Driven, partisan, undercover journalists were behind two of the sexiest stories of the last month. Ian Murphy pranked Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker by posing as David Koch. James O’Keefe’s hidden camera caught NPR bashing the tea party.
Both had a clear agenda and both deceived their subjects in order to embarrass them. Each received cautious praise from their own side and were bashed by the other.
The mainstream media acknowledged these stories, but not necessarily the legitimacy of the two as journalists. Murphy was described as a prank caller and O’Keefe was introduced as the guy in the pimp costume who brought down acorn.
This week, Editor-in-Chief Adam Peck and staff writer Jen Novotny sat down to debate the legitimacy of deceit in partisan journalism, if there was a difference between the two cases, and just where the line should be drawn.
Question: Do you see Murphy as a journalist, entertainer, or a political operative?
JN: I certainly wouldn’t call him a journalist, unless you want to see this as a return to stunt reporting from the early 1900s. But in the modern sense, no. I suppose one could see him as a political operative, but only because he attempted to use the prank call to make Conservatives look silly. He succeeded, but honestly I’m not sure what people made such a big deal about it. Really nothing Governor Walker said in the phone call was worthy of the buzz it got. If anything, I think stunt reporter really does define Murphy best. This prank was basically a gimmick which got Murphy’s name out to the general public. Prior to this, who’d ever heard of him?
AP: Ian Murphy has made it perfectly clear that he’s got more solid footing in the entertainment business than the journalism business, which is one of the fundamental differences between himself and O’Keefe. The website he maintains, the Buffalo Beast, is satirical.
James O’Keefe on the other hand likens himself an investigative journalist, on a mission to expose the truth about left wing corruption. Of course, that’s bogus. For starters, the videos that O’Keefe has released—all of them, as far as anyone can tell—have been heavily edited and misconstrued in an effort not to expose the truth, but distort it. O’Keefe has an agenda going into every one of his sting operations, and when the footage he has captured fails to adhere to the agenda, he edits it to fit a narrative. He’s a political hack pretending to be a journalist.
Question: How should the mainstream media treat information uncovered by partisans like Murphy and O’Keefe, especially if it is done so illegally?
JN: I think the media is treating it really the only way they can. It deserves coverage because it is news, and any media outlets that don’t at least mention it risk giving competitors an advantage. In an ideal world, things like this, which have no practical bearing on society, would be swept under the rug, and people wouldn’t have to listen to the nonsense. However, this is not an ideal world, and as long as someone does something stupid, someone else is going to report on it.
AP: That does not mean news organizations should be paying attention to these journalistic antics. For one, the attention lathered on a video of Shirley Sherrod likely precipitated her firing, only to find out days later that the footage in question was taken out of context and completely mischaracterized Sherrod’s remarks. As much as O’Keefe and Murphy set out to create news out of whole cloth, cable news networks were equally complicit, offering airtime to individuals any half-decent producer knows are not journalists.
Which ultimately leads us to the fundamental question: is it ever okay to employ less than ethical tactics in search of a solid, journalistically sound story?
Question: Couldn’t have said it better myself, Adam. Now your answer:
AP: It’s hard to say definitively. Were a journalist—the kind from, say, legacy media with years of experience in the field and an unflappable commitment to objectivity—to partake in one of these stings, the end result may be something of note. In fact we have seen several instances throughout history of good journalists uncovering scandal and corruption this way, most famously Nellie Bly who tore the covers off the inhumane treatment of patients in New York’s mental institutions in the late 1800’s.
But when the power of undercover investigation falls into the wrong hands…we get James O’Keefe. It’s hard to imagine that anyone with the right amount of dedication and persistence would not be able to do what O’Keefe does and make people say things that they wouldn’t normally say on hidden camera.
JN: Some of the greatest stories have come to light through less-than transparent means. However, many of the other greatest stories have not needed to employ deceit, at all. That’s what makes this such a tough question. Still, in the end every person has certain rights that should be honored, especially by journalists who have so much power over public perception. Deceit should never be the first option, or the second, or the third, or… You get the point.