Punk’d: How TV News Skirts Ethics
It was a video ambush that continues to cause casualties at National Public Radio. CEO Vivian Schiller resigned after fundraising executive Ron Schiller (no relation) was caught on tape attacking those who were trying to cut off public funding of NPR as “racist” and “xenophobic.”
Ron Schiller thought he was talking to some Muslim businessmen who wanted to give $5 million to NPR. He wasn’t. He was talking to members of a video hit squad run by conservative political activist James O’Keefe, who used similar tactics to embarrass ACORN and HUD.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was embarrassed by the same kind of “punk’d” journalism when he thought he was talking to conservative money-man David Koch. He wasn’