These tactics are not a new brand of gonzo journalism. They are a sophisticated version of the political dirty trick. Would it be citizen journalism to fool a senator's psychiatrist into demeaning revelations about his or her patient? Or to befriend a prominent conservative pastor, goad him into homophobic statements, then edit, exaggerate and put them on the Internet? What ethical or professional standard among citizen journalists -- in many instances, really political activists -- would rule out such deceptions?
The ethics of lying, of course, are complex. The prohibition against bearing false witness made the Ten Commandment cut. But I suspect that Moses would allow for lying to hide a Jew hunted by the Nazis. This does not make the prohibition against lying minor or relative. It is a recognition that competing moral duties can be more urgent and compelling -- in this case, the moral duty to save a life. A spy tells lies to protect his country. A general engages in deception to defeat an enemy.
But there can be no moral duty to deceive in order to entrap a political opponent with a hidden camera. There is no ethical imperative to provide a prostitute to a weak man and then videotape the result, or to provide drugs to a recovering addict and then report the scandal -- or to promise $5 million to a radio executive to get him nodding to leading questions.
The popular justification for this approach is that the other side does it -- the ethics of mutual grievance. A liberal journalist calls Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin pretending to be a conservative donor, fishing for incriminating quotes. O'Keefe allegedly attempts to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu's office phones in New Orleans. Abuses are employed as excuses for equal and opposite abuses. The result is more than a race to the murky journalistic bottom. It is the triumph of a thoroughly postmodern view of politics: Power means everything. Truth means little. Ethical standards are for the weak and compromised. Influence is gained, not by persuasion, but by deception and ruthlessness.
This escalation is really a descent.