Guerilla Journalism or Covert Patriotism?

James O'Keefe

James O'Keefe (Image via Wikipedia)

An interesting strategy has been used of late that brings up a lot of ethical questions. I touched on it a few articles back when Anonymous hacked into HBGary and discovered that they were creating fake constituencies to foster an illusion of favourable public opinion. Wikileaks has become the trendy weapon of choice in exposing the true intentions of political groups and it’s catching on.

I should point out that it was predated by as yet unidentified hackers who hacked into e-mail accounts of East Anglia University in order to find evidence of a manufactured plot to promote Anthropogenic Global Warming. It was neither true nor makes any sense; nobody is going to get rich off of promoting AGW. It did serve, however, to disrupt the climate change summit happening in Copenhagen at the time.

And it’s a bipartisan tool. After receiving a slap on the hand for trying to tap into Louisiana Governor Landrieu’s phones, conservative activist James O’Keefe is at it again videotaping a dinner conversation with a top NPR executive without his knowledge. You may remember O’Keefe from his videotaping visits to ACORN offices posing as the worst pimp ever. O’Keefe filmed hours of video and was thrown out of several places until he finally got some video of questionably damning soundbites from ACORN employees. The government subsequently cut funding to ACORN. Republicans considered this a victory because ACORN assists low-income voters; the majority of whom vote for Democrats, in registering to vote.

Journalist and correspondent Juan Williams spe...

Juan Williams (Image via Wikipedia)

NPR has been hypersensitive to controversy of late because their government funding is being targeted by Republicans. They have typically overreacted to every little thing that even smacks of impropriety. Recall the Juan Williams firing. Now this executive, who O’Keefe secretly recorded saying that the Tea Party is racist and that NPR would be better off without government funding, has resigned. He’s not worried, as he was leaving anyway for another job, but one other executive has been fired, and one is on administrative leave pending an investigation. The latter’s only crime appears to be trying to vet O’Keefe’s fake claims of wanting to submit dirty donation money to NPR (which they repeatedly refused).

Not to be outdone, a liberal blogger from Buffalo, New York prank called Governor Scott Walker and got him on tape outlining the entire Republican secret plot to disempower Democrats by busting unions. I would argue that his actions will turn Wisconsin into a blue state within the year. Maybe a few others as well.

Here’s the thing; all of these events took place through questionably moral and ethical means. Wikileaks, depending on which side you choose, is either a traitor or a candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize. The liberal blogger from New York is being touted as a hero. James O’Keefe is quietly encouraged to keep up the good work of breaking the law. NPR’s Schiller probably would’ve kept his opinion about the Tea Party to himself if he had known he was being videotaped. Heck, I’ll go on record agreeing with him in that the Tea Party has a strong propensity to be racist.

So do two wrongs now make a right? Is it okay to impersonate a billionaire if it exposes sinister motives? Can you set entrapment scenarios to lure people into accepting cash donations? Can you use hidden video or cherry pick video in order to discredit an organization or cost a person their job? It’s a Federal offense to open someone else’s mail and I’m having trouble making the distinction with these tactics that are being used. Some of this stuff would be inadmissible in court. So why are they acceptable in public?

About Mr. Universe

Mr. Universe is a musician/songwriter and an ex-patriot of the south. He currently lives and teaches at a University in the Pacific Northwest. He is a long distance hiker who has hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. He is also an author and woodworker. An outspoken political voice, he takes a decidedly liberal stance in politics.
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30 Responses to Guerilla Journalism or Covert Patriotism?

  1. filistro says:

    So do two wrongs now make a right? Is it okay to impersonate a billionaire if it exposes sinister motives? Can you set entrapment scenarios to lure people into accepting cash donations? Can you use hidden video or cherry pick video in order to discredit an organization or cost a person their job?

    Yes, yes, yes and yes.

    Like it or not, this is now the way of the world. The genie is out of the bottle. This can’t be stopped… because people LOVE it.

    The only way to deal with it… zip your lip. Watch your step. Trust nobody.

    (I do love the phrase “guerilla journalism” :-))

  2. shortchain says:

    Before anybody gets too invested in the NPR thing, it should be pointed out that it appears that you cannot trust James O’Keefe to present the material in question fairly and with context.

