Maybe a third.

    “You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you”- Flannery O’Connor

    • I can summarize your entire comment with “the ends justify the means,” or perhaps “bad guys don’t deserve fairness.” I reject both.

      I see no difference between this rationale and Miguel Miranda looking into Democratic members e-mails to catch them letting about how to sink Alberto Gonzalez’s nomination. Does that justify reading other people’s mail, too? Again…until O’Keefe 1) reveals all of his failed scams and 2) sets out his standards and 3) catches some corrupt conservatives (they are out there, you know), I don’t accord him the respect necessary to entertain debate. Would you cheer him if a scam got Tea Party leaders making racist comments about Obama?

  2. I really like your argument for a balance between absolutism and utilitarianism; I’ve been making similar arguments for some time, but your terminology helps crystallize the issue.

    That said, it strikes me that you’re under-playing O’Keefe’s most unethical conduct. All his “stings” involve deceptive editing: there’s a good analysis on The Blaze right now of this particular version. Such distortion of the truth, obviously intentional, completely undercuts any utilitarian argument that might have existed.

    That is, even if we grant some measure of “ends justifies the means” thinking–arguing that exposing a “greater crime” legitimizes short-term deception–this behavior is appropriate only if the resulting exposé is itself honest in its reportage. O’Keefe’s is not. The resulting damage is two-fold: 1). some people will believe him because the image he presents confirms their opinions, and 2). other people (like me) will be tempted to disbelieve him or others like him even if/when the representation is accurate. He’s simply cried wolf too many times.

    Moreover, my natural inclination is to believe that if the best argument one can make against an organization is to misrepresent truth, innocent victims (as there surely were in the ACORN case, for example) be damned, then there isn’t much of a case to be made. I understand, logically and philosophically, that this is not inherently true; that doesn’t mean it isn’t persuasive.

    Ultimately, I’m less concerned by O’Keefe’s partisanship or even his charades per se, then, than in his manipulation of reality in the editing process. The fact that folks like moveon.org occasionally do the same thing from the opposite political perspective doesn’t provide balance, only more deception.

    • Comment of the Day. Good one.

      Though I did mention the editing in the post. I think the more important issue to deal with is the theoretically best-case O’Keefe—and even that fictional entity doesn’t pass. I can no more ignore a statement that is res ipsa loquitur proof of corruption because the tape was edited than we cam ignore obvious misconduct caught in an unethical sting. In the ACORN case, for example, there is no possible context that could excuse the plain words of the ACORN staffer–unless it was “I am now going to say something completely wrong and unethical that I don’t believe, just to see if my voice works.” That does not excuse O’Keefe’s practices, but it doesn’t excuse the target’s conduct either.

      • There are, of course, multiple ACORN tapes. Some do show real ethical and legal violations. Another, in its edited version, shows one staffer saying “we can help you with that,” apparently to a question about illegal activity, but actually in response to a request for assistance in finding low-cost housing. That woman, even if she worked for an organization which betrayed its stated goals, was an innocent victim. So was the man who apparently gathered as much information as possible from O’Keefe’s “criminal” persona and then promptly called the police after he left: this obviously, wasn’t included on the tapes, but it may serve as a cautionary tale with respect to even apparently conclusive evidence. (Of course, in this case O’Keefe would have had no way of knowing about the call, and might legitimately have believed he had uncovered corruption, even when he hadn’t.) Indeed, what convinced me that ACORN had serious problems wasn’t O’Keefe’s tape, it was the fact that the staffer was immediately fired, even when there were phone records of his call to the police. I remember thinking (and blogging) that an organization that willing to throw an innocent employee under the bus might well have had something more serious to hide.

          • Well, the NAACP didn’t fire her; the Obama administration did. But yes, precisely like that. A lack of concern for truth or even due process is a sign of either moral cowardice or a willful cover-up of… well, something.

