The nonprofit journalism organization I work for, the Common Language Project, now has some unexpected company. The New York Times reported Friday that the IRS has granted nonprofit tax-exempt status to James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas.
You might remember O’Keefe as the mastermind behind the clandestine videos that brought down two NPR executives and outed questionable practices by ACORN employees. O’Keefe told the New York Times that thanks to the nonprofit status, the group would be able to train an army of volunteers to mimic his tactics.
The group has wrapped themselves in the mantle of “muckraking” and “investigative journalism,” apparently without a care or a clue as to what that means. And while I’ve gotten used to the term “journalist” being used to describe everything from a guy on the scene of a crime with a cell phone camera to the owner of today’s trending Twitter account, O’Keefe has gone too far. He’s no journalist and here’s why:
Real journalists identify themselves.
Transparency with your sources about who you are and where their words are going to be published is key. Sources make choices regarding what they’ll say on the record to a journalist, and what they’ll say in private, and those choices should be respected.
It’s true that there has been some great undercover journalism done in the past, from Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Madhouse to Ted Conover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. But these projects generally investigate abusive conditions in large institutions. And for both Bly and Conover, there is a strong argument to be made that going undercover was the only way these abuses could be exposed. Put more simply, going undercover to expose what people are doing is much more permissible then going undercover to expose what they’re saying.
Real journalists don’t record people in secret.
Washington state, and many other state laws prohibit recording someone’s voice without their consent–even without any intent to publish. Making clandestine recordings and then publishing them is almost never justified. Again, the line between public and private statements should be respected. I might think my boss has a stupid haircut, and I might tell you so if you ask me in private, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair for you to secretly record our conversation and play it back for him.
O’Keefe pled guilty to a misdemeanor last year for breaking into the office of US Senator Mary Landrieu and trying to tap her phones. And he used hidden cameras to record his interactions with ACORN and NPR.
Real journalists report what’s happening, they don’t manufacture it.
When police officers catch a criminal in illegal behavior that the criminal is already engaging in, it’s good police work. When they incite someone to do something illegal that they wouldn’t otherwise do, it’s called entrapment. Journalists should follow a similar standard.
O’Keefe doesn’t just secretly record his victims, he baits them until they say things he thinks can get them in trouble.
Real journalists don’t selectively edit recordings to misrepresent statements.
It’s generally considered acceptable to assemble audio or video clips to change the order of what sources say and edit out needless sections. But only if doing so doesn’t alter the original intention of the statement.
Soon after the NPR scandal, Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze analyzed the videos from that sting and found that they were heavily edited to remove context and misrepresent NPR officials’ statement.
Real journalists try to overcome their political biases, not embrace them.
We all have ingrained political beliefs. Sometimes they help guide us through the world and sometimes they blind us to the truth. The job of the journalist is not to go out into the world looking for confirmation of what we already believe. We should challenge ourselves to understand and represent viewpoints that conflict with our own.
O’Keefe is a conservative political activist who only targets his perceived political enemies. The tax-exempt donations his organization will receive will doubtless come from people seeking to advance a political agenda, not support challenging investigative journalism.
Real journalists don’t just pay lip service to their ethical code. They live it.
There’s no professional accreditation for journalists. You don’t have to pass the bar or do a residency to become a journalist. It’s not a rigid set of laws, it’s a philosophy of seeking out and representing the truth as fairly as possible. This philosophy must be constantly reevaluated and reapplied to different situations. It might sound high-minded and self-important, but at least it’s not exclusive. All you have to do to join this club is to be self-critical and care deeply about the truth.
The sad irony is that the kind of gotcha non-journalism that O’Keefe’s group does will not lead to more open government or a better-informed society. Exactly the opposite. Baiting high profile figures into saying something controversial, recording it in secret, selectively editing it to make it more controversial, and then blasting it out to the public until those officials are forced to resign is not a tactic that is going to expose malfeasance and weed out the bad apples. On the contrary, it’s going to drive public figures to be even less honest, more closed off to the media, and to speak in careful, meaningless platitudes that obscure what’s really going on.
In that kind of culture the number one criteria for holding an important position will not be the actual skills required to do the job well, but the ability to strictly manage your public image.
Finally, this kind of un-journalism hurts the ability of real journalists to do their job. Every day I encounter a world more hostile to, and skeptical of, the media. More sources demanding anonymity without a good reason. More people refusing to go on camera because they’re afraid what they say is going to be manipulated in editing. More public figures hyper-managing their messages and talking in sound bites.
What I tell these sources is that their candor will help people understand the issues they care about more than any perfectly rehearsed sound bite; that I’m not trying to trick or manipulate them, but to pursue the complicated story that their perspective is a part of in the most honest and ethical way I can.
But with groups like Project Veritas running around out there calling themselves journalists (or misrepresenting their identities altogether) we might all be wiser to keep our mouths shut.
Alex Stonehill is a Multimedia Storyteller in Residence at the MCDM, and co-founder of The Common Language Project. This editorial was originally published at www.clpmag.org.