WASHINGTON -- James O'Keefe's guerrilla video attack on NPR has led to the resignation of its chief executive and an ethical debate: When are lies justified in pursuit of a political cause?
It is now clear that O'Keefe's editing of the raw video from his interview with NPR's top fundraiser, Ron Schiller, was selective and deceptive. The full extent of this distortion was exposed by a rising conservative website, The Blaze. O'Keefe's final product excludes explanatory context, exaggerates Schiller's tolerance for Islamist radicalism and attributes sentiments to Schiller that are actually quotes by others -- all the hallmarks of a hit piece. Schiller's comments were damaging enough without O'Keefe reshaping them into a caricature. Both Ron Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, who is not related, resigned.
But the controversy also raises deeper issues about the ethics of undercover journalism. In this case, O'Keefe did not merely leave a false impression; he manufactured an elaborate, alluring lie. The interviewers posed as representatives of a Muslim organization that wanted to donate $5 million to NPR. The stingers bought access to NPR executives with fake money.
There is no ethical canon or tradition that would excuse such deception on the part of a professional journalist. Robert Steele of the Poynter Institute argues that undercover journalism can only be justified on matters of "profound importance" when "all other alternatives for obtaining the same information have been exhausted." This may excuse posing as a worker at an unsanitary meat packing plant or as a mental patient in an abusive asylum. But it is hardly a matter of life and death to expose the conventional liberalism of a radio executive.
O'Keefe's defenders contend that he is not really a journalist but a new breed of "citizen journalist." This can be defined as the simultaneous demands for journalistic respect and for release from journalistic standards, including a commitment to honesty. The profession of journalism counts many biases, challenges and failures. But citizen journalism has a problem of its own. Do we really want private citizens deceiving, taping and exposing the foolish weaknesses of their neighbors, with none of the constraints imposed by responsible professional oversight? Modern technology makes such things possible. Human nature makes them enjoyable. Neither makes them ethical.