Undercover or Entrapment?

Via the indispensable James Taranto and his “Best of the Web” column, I learned of this piece by Ira Stoll, which raises some important questions about the “sting” that took out not one but two Schillers at NPR:

As fascinating as it is to see what NPR executives are saying privately about Tea Party members, Zionists, and Jewish owners of newspapers, though, it seems to me that the techniques used to obtain the video are also troubling. The self-described “citizen journalists” lied. They intentionally falsified their own identities. They claimed to be representatives of a Muslim organization wanting to give $5 million to NPR, when in fact they had made up the organization and had no intention of giving $5 million to NPR. For a group called “Project Veritas” to go around lying about who it is for the purpose of catching people saying silly things or getting reaction shots of the people sitting there laughing or eating while the Project Veritas members said silly things obscures the purpose of the organization, whose name, after all, means “truth.” What is Project Veritas about, anyway? Lying? Or truth-telling?

When I was managing editor of The New York Sun, we had a policy about this sort of thing, and we took it seriously. The policy was very simple: reporters couldn’t lie to get information. They didn’t always have to identify themselves as reporters, but they couldn’t identify themselves as something or someone they were not.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I tend to agree with Ira, with whom I worked briefly at the Sun. There ought to be a sharp line between ethical professional journalism and activist citizen-journalism, because the professionals generally have the technical experience to extract answers to questions without resorting to subterfuge. Which is why they get paid.

This is not to gainsay the truth of what the Project Veritas folks uncovered: a blatant hostility toward conservatives on the part of senior management that we all knew was there, if only from the dripping tones of condescension and derision from some of the on-air talent. Two Schillers defenestrated from three different jobs in one day is quite a remarkable achievement. And it couldn’t come at a worse time for NPR, which accounts for the timing. 

Nor is it to deny the usefulness of citizen journalism; having edited Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism website for a year, I relied entirely on volunteers, many of whom were excellent writers and connected to their communities in a way that the transient professionals in their towns often were not.

Finally, there is a place for undercover journalism and always has been. Nellie Bly faked insanity in order to expose conditions at the lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island (later Welfare Island and now Roosevelt Island) for the New York World. The Chicago Sun-Times had its famous Mirage Bar sting — for which it was pointedly denied a Pulitzer. And where would 60 Minutes be without its hidden cameras?

Still . . .

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