Seriously, this parlor trick is getting old.
The latest embarrassing gotcha snared NPR's former top fundraiser.
There he was, covertly videotaped waxing on, confirming the worst suspicions of public broadcasting's detractors. Yeah, mused Ronald Schiller, maybe we'd be better off without the federal funding conservatives in Congress want to hack from our budgets. Then he mouthed off about tea party supporters, casting the lot of them under the label racist.
A week or so before the NPR videos were released, it was a Republican's turn to get suckered. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was recorded in a telephone conversation with a blogger posing as billionaire conservative funder David Koch.
And before that, videos shot at a Planned Parenthood clinic were released, featuring a daffy staffer chatting amiably with people posing as pimps and human traffickers. That debacle followed the script of the infamous videos that purported to show ACORN staffers advising a pimp hoping to launch a house of prostitution.
What will be next, a microphone strapped to a dog's collar? The problem with the tactics of entrapment is that they shed a distorted light on legitimate issues. The gaffe becomes the focus - not the merits of the case pro or con.
It's more than a little painful to watch Schiller ingratiate himself with the two men he's lunching with, who pose as donors from a group associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. They lob the old canard about Jewish control of the media; he weakly and politely tries to redirect without doing what any reasonable person should: plainly call it antisemitism.
Again, it's painful stuff to watch, until you consider the context: he's a fundraiser, and they're dangling money in front of him. It's not unlike the situation Gov. Walker found himself in when he thought he had a heavy-hitting conservative donor on the line. Watching or listening to how these people converse behind closed doors adds a bit to our understanding, but only that, of how NPR or a state government works.
These gotcha recordings are the stock-in-trade of ideological operatives. The point is not to uncover actual corruption but to move public opinion on an issue by creating bad "optics" - which puts the opposition on the defensive. Gotcha artists don't help the public to think, only to feel.
Ironically, covert means have helped journalists uncover actual abuses, to the greater good of society. The work of 19th-century muckraker Nellie Bly, who pretended to be an institutionalized mental patient to expose the dreadful conditions in the asylums of her day, is a salutary example.
But don't confuse present-day credible journalists who adhere to higher standards - actually checking sources and facts and letting people know that a reporter is present - with those who orchestrate situations to generate YouTube views.
Usually, there are more credible ways to get the story. And if that route doesn't exist, the story might not be worth telling. In more than two decades as a reporter, I've been asked countless times by people pitching a cause, "Why don't you just go undercover and expose them?" My answer is easy: "Because I'd be fired." Ethical reporters aren't allowed to misrepresent themselves, essentially trespassing into someone's home or business to land a story. By any means necessary is a slogan for activists. It's not a way to conduct solid journalism.
The NPR expose no doubt will confirm the belief of many that public broadcasting is hopelessly biased. To that I say, everyone has a bias. Is it possible to give an account of reality that does not have a contestable point of view? I do not believe it is. But I do believe it is possible to have a point of view and at the same time to uphold a journalistic ethics that requires fairness and accuracy and good faith.
If anyone claims NPR's journalism breaches that ethics, let's see the evidence. Not the gotcha video.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.