              • Yes, they did. But I’d argue that their response was not unethical: they were responding to the facts as they believed them to be, and it was not their responsibility to double-check, and more than it is yours or mine before we write a blog about some issue. Being snookered is not an ethical lapse, albeit they should perhaps have known better.

                The Obama administration, however, as the employer, had an ethical obligation to find out whether Sherrod had actually done what she was accused of doing. Especially given the source and the time delay between the event and the release of the tape, they should have at least given her a chance to explain. This was a situation with “suspended pending further investigation” written all over it. That they demanded a resignation instead, with no opportunity for Ms. Sherrod to defend herself, was unconscionable.

                • I’m sounding like tgt here, I know. But the NAACP had been, like the Obama administration, critical of Breitbart in the past, and had good reason to question the source. I agree about the limited duty to check facts as they are reported, but heck: her speech was at an NAACP function—if Move.on says my wife was cheating on me in my own house, I think I should check it out before filing for divorce. We both know why they condemned Sherrod—they had just accused the Tea Party of being racist and challenged them to root out the racists among them, and suddenly here was a speech by a “racist” in their own ranks! Brietbart gambled that he could get them to panic, and he did.

                  You know, using a ruse to make someone misbehave and using a ruse to show someone is inclined to misbehaving are pretty similar, ethically. Brietbart’s defenders would say his deceptive editing was “justified” because it exposed, not Sherrod, but the Obama administration’s lack of process and the NAACP’s politicization. And it did….but it was still wrong. I’ll wait and see if the liberal media are as critical of Move-on scammers as they are of O’Keefe.

    • I disagree. All O’Keefe did was offer the wolves a chunk of meat. THEY did the howling. Then they bit. It was their nature to do so. O’Keefe merely recorded the fact. Nor was it, as Jack contends, a matter of the ends justifying the means. The criminality, both in conception and execution, was already there. They just accepted O’Keefe as one of their own. If he encouraged that belief, fine enough. In fact, in the NPR gambit, he actually utilized a format that the FBI pioneered. Whether his “partisanship” was a factor or not is irrelevant. What matters is whether what was uncovered was an accurate representation of ACORN’s & NPR’s mentality and ways of doing business. A lot of people- on all sides of the issue- think it was.

      • Steven, saying that the crime was “already there” is a dodge. Your argument would also apply to the corrupt detective in “Touch of Evil.” It’s just not an excuse to say “they were guilty.” You have to show them guilty ethically…that’s the difference between the good and the corrupt. Even the FBI isn’t allowed to do fishing expeditions, which is all O’Keefe does. I’m not denying that what he uncovered (in this instance) was probative; I’m saying his methods are as corrupting as the behavior he exposed…possibly more so.

    • I read it: why would you assume that? It is a biased and illogical article. http://www.fair.org/blog/ NPR is biased in its choice of stories, tone, slant and personnel. It is a classic bias, because they don’t even recognize it. If it were not biased, someone other than liberals would be defending it. I like NPR. It’s a lot better than the networks, and it does great stories—but it IS biased. Like FAIR.

    • By the way, why is it that you think FAIR, which opposes the enforcement of US immigration laws, is defending NPR? Because the immigration is issue is a perfect example of NPR bias. It has unrelentingly portrayed illegal immigrants as heroic or persecuted, and gone out of its way to make state efforts at enforcement appear radical and extreme. FAIR’s fervor proves NPR’s dishonesty.

  3. O’Keefe is no different than an CI employed by law enforcement. He didn’t fabricate the NPR response, he just provided them the opportunity to show their true colors. Now NPR and its cohorts and knee jerk supporters are fumbling around red faced trying to put the spotlight on someone else.

    Now, if he’d done the equivalent of framing somebody for a crime he committed, it would be a different story. Placing this much “ethics” attention on O’Keefe seems to me to be just a means to try and distract from the fiasco of NPR. Which itself seems unethical. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! I am the great and powerful Oz!”

