March 28, 2011

Raking Through Today’s Muck

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The United States, in the age of industrialization, was fraught with a great many social ills. Absent proper checks on industry and government, our country suffered from rampant political corruption, as well as the abuse of laborers and consumers. A special breed of journalists — the first investigative reporters — rose to the challenge of exposing and combating the scandal, fraud and exploitation that plagued our country. They were “muckrakers,” and their work resulted in considerable progress towards the consumer protection, labor standards and (relative) political transparency we have today.

Unfortunately, two of our most prominent contemporary muckrakers are decidedly less concerned with protecting people from corruption and abuse than they are with advancing a political agenda.James O’Keefe and Andrew Breitbart — two self-described modern day “muckrakers” — have gained notoriety through their incendiary brand of investigative journalism cum conservative polemic. Recently, O’Keefe drew attention after releasing videos of a meeting between two NPR executives and a fake donor group. This latest scandal, however, smacks of the same hyperbole and misrepresentation that has discredited previous work from the two. For this reason, I feel compelled (a bit belatedly, but spring break was obviously worth it) to address their work.To recap, two of O’Keefe’s associates met with NPR Senior Vice President for Fundraising Ron Schiller ’86 as well as Senior Director of Institutional Giving Betsy Liley. Posing as board members of (the fictitious) Muslim Education Action Center, or MEAC, O’Keefe’s associates arranged a lunch meeting under the auspices of a (also fictitious) $5 million donation MEAC wished to make to NPR. Unbeknownst to Schiller and Liley, the entire meeting was being secretly filmed.The release of the footage from the meeting proved to be highly problematic for NPR. To begin with, O’Keefe prefaced the video by saying that MEAC had deliberately associated itself with the Muslim Brotherhood, intending to prove that NPR took no issue with soliciting donations from Muslim extremists. Furthermore, the edited video footage showed Schiller calling the Tea Party “seriously racist” and otherwise disparaging conservatives. The video quickly exacted the sort of damage O’Keefe had hoped for; in its wake, Schiller, as well as Vivian Schiller ’83 (unrelated), the CEO of NPR at the time, both resigned. In the midst of the heated battle over federal funding for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, the sting operation has further jeopardized hopes to keep CPB afloat.The full story, however, isn’t quite as simple as O’Keefe would have you believe. An investigation of the video conducted by journalist Al Tompkins, NPR reporter (and former Sun editor in chief) David Folkenflik ’91 and Pam Key, a video producer for Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze (you read that correctly: THE Glenn Beck), found a number of troubling discrepancies between the edited video and full-length video.Firstly, the fact that Schiller and Liley met with the MEAC board members suggests nothing about NPR’s “ties” to Muslim extremists. Neither Schiller and Liley nor the NPR board ever voiced an intention to actually accept MEAC’s donation; the meeting was conducted purely as an informational interview, a component of their standard due diligence. The two MEAC “board members,” in footage edited out of the condensed video, also downplayed their ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, instead portraying themselves as a moderate Muslim non-profit concerned primarily with education.Secondly, the disparaging remarks Schiller supposedly made about the Tea Party were taken out of context: He was in fact paraphrasing the opinions of two Republicans. And while Schiller made his opposition to the Tea Party’s social agenda clear, he also praised the Republican Party’s principles of fiscal conservatism, and took pride in his own conservative roots. Betsy Liley also praised the intellect of Fox viewers; that clip, too, was cut out of the edited video. Perhaps most problematic, however, is the way in which the video has been construed as the “smoking gun” proving NPR’s liberal bias. Deceptive video editing notwithstanding, two facts negate this claim. The first is that Schiller’s most controversial remarks were never made on NPR’s behalf; in fact, he specifically qualified his political statements by saying that he was speaking personally, and not as a representative of the organization. Secondly, Schiller worked in a position dedicated to organizational development and fundraising; he had no bearing whatsoever over NPR content. In short, his political opinions are utterly irrelevant to any reasonable litmus test of whatever hypothetical organizational bias NPR may have.O’Keefe relied on misleading video editing and misrepresentation of the premises of the video itself in order to dupe the media and their viewers alike into thinking that he had uncovered bias in NPR. And his tactics are utterly unsurprising. For O’Keefe and Andrew Breitbart, the progenitor of his career, deceit has been their modus operandi — a curious choice, given that the name of O’Keefe’s organization is Project Veritas. Consider the infamous videos produced by O’Keefe and distributed by Breitbart that led to the demise of The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now ACORN. When they were initially released, many were quick to cite them as irrefutable evidence that ACORN, a non-profit concerned primarily with providing assistance to low-income individuals and families, was in the business of helping out prostitutes and drug dealers. But the tapes were in fact heavily edited, and further examination of the footage showed that, while many employees did act irresponsibly and out of line with ACORN policy, no actual crimes were committed.Or how about the Shirley Sherrod fiasco, in which Andrew Breitbart edited a video of her speech so heavily that he turned a story about racial reconciliation into one of racial prejudice? Sherrod was dismissed from her position in the aftermath, though the media and the Obama administration were forced to backtrack when the unedited video surfaced. She is now justifiably suing Breitbart for defamation.Let me put this delicately: Breitbart and O’Keefe lie. They lie big and they lie often. Yet time after time, the media continues to uncritically propagate O’Keefe’s claims, only to offer an awkward mea culpa when the videos, predictably, turn out to be doctored. These hoaxes are not victimless; innocent people have lost their jobs, and organizations have crumbled. Somewhere along the line, the irony of accusing an organization of lacking journalistic integrity by doctoring a secretly filmed conversation must have escaped our dear friends from Project Veritas. The turn of the century muckrakers are likely churning in their graves. How sad to think that their “successors” seem far less concerned with raking the muck than fabricating it.

David Murdter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter