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Ambush Journalism

March 9, 2011

Let’s say I’m in business selling doohickeys.  My business is fine, although I have a strong doohickey competitor that I respect, but that I also dislike intensely.  Theirs are the wrong shade of fuscia, and frankly they appeal in a different way to my customers that I can’t touch.  So I have choices on how to compete.  I can produce a better product and work to cut my costs and improve qualty.  Or… I can secretly tape their QA department lead talking about doohickey tests that failed and then post it on YouTube in an unflattering way to draw customers to me.  One is a good way to do business, and the other works nicely, though it probably makes about half of my customers want to take a shower after they have a sales call with me.

So, honestly, now that we have both the Schiller twins (yes, I know they’re not related) leaving NPR on a rapid rail, I wonder how we should feel about the methodologies that got them on the car in the first place?

Let me be clear.  I thought that canning Juan Williams was dumb (I’ve always liked him, even though I rarely agree with his opinions), and I think the revelations that have come out about Nina Totenberg as well as the latest tapes are just indicative of the fact that the organization is run by people who can’t even pretend to believe their own hype.  But still…

Let me give you a couple examples.  A few years back, I was called by a friend in the press to comment on a business deal involving one of my brothers.  The press person wanted to get some background on my brother to paint a profile of him.  I provided some material that I thought showed my immense respect for my brother and his ethic, as well as a couple brotherly jabs.  The quotes were chopped up and used in a hit piece that astounded me with its venom, and you can trust that I learned a lesson about “taken out of context” that’s stayed with me since.

I’ve also been heavily edited a couple times, both audo and A/V so that my random ramblings made more sense for some B-roll or for support for articles that I or the company have written.  Knowing what I said on the unedited tape, I wonder how it could be spun “the other way” if someone was inclined to ruin my career?

My point here is that I don’t think this type of work is very productive.  Yes, it’s easy to push someone’s bias in a given direction if they’re already inclined that way.  It also will end up making people leery to reach out over time, since they’ll always wonder how it could be twisted.  This legitimately threatens to push people into not doing what’s right, and it’s all in the name of making some people look like monkeys when they’re already halfway there.  Thanks, they’ll slip up on their own at some point.  I don’t think they need the prompting.

I’m sure plenty of people will say that this is the way things are done now, or that it’s somehow protecting other lives or reputations.  Well, I’m not there, and I thought I’d make that clear, just because.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2011 11:33 am

    The question would be a matter of trying to catch the people in unethical conduct because they are already doing it. An example would be the Abscam sting or narcotics arrests being set up by police masquerading as drug dealers. I should also point out that it appears that the unedited tapes were released in order to avoid some of the problems that you pointed out.

    • March 11, 2011 2:29 pm

      I do like the fact that O’Keefe and others release the full tapes. It’s nice. I still get uncomfortable at the methodology.

      On the Law Enforcement angle, I agree that this is a tactic that makes sense. There are dangers around entrapment, but the legal system provides a backup to protect those who are unfairly ensnared (and I know that defense is not perfect). I think there’s a big difference between enforcing the law and trying to get someone fired.

      • March 11, 2011 3:00 pm

        Ooh, yeah, I dunno. While I’m not against law enforcement stings per se, I find them a lot more worrisome than journalistic stings. The legal system provides protections to both, one civilly and the other criminally.

        But abuse of law enforcement threatens a much worse harm than abuse of journalistic standards. I’d rather get fired than go thru the hell of a criminal process, possible jail time (losing your job in the meantime), even if I’m vindicated in the end.

  2. March 9, 2011 7:41 pm

    Yeah, I dunno. I mean, O’Keefe’s had a couple major gaffes that makes me leery of him generally. But this sting operation is just like the stuff 60 minutes did to catch devious business tactics, etc.

    And the thing is, NPR is always holding itself out as unbiased, intellectual, above-the-fray, whatevs. Most importantly, of course, is the tax dollar funding. Since they will never admit to these beliefs up front, and thus lose image and dollars, I think O’Keefe’s done an important service this time.

    I had a quick search, and Riehl’s article at Big J has a standard of conduct regarding these stings.

    What happened to your interview sure stinks, BTW. When an old boss of mine was up for reelection (long ago), that was a sobering glimpse into how reporters construct the narrative first, and then try and find facts that fit, rather than the other way around.

    • March 10, 2011 8:30 am

      What worries me is that many of these ambush attacks coming from the right (O’Keefe, Lila Rose, etc.) are positioned as, “for the greater good.” Yes, they are. But this sends me back to my old philosophy class days where we would debate whether killing one man to save a thousand men was the right thing to do…

      Of course, even as I try to look away, I’m still interested in what/who else O’Keefe got…

    • March 11, 2011 11:56 am

      The delicious irony here is that NPR recently sent its own people, in disguise, to “expose racism and bias” in the treatment in certain groups of people:

      ===|==============/ Level Head

      • March 11, 2011 2:30 pm

        Mom wouldn’t have let me hit someone just because they hit me first. But that’s a potentially unfair comparison.

        • March 11, 2011 2:56 pm

          It’s an intriguing aside. The usual formulation is something like “just because both sides do it doesn’t make it right” — but you’ve involved the related but different issue of self-defense.

          Your thoughts there — on self-defense per se might make for an interesting post.

          ===|==============/ Level Head

  3. March 9, 2011 1:18 pm

    I, too, am uneasy about the concept of secretly recorded conversations.

    There’s a scale, of sorts, upon which the “big” team’s work here (on Ron Schiller) is more palatable than some: they an external group (and thus should get “best behavior”) meeting with top executives (who are in the best position to decide and present such behavior).

    If you’re meeting with a group of unknown folks offering millions of dollars, you should be on your guard—especially when the group is involved in two different sensitive areas (Muslim actions/perceptions and NPR funding). He was in this case not uttering merely private opinions, but describing NPR policies and approaches to the issues. Interestingly, Schiller reinforced this distinction later by identifying something that was only his private opinion.

    At a similar place on the scale of “palatability” is the Scott Walker prank call, and the treatment of it was the Left’s way of saying “hey, we think this is fair.” Interestingly, though, they got absolutely nothing from Walker—and had to play up ridiculously the idea of “we thought about that, but” as Walker putting forth a serious plan to act like a President Obama or other Democrat leaders.

    Lower on such a scale would be the approach to low-level employees, as was done with ACORN. The revelations were bad enough, but these people are not necessarily representing official policy. ACORN, however, screwed this up by defending the wrong things—they lost the moral high ground that could have been claimed by firing the people involved and saying “thanks for spotting this, you know we have the highest standards.” Had they done that, ACORN would still be intact today I suspect. So, their own actions led to their … reformulating, so to speak. ACORN worked hard to earn their bad reputation.

    Near the bottom of the scale would be the old “friend” of George W Bush (Doug Wead), who secretly recorded many conversations with the then-Governor of Texas, and then shared some of those tapes with Bush’s enemies in the New York Times. They were horrified to find that Bush treated gays reasonably in even his private conversations. With little damaging information in these private tapes, the reporters did not pursue them. My respect for Mr. Bush increased further at these revelations, but there was little room for it to decline with regard to the New York Times.

    ===|==============/ Level Head

    • March 9, 2011 3:21 pm

      I’m against unethical behavior in the workplace. I’m also against people trying to gin up unethical behavior to smear people, even if they are guilty of it. It smacks of the characiture of a “Southern Sheriff.”

      It just bugs me. Thus the post.


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