Here’s a problem of professional ethics right out of today’s headlines: If a news organization prohibits its own staff from using certain reporting techniques — say, deception — should it publish information that somebody else gathered using those forbidden techniques?
Take the resurgence of journalistic stings engineered by free-swinging ideologues to embarrass political opponents. Stings are a kind of undercover reporting in which targets are lured into a fabricated situation intended to make them look bad. Most recently, a major fundraiser for National Public Radio was secretly video-taped in a Georgetown restaurant by two men posing as potential contributors. The NPR official, Ron Schiller, made disparaging remarks about the tea party and acquiesced in offensive comments about Zionist influence made by the phonies, who claimed to be from some Islamic foundation. The video got picked up by established news media. Schiller, scheduled to leave NPR for a position with the Aspen Institute, lost both jobs, and NPR boss Vivian Schiller (no relation) was forced out.
That came soon after another sting targeting Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin. In late January, Walker took a phone call from a man falsely claiming to be David Koch, the ultra-rich Wichita, Kan., oil baron, and was secretly taped making a series of embarrassing comments about politicking, funding and unions. Again, the story was picked up and reported extensively by established news media.
This is a boom time for stings. In January, make-believe pimps entered a dozen Planned Parenthood clinics in six states seeking medical attention, including abortions, for prostitutes, some allegedly as young as 14. The anti-abortion activists who ran this beauty released one of the videos they took, from a New Jersey clinic, and got a clerk fired, even though the clinic had promptly called the cops. Still, the sting got wide publicity and strengthened a push to deny Planned Parenthood federal funding.
Now, few of the news organizations that are dutifully reporting this rubbish would countenance such deceit themselves. The U.S. journalistic establishment frowns on undercover reporting, and stings are usually confined to cheesy exposés of sexual predation and small-bore consumer scams during TV sweeps weeks. One recent exception was the 2007 cover story in Harper’s magazine in which Washington editor Ken Silverstein claimed to be seeking high-powered PR help for a central Asian tyrant, and recounted the calisthenics K Street lobbying firms performed to audition for his money. It was a disturbing and illuminating story, but Silverstein was roundly condemned.
The general standards, promulgated by the Society of Professional Journalists, recognize that stings are unfair and grossly violate privacy. News organizations are admonished to avoid deception unless the story is truly important and can’t be obtained honestly, and unless they are willing to come clean with their readers.
Yet now, stings are being mainstreamed — not through their wholesale adoption as a legitimate device, but in a backdoor way, when established media grant these hoaxters the news channels they are desperate for.
And that’s even worse than if news organizations were doing the stings themselves.
First, there are no quality controls — not the slightest assurance that the setup is what it’s presented as. One of the worthies behind the Planned Parenthood hit was also an author of the disgraceful 2009 videos purporting to show the anti-poverty group ACORN consorting with a make-believe pimp and prostitutes, videos found to be fraudulent.
Second, even if they’re not frauds, where’s the evidence the findings are reasonably representative of any underlying reality? The Planned Parenthood hit team tried a dozen offices before they got somebody to say something lame. The NPR stingers apparently tried the Public Broadcasting Service as well but couldn’t get anybody to embarrass themselves. Where’s the footage of all the people who did the right thing?
The wrongness of the stings has been completely eclipsed by the attention lavished on the marginally interesting revelations they bring. But the question remains: If stings are wrong to commit, are they any less wrong to endorse through publicity? And if established media persist in publicizing these stunts, don’t they ensure that these stings will continue and, indeed, proliferate?
What we have is a dangerous and open-ended invitation to fraud. I don’t see how the news media can duck responsibility for unleashing, by proxy, a vast army of ideologically blinkered tricksters by granting them access to the country’s most trusted channels of news distribution.
For the media, the solution is simple enough. Cut it out. Follow your own principles. If certain reporting techniques may not be used unless the information is exceptional and otherwise unobtainable, so be it. Stop legitimizing deceit by rewarding the deceivers.
Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.
(c) 2011, The Miami Herald