    “I’m not denying that what he uncovered (in this instance) was probative; I’m saying his methods are as corrupting as the behavior he exposed…possibly more so.” – Jack Marshall

    And how does uncoerced behavior and voluntary comments made in a public place show as having been produced by a corrupting behavior? Balderdash. They had no reasonable expectation of privacy under the circumstances. I can see a charge of entrapment, but that only matters in criminal matters, which this is not. This is in the court of public opinion. What galls NPR is that they normally would have been able to lie/deny and get away with it if someone had reported overhearing them, but in this case it was documented.

    • See, you really don’t understand the whole “ethics” thing, do you? Please go read the rationalizations section. O’Keefe is not at all “like” CI employed by law enforcement, because he ISN’T law enforcement, and is out for himself—this is his business. What he did was to lie. Lying is “unethical.” Clear? And when we represent lying as OK because we like its results, we encourage more lying. This is called “corruption.”

      You really don’t read the posts, either. Hey, anyone out there who ever actually reads the posts here about NPR! Do I excuse NPR? Am I covering for NPR? Have I somehow not made it clear that NPR is biased, elite, and total waste of public funds? Did I write that firing Juan Williams for speaking the truth was anything but a completely hypocritical and biased episode? Did I neglect to mention that NPR violates its Code of Ethics daily?

      Everything about NPR show by O’Keefe’s sting was already known by anyone who didn’t carry around the networks talking points, which means that O’Keefe’s conduct wasn’t remotely necessary, and couldn’t have been justified if he was a journalist. It is unjustifiable at all from a film maker.

      • Might I point out this seems a perfect example of the “Pazuzu Effect” in your definitions section, and for the life of me I can’t see why blaming the recorder or videotaper for “unethical” behavior provides any real benefit to society. Most citizens are more likely to be exposed to NPR than O’Keefe, and it would seem preferable that their true agenda be made public. Or is there some inconsistency between ethics and the “greater good”? Seriously, I’d like to hear your view on this.

        • If you don’t see why withholding societal approval from lying, misrepresentation and deceit, which is in your own professional code, benefits society, then I doubt I can explain it to you. NPR, on the whole, just wastes money; it does no real harm. A society full of James O’Keefes would devastate trust in this country…we are on that road anyway. I would rather NPR continue to exist in its charade of non-bias than to have a hoard of O’Keefe’s devising ways to out everyone’s worst thoughts with masquerade, hidden videos and taped phone calls. Stalinist Russia, USA.

          You do know that you would probably be be suspended for a stunt like O’Keefe’s, right?

          • I’m sure you know that it would very much depend upon the representations that were made. Many an attorney has worn a wire and pretended to be “dirty”. The only real sin is lying to a client or a court. For example, the area of contracts has the concept of “puffing”, in which certain arguably false statements made negotiating are perfectly acceptable.

            • Wearing a wire will get you in trouble in most jurisdictions.
              And this —“The only real sin is lying to a client or a court.”—I have to believe is wild hyperbole. You know better. There are plenty of sins as bad or worse.

          • And how is just wasting public/taxpayer money no “real harm”?

            Believe me, while you may be fully cognizant about NPR’s failings, a very large portion of the citizenry is not so aware. Which is exactly why there was such an embarassment factor at play here.

            So if O’Keefe has an ethics problem, I’d be interested in hearing your views on a host of other “monitoring” or “whistleblowing” type organizations, like the Southern Poverty Law Center. Seems like their whole emphasis is on disclosing the bad behavior of others, by whatever means possible. And they aren’t even going after quasi-public organizations, but private citizens they dislike.

            • SPLC has crossed ethical lines too often to count—they are regarded by the media and law enforcement as “angels,” so they get away with it. Most whistle-blowing organizations are partisan one way of the other, which makes them deceitful. My favorite example: CREW.

            • NPR isn’t wasting the money it is given—I’d say, assuming that it has the money to spend, it spends it pretty well. Congress wastes the money by giving it to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Congress does the harm. NPR mitigates the harm by general broadcasting excellence (though biased), but I hardly blame NPR for taking money that’s there for the taking.