    Yes, what a shock, it appears those recordings were doctored — and that someone in Glenn Beck’s organization noticed.

  3. I have plenty to dislike about Glenn Beck, but this isn’t one of them. Good for him for supporting the truth over partisanship.

  4. Todd Dugdale says:

    Yes, Schiller’s most damning statements were actually him describing what other Republicans had said to him, which was edited out by O’Keefe to make it seem as if the statements were those of Schiller himself.

    If the entire tape of these ‘stings’ are made public, I don’t have a huge problem with them, per se. But I question how realistic or representative these ‘stings’ may be of someone’s opinion. People will often agree with things other people say to avoid confrontation. I know that I’ve sat in bars and ‘agreed’ to a lot of wingnut nonsense just so they will shut up and let me go back to watching the baseball game. If someone had recorded those exchanges, it would make me look like a wingnut.

    In the case of Schiller, he is (was) basically a salesman. It is not his job to get into philosophical debates with potential donors; it is to get donors to write checks. Most salesmen will be willing to be strung along into agreement with a potential client, if for no other reason than to establish rapport and trust.

    The other thing is that, when faced with high weirdness from a stranger, the best strategy is often to simply play along, on the chance that they are mentally ill or unstable.

    It’s difficult to take these kinds of recordings seriously without the context, and the context is usually the thing that is most aggressively edited out.

    In the case of Walker, there are two notable elements. The entire recording was released, and Walker didn’t really deny much. He merely defended himself by saying that he had never met the Kochs, and did not know if the person he was speaking to was legitimate or not. Walker went well beyond “tacit agreement”, and volunteered information enthusiastically. There was no sense that he was trying to get some flake to leave him alone; he believed it.

    Local news organisations have been doing these kind of exposes for decades. They play gullible potential victim to a scammer, for example. If the evidence is presented transparently, even though deception was involved in obtaining that evidence, then I’d consider this sort of thing to be something approximating journalism. Especially if the victim of the deception is allowed a chance to rebut the context in the presentation of that evidence.

  5. Mr. Universe says:

    Personally I agree with Todd. The things exposed by the prank phone call have far greater ramifications than O’Keefe going after ACORN and NPR. I’d like to whack that red-headed chump upside the head. I wish he would get jail time for what I think isn’t a sting operation but more of a dishonest act. He’s not trying to expose wrongdoing as much as he’s trying to fabricate and encourage it.

  6. mclever says:

    @Todd Dugdale

    What you say about tacitly agreeing with “crazy talk” to avoid a confrontation is precisely why I give very little credence to the gotcha videos and other covert stings.

    I mean, if someone published an edited recording of a conversation between me and my folks, it probably wouldn’t be too hard to make me sound like a Conservative Christian Coalition Fundamentalist Tea Party Birther just because of the ways I try to dodge certain high-octane topics. I suspect that someone could also edit the exact same recording to make me sound like an Anti-American Atheist Commie Pinko 9/11 Truther to the left of Dennis Kucinich, mostly because that’s what my folks think I am.

    (I’m hoping that everyone here knows me well enough by now to realize how contrary either characterization would be of my true opinions.)

    If the evidence wouldn’t be admissible in a court room, then perhaps it shouldn’t be admissible in the court of public opinion either. People’s careers and reputations can be unfairly and utterly demolished based on false or misleading information that was obtained using disreputable means. I don’t think it’s right, because the public scandal generation machine isn’t very good at “innocent until proven guilty” and tends to take any unfounded accusation as proof of guilt.

  7. mclever,
    I always figured you to be a Conservative Anti-American Christian Coalition Atheist Fundamentalist Commie Tea Party Pinko Birther 9/11 Truther, myself. But I’m pretty perceptive.

  8. mclever says:

    @Michael Weiss

    I’m pretty perceptive

    LOL! Indeed!

    Actually, part of the reason I (and many others here) admire and respect your opinions is because you are both perceptive and open-minded enough to actually weigh the evidence before jumping to conclusions.


  9. filistro says:

    Guerilla journalism is a potent, explosive weapon, and faux-journalists will keep using it because it gets such an enormous reaction…. but it already looks like this might be the next thing to fall victim to right-wing overreach.

