Ed Driscoll

Investigative Journalism: It's All Fun and Games until the MSM Gets Stung

“Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter fears he’ll be a victim of an O’Keefe-style ’surreptitious video,’” Jeff Poor writes at the Daily Caller:

Have things finally reached a point where journalists’ views are susceptible to criticism, even if those views are “surreptitiously” obtained?

That’s the concern of Newsweek magazine’s Jonathan Alter, also an MSNBC contributor. On MSNBC’s “Newsnation” Wednesday, Alter criticized the recent release of an undercover video by James O’Keefe that revealed now-former NPR executive Ron Schiller making disparaging remarks about various segments of society.

“When you do, you know, have a resignation, it does tend to validate in the same way that you know, ACORN essentially going out of business validated that kind of guerilla video when the video itself is extremely misleading both in the ACORN case and in this case,” Alter said. “There are a lot of corners that they cut. It’s not exactly journalism that they’re doing. It’s an ideological hit job.”

However, “Newsnation” host Tamron Hall did point out the words weren’t put in Ron Schiller’s mouth. Still, Alter worried what this meant for those in his profession.

“You don’t [put words in their mouth] and that’s why they’re paying a price,” Alter said. “But you know we have to ask, are we getting to a point in this country where like anytime you and I go to lunch, Tamron, you know we have to worry about our private conversations being listened to with an ideological agenda? You’re not allowed to express your own views even in private anymore?”

Is dining in public private? It’s not, as far as ABC News is concerned:

ABC’s undercover news show, What Would You Do, on Friday continued to search for examples of bigotry across America. Anchor John Quinones narrated a segment featuring two men pretending to be gay military veterans displaying affection in a New Jersey restaurant.

As cameras rolled, Quinones explained the set-up: “They’re holding hands, stroking each other’s hair and caressing each other’s legs…So what will happen if we throw in our actor Vince, posing as an irritated diner, who’s had enough of this PDA?”

An actor, “Vince,” interrupted the faux soldiers and complained, “Excuse me. We appreciate your service to the country and everything, but you should respect the uniform a little bit more than that.”

Many patrons ignored the two, prompting ABC’s sting operation to try harder to provoke bigotry. Quinones announced, “Even with that bit of gossip, the other diners don’t seem to notice. But then, here comes Vince again.”

Later, when some patrons do complain, the host lectured, “In December 2010, an ABC News poll found that 77 percent of Americans are in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. But in our diner, there are plenty of people against it.”

Huh. Are we getting to a point in this country where anytime you and I go to lunch, we have to worry about our private conversations being listened to with an ideological agenda? You’re not allowed to express your own views even in private anymore?

Incidentally, isn’t this also the fear of every businessman? I’ll bet every bar and liquor store owner is concerned that the one young-looking person their bartender or clerk forgets to card is an undercover ABC official. And every stockbroker must worry that the one person who asks for a hot inside tip is secretly working for the SEC. Or as Bryan Preston writes at the Tatler:

Meanwhile, though liberals have spent the past day or two decrying the undercover work that James O’Keefe and co have been doing to NPR, NPR tried doing a little undercover work of their own. They had a reporter don a headscarf to do a sting on border security to test for anti-Muslim bias or something. Newsbusters are all over that one. Strangely, the left is mum about that.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with undercover sting journalism as such. If there were something wrong with it, 60 Minutes, PBS Frontline, Dateline NBC, 20/20, Nightline and a zillion other magazine style journalism shows would have never broken most of their more interesting stories. The main ethical problems that accompany stings have to do with story selection and the fair presentation of facts gathered in stings. Unlike every other sting journalist out there, both O’Keefe and Lila Rose release both edited (for brevity’s sake) versions of their work and the raw video.

Sting journalism only became controversial when Planned Parenthood, ACORN and now NPR have become the targets. All that does is point out that some folks just don’t want their sacred cows slaughtered.

Alter won’t like the source, but as I’ve noted before, Roger Ailes actually “prebutted” Alter’s critique in a book he wrote on public speaking years before founding Fox News. In between setting up CNBC and then Fox News, Ailes wrote You Are The Message, which, not surprisingly, given his career as a TV producer, had numerous tips on working with the media — and avoiding getting worked over by them. Note this passage, in a which the star of a show which pioneered hidden-camera and hidden microphone videos got stung by one himself:

Recognize that any time you are in the presence of a newsperson, the conversation is fair game for the record. Jimmy Carter’s famous confession that he sometimes had lust in his heart for women other than his wife was uttered to a Playboy magazine journalist as he was leaving Carter’s home at the conclusion of the formal interview.Even Mike Wallace, big-game hunter of the unguarded moment, got caught in this snare. As recounted on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal by TV critic Daniel Henninger in March of 1981, Wallace:

was interviewing a banker in San Diego about an alleged home improvement fraud involving mainly black and Hispanics, who supposedly had signed contract they couldn’t understand, which led to foreclosures on their home mortgages.The bank hired a film crew of its own to record the interview with Mr. Wallace. The bank apparently left its recorder running during a break in the CBS interview, and the tape has Mr. Wallace saying, in reply to a question about why the black and Hispanic customers would have signed their contracts, “They’re probably too busy eating their watermelon and tacos.”

When the Los Angeles Times got wind of this indiscretion and reported it, there was at least a minor uproar from reporters and others about Wallace’s “racially disparaging joke”. Wallace ultimately pleaded “no bias”, admitting that over time he’d privately told jokes about many ethnic groups but that his record “speaks for itself”.Henninger added, “Needless to say, this has to be the most deliciously lip-smacking bit of irony to pop out of the oven in a long time. Here we have the dogcatcher cornered. The lepidopterist pinned. The preacher in flagrante delicto. This is the fellow who has imputed all manner of crimes against social goodness to a long lineup of businessmen and bureaucrats. From here on out, all future victims of Mr. Wallace can take some small comfort in knowing that although they may stand exposed as goof-offs, thieves and polluters, he’s the guy who made the crack about the watermelons and tacos.”

And Bernard Goldberg’s second book on media bias, Arrogance, has a brief chapter called “File It Under ‘H'”, in which he wrote:

You know the old saying “They can dish it out but they can’t take it”?In October 1999 the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 was about to air a story on a man named Michael Ellis, the founder and CEO of a company that markets a controversial weight-loss pill. It was the kind of investigation that doesn’t always end well for the person on the other end of the camera, the one being interviewed. So, fearing his comments might be taken out of context and that the interview might be edited to make him look bad, before the 20/20 piece aired Ellis took the unedited transcript and video of the entire interview-which he’d recorded on his own-and put it out on the World Wide Web.

This made people at ABC News very angry. In fact, one vice-president told the New York Times, without a hit of irony, that “We don’t want other people attempting to get into and shift the journalism process.”

Next to be heard was former ABC News Vice President Richard Wald, now teaching young journalists at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Wald called the CEO’s strategy, “a not-so-subtle form of intimidation”.

Got that? When the media disseminates information about “other people”, it’s news. When “other people” disseminate information about themselves, it’s intimidation.

It didn’t take long for the tsunami to reach CBS News, where its president, Andrew Heyward, put out the following in-house memo. I share it with you now, in its entirety.

From: Andrew Heyward
To: [The entire staff of CBS News]
Date: 11/23/99 10:23am
Subject: Addition to News StandardsCBS News has always had an informal practice of allowing people being interviewed to make their own tape if they wanted to. This is meant only to serve as their record of the interview. Now, because new technology makes it easy for sources to use this material in ways that violate our copyright, we’d like to clarify what is and is not permitted.

The following paragraphs should be added to the CBS News Standards book under Section II-3, “Interviews.” They would come after the current third paragraph, the one ending with…”will be covered.” A new printed loose-leaf page will be distributed at a future time. For the present, please print this e-mail and add it to the book of standards.

Policy on Interviewees Taping the Interview for Themselves

It is CBS News policy to allow interviewees to record their interviews. The contents, however, cannot be published in any medium without the consent of CBS News since the interview is the sole copyrighted property of CBS News. Moreover, the interviewee’s tape can only be rolling when the CBS News tape is rolling. There can be no recording of off-camera or off-mike conversations.

To clarify this, the producer or correspondent should record on the CBS tape, and in the subject’s presence, this statement:

“We are allowing _________ to record the following interview for his/her personal use with the understanding that the contents are the legal property of CBS News and may not be published or broadcast in any medium by anyone other than CBS News and those expressly authorized by CBS News.”

End of new section. 11/23/99

Goldberg concluded, “File that memo under ‘H’ for Hypocrisy.”

As I wrote back in 2005 in a post on Helen Thomas getting stung by a fellow MSM journalist for admitting that “I’ll kill myself” if Dick Cheney announced he was running for the presidency  — before letting it all hang out last year into a flip cam when asked for her thoughts on Israel:

Of course, the ultimate example of an interviewee recording his conversation with a reporter has to be Hugh Hewitt’s technique, where a few million people get to hear the interview, and his producer transcribes it, and can then compare that with how the reporter quotes his or her subject in the finished article. Hugh doesn’t get many takers under those conditions, but something tells me that he doesn’t mind.

A huge part of the arrogance (to borrow from Bernie’s title) of the media comes from the fact that up until the launch of the Internet (thanks Al!), the tools required to broadcast or publish news were very, very expensive to acquire, and thus only available to a select few and their anointed representatives.

As we’re seeing today.

Of course, it’s not like Alter has to worry all that much about hidden cameras catching his ideological views — he’s perfectly comfortable going onto live TV shoots and saying remarks such as this.