  4. A CI for law enforcement is not law enforcement either (though they may be helping them, they are by no means under oath to enforce the law). Don’t you know the police are permitted to lie to a suspect? So when LEO’s lie to you they are being unethical? I think there is something wrong with your definition of ethics. Lying is not per se unethical. Only if you have an ethical duty to tell the truth, which arguably O’Keefe did not have to NPR.
    And as any attorney or psychiatrist can tell you, ethical duties are not without limits. Duty of confidentiality, for example, is not unlimited.

    I read the posts carefully by the way. Just because we disagree about the opinions expressed doesn’t mean we aren’t looking at the same facts. I never commented about you excusing NPR. But I do point out that raising a fuss about O’Keefe does unfocus attention on NPR, which is what they are desperately hoping for. Which raises an ethical question which you are apparently unwilling to face. Perhaps you should read my comments more closely before you have your meltdown.

  5. If the Feds decided to help fund another “public” radio station that took a conservative bent, it would seem fair to me to fund both. But it doesn’t, and it won’t.

    I agree with Jack on the O’Keefe evaluation: he’s right up there with the likes of Oliver Stone, who makes up history as he goes along, carefully taking some facts at face value, leaving out others, and twisting other facts to his own ends.

    Regardless of the O’Keefe “Sting,” I don’t think NPR should have Federal funding; if it’s so important and so popular, between donations and advertisements it can survive on its own. (Like WETA here: any reason on the face of the earth that “Sesame Street” needs additional funding? Come on. Merchandising alone can keep it afloat on regular network and cable TV ad infinitum.)

    Off topic: anyone ever been to the NPR studios? Absolutely palacious. As one radio announcer (whose name I can’t recall) said, “There is not one radio station in the country outfitted as expensively and beautifully as NPR.” That’s where part of the Federal funding is going. Good priorities, guys, and this really hurts your rationales. Time to pull the plug.

  6. I missed all these posts until now! Jack, I’m going to have to back Ruralcounsel on this one. In fact, I think he’s made the point better and in more detail than I could have aspired to. I think the salient point is that one “citizen-journalist” (if you want to use that term) simply went into the offices of government sponsored entities, provided them with an unethical scenario, and recorded the results. In the cases of both ACORN and NPR, the results were frightening. I submit that the citizenry needs to know about such organizations that, whether directly government sponsored or not, have such influence on their lives and the future of this nation.

    Once, long ago, I witnessed a film taken at a Yippie rally with Abbie Hoffman spilling his guts. It led me to ask myself one of the wisest questions that ever occurred to me. “Do I really want this guy and others like him running the country, my life and those of my children 30 years down the line?” The answer hit me in the face like a two-by-four! Today, witnessing James O’Keefe’s videos, I ask myself that same question. And I get the same answer… a resounding “NO”.

    • Who didn’t see THAT coming! Nonetheless, Michael Gerson’s column in the Post pretty much nails this—he doesn’t say anything I didn’t write days ago, of course, but when Glenn Beck’s website is moved to show what a dishonest, unethical cheat O’Keefe is, that should tell us (you, ruralcounsel—who I believe is gone because I hurt his rural feelings—anyone else who lets ideological dislike of O’Keefe’s targets gull them into approving his methods.

  7. I’d say, Jack, that a lot of people didn’t know the nature of those two organizations except for the versions they read in newspapers (like the Post) who excused their infamies… for political reasons. When the press syndicates fail to do their job, then someone must. O’Keefe didn’t start this sort of thing. But, unlike the leftist media “stings” on targets, he gave his marks every opportunity to show that they actually had ethics. And they “abstained” on virtually every occasion. But not every. O’Keefe was upfront about that, too. That, I think, puts him in a different ethical category.

  8. Pingback: Decision-making, Ethics and Undercover Journalism in the Digital Age | kathamongthepigeons

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