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.