    If it really can be proven the NPR tapes were selectively edited to create a false (or even exaggerated) impression, that will be the third time. O’Keefe did this before with the ACORN-pimp tapes, and Breitbart did it with the Shirley Sherrod dust-up.

    Who (besides the Freepers) is going to trust them the next time they come up with a Huge Shocking Undercoverr Sting Revelation!!!!

  10. Mainer says:

    Okeiffe, and Breitbart are just bottom feeding scum and one has to figure that what they can do to others will most likely now be done unto them. As they have always said pay back is a bitch. I do not see this as an if but a when.

  11. parksie555 says:

    This kind of trash journalism is a disgrace to the profession on both sides. Hopefully this story will sink as quickly from the headlines as the WI prank call.

    Unfortunately the O’Keefe story resulted in jobs being lost due to overreaction by hapless NPR bureaucrats.

    And if you don’t put both of these pieces of “journalism” in the exact same category than you are hopelessly partisan.

  12. dcpetterson says:

    parksie, I think that “sting journalism” is perfectly valid — though sometimes overly lurid or sensationalist.

    However, when a journalistic sting operation reveals something that is both important and true, then it is worthwhile. The sting call to Governor Walker did just that.

    But when a journalistic sting is misrepresented, when the data recorded is twisted and re-edited in a lying fashion in order to falsify what was said, simply to advance a political agenda, then it is reprehensible, and becomes propaganda rather than journalism. O’Keefe is a slanderer and a hack, not a journalist.

    It is a false equivalence to compare a true sting operation (which reveals facts) and a propaganda mission (which hides facts). It is okay to approve or disapprove of either one, depending on what you feel matters. But they are not the same.

  13. mclever says:

    You make a good point, DC, about whether the intent of the “sting” is to reveal factual information or to manufacture a scandal based on an intentional misrepresentation.

    However, I find most of these attempted stings to be distasteful. And in the case of Governor Walker, entirely unnecessary, because the facts in the public sphere already illustrated plainly enough what his motivations were.

  14. parksie555 says:

    DC – The call to Walker was just as much of a propaganda exercise as O’Keefe’s faked interview. Both were designed to put the other party in as bad a light as possible by using deception. I reiterate – if you see a difference between these two “reporters” you are hopelessly partisan and we will not be able to have an adult conversation about whether such acts are justified.

    Good reporters don’t need to engage in this kind of garbage. Get the facts with some honest hard work. To paraphrase Scully & Mulder, the truth is out there. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder to find it.

  15. dcpetterson says:

    mclever and parksie —

    I’m not so concerned with “intent” as I am with “execution.”

    I agree that the call to Walker was done with the intent to reveal something embarrassing, and with the hope that Walker would embarrass himself. That is, in fact, the whole point of a sting. That’s why the police to it, too.

    The difference is whether or not the data obtained is presented fairly and accurately, and whether the target of the sting actually did the things which the reporters allege. It’s the difference between an honest police sting that reveals actual wrongdoing, and a dishonest search where the police plant evidence and then lie about what the suspected perp actually said and did.

    O’Keefe lied and planted evidence. The call to Walker was, for all that can be seen, reported accurately and fairly and completely. O’Keffe’s “stings” revealed nothing but O’Keefe’s wrongdoing. The call to Walker revealed dishonest actions and statements on Walker’s part. That is the difference.

  16. Mr. Universe says:

    That link Shortchain provided is a really good break down of the O’Keefe’s Project Veritas editing fraud. The vidoe of the B-Cast is worth a watch.

    You have to scroll down the page a bit to get to the video.

  17. parksie,

    if you see a difference between these two “reporters” you are hopelessly partisan

    I see a difference, and I doubt I’m considered “hopelessly partisan.” What’s the difference? O’Keefe’s published video was edited in a way to make his target “say” things that the target never actually said. Yes, the words were said, but in response to different stimuli than those portrayed. (This happened with the ACORN video as well.) Thus far, I haven’t heard or seen evidence to suggest any editing of the Walker interview.

    It’s the same thing as what happened on Fox News when they showed a violent protest while talking about the Wisconsin protests…but the violent protest was an entirely different affair. That’s not being deceptive to the interviewee; it’s being deceptive to the news audience. That puts O’Keefe (and Fox News) in a deeper ring of Dante’s hell, in my book.

    Of course, if it turns out that the Walker interview suffered from similar deception, I’ll certainly agree that the Buffalo Blogger was of the same caliber. Until then, I maintain that there is an important difference.

  18. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    Excellent statement of the real issue, Michael.

    Anyone who doesn’t understand that difference is hopelessly blind to truth.

  19. Mr. Universe says:

    The Walker audio was released in is entirety

  20. The Walker audio was released in is entirety

    As far as we know.

  21. parksie555 says:

    Here’s the “real” issue – if a journalist is willing to lie to obtain facts, he/she has already shown that he/she is willing to be dishonest as a normal way of doing business. If someone has already lied to obtain information, it is not really a stretch for me to imagine that the same journalist is more than willing to stretch/distort/outright lie while writing the story.

    It shows the basic lack of integrity of the individual and a willingness to take the easy way out rather than do the necessary work of proper reporting.

  22. shortchain says:

    And by extension, Parksie, if a politician such as Scott Walker has to lie to obtain election, or Tim Pawlenty has to pretend to be something he’s not (he has recently been caught faking a southern accent) to obtain a nomination, then they have shown a basic lack of integrity and should never be elected.

    I wonder how you feel about those sting operations mounted by the police where they send fake invitations to bail jumpers and parole violators, inviting them to an occasion, and then take them into custody? How about the undercover FBI operations, where agents pretend to be weapons dealers or jihadi supporters?

    I’d point out another difference between the two cases: there was no need for Walker to speak with someone he thought was a Koch. He was already in office, he didn’t need their money or support. On the other hand, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a bit of a concern over the funding of NPR. As in pretty full-blown panic. As a past NPR supporter, I’m getting emails every few days and letters every week begging for money to cover the shortfall they see if Congress does, in fact, slash their funding.

    Taking advantage of someone’s desperate need and then editing their statements to make them appear worse is a substantial difference in degree when compared with just pretending to be someone who is presumably simpatico and letting the person hang themselves. And we note, in passing, that Walker has basically conceded that the transcript, as published, is accurate, whereas the same cannot be said of the NPR affair.

    Both operations may be wrong, but I find it hard to agree that they are equally so.

    I fear that, if we expect our reporters to always be truthful and honest with their sources, and if we similarly expect all our politicians to be unwavering purveyors of the truth, then we would be left without journalism and government.

    Sometimes the truth can only be found by sneaking up on it, and exposed only by ambush. That’s a sad reality, but there it is.

  23. Monotreme says:

    What I dislike about how these “gotcha journalism” narratives play out is that we don’t learn anything new or interesting about the world as a result.

    Those who were inclined to think Gov. Scott Walker is a lyin’, Koch-sucking sumbitch will believe that more fervently. Those who think he’s the second coming of Saint Ronald (blessed be his name) will think that more fervently.

    And so on.

    I prefer journalism (or fiction, for that matter) that makes me see the world in a new way, or gives me insight into a particular political situation, or illuminates some little corner of the Universe (not Mr. Universe, but the whole Universe) that I hadn’t known about before. This type of journalism fails that test.

  24. parksie555 says:

    Chain, I respectfully disagree. Policemen, covert agents, and even politicians have a different job than a reporter. A reporter’s only job should be to report – find facts, report facts, wash, rinse, repeat. The product of a reporter’s work is factual information that one can trust. If they are willing to play fast and loose with the truth in pursuit of a story that leads me to believe they will play fast and loose with the facts in the writing of the story.

    Police and covert agents have a job to do – a job that occasionally requires some bending of the truth or outright lying. To me they have not sacrificed their integrity by these deceptions because the end product of their work is not facts.

    The argument for politicians is a little more difficult because there are many different degrees of lying. I of course prefer politicians to be scrupulously honest but as a mature adult recognize that there are times when someone in the public eye so much being asked to please so many constituencies has to bend the truth to achieve.

    Of course just like everyone else here my degree of willingness to accept the bending of truth is heavily influenced by the political orientation of the politician in question :).

  25. shortchain says:


    When you say of the goal of the police or covert agents is “the end product of their work is not facts.”

    I respectfully disagree — and I think the courts would agree with me.

    I tend to agree with Monotreme and others about these affairs — it wasn’t news to me that Walker is what he is as portrayed in the transcript, a willing tool of the wealthy. He is, after all, a Wisconsin Republican. They’re relatively honest about their goals.

    But to pretend that the two cases are equivalent, or even close to equivalent, is to force a binary result onto a situation where there is a large range of shades of gray.

  26. parksie555 says:

    The primary job of police is to keep order. Gathering facts is a means to an end, but a secondary objective. Similarly, the primary job of an intelligence agent is to provide national security. Again, facts are secondary. I’m willing to accept a little deception from a policeman to get a drunk driver off the road or to get a career criminal off the streets. And I am willing to accept some outright lying from a CIA operative to get some dirtbag jihadist thrown into Gitmo.

    I am relying on the integrity and honesty of journalists to expose the policemen and CIA operatives that go over the edge.

    Not sure of the exact phrasing but I think that it’s said that when a journalist becomes the story there is a problem. In these two cases the “journalist” became the story and there is the real problem.

    And we will have to agree to disagree over the “shades of grey”. Minor quibbling over transcripts and editing and “desperate needs” don’t change the fundamentals of either case.

  27. Mr. Universe says:

    The Walker audio was released in is entirety

    I read this from a credible source. I can’t remember whom. But I suppose it’s possible that the guy from Buffalo could’ve lied about cutting parts out of it.

  28. Mr. Universe says:

    I would like to point out that Woodward and Bernstein didn’t change the course of history by walking up to Richard Nixon and asking, “Sir, did you lie?”.

    Just as covert, undercover operations are necessary in busting drug traffickers, terrorist cells, and other criminals, I think some covert operations for journalists are acceptable. BUT when you edit the covert data to paint a false picture for political reasons as O’Keefe did, you are wading into the realm of criminality yourself.

    The guy from Buffalo didn’t manufacture the deception of Governor Walker, he just exposed it. O’Keefe manufactures the deception by selectively releasing soundbites that, out of context, appear damning.

  29. Gator says:

    Pulitzer and Hearst’s Pissing Contest Started a Go*$%mn War

    In the late 1800s, Joseph Pulitzer (owner of The New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (owner of The New York Journal) were engaged in a vicious battle over who had the larger circulation. In an ethically questionable display of one-upmanship, the two media giants dick slapped moral reporting several times a day to out-circulate the other, each paper coming out with a story more sensational than the other paper published the day before.

    When a rebellion in Cuba against the Spanish started brewing, Hearst and Pulitzer saw a golden opportunity; they’d report on the situation in Cuba to sell papers, and if the situation wasn’t interesting, they’d make shit up because journalism is easy when you don’t have a soul. Hearst and Pulitzer would take sensationalized, unverified stories of made-up atrocities, make those stories even more sensationalized and then feed the twice-baked-sensationalizations to the American people as the truth. And the people, thanks to the papers, believed that America had an ethical obligation to step in and save those Cubans.

    Every John Q. Public with a paper assumed that the Spanish warlords were raping and murdering the poor, defenseless Cubans and leaving them in rotting piles on the side of the road, because that’s the kind of story you write when you own a newspaper and are bored. When a Journal news photographer attempted to leave Cuba, reporting to Hearst that the situation wasn’t as bad as Hearst had reported, Hearst sent a cable boasting, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” Then the USS Maine, an American warship, blew the fuck up under questionable circumstances.

    Post-explosion, President McKinley demanded an immediate investigation, but Hearst and Pulitzer demanded even more immediate “THE SPANISH DID IT” headlines. Their reporting was so immediate, in fact, that word had reached the American people about Spain’s involvement in the sinking before the investigation even started. To this day, we don’t know why exactly the Maine exploded, we just know why it didn’t: the Spanish. But that didn’t get in the way of headlines! What a scoop!

    The catchy rallying cry that resulted–“Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”–was just the propaganda tool a young and soon to be outstandingly mustachioed Teddy Roosevelt was looking for to satisfy his itch for a new war. Proving that no mere mortal can withstand Teddy Roosevelt, the war was over in a matter of weeks and Pulitzer and Hearst basked in the afterglow, all while continuing their reporting charades which included failing to mention that the iconic battle in the Spanish American War was actually thanks to an African American cavalry. Shine on you crazy diamonds!

    Read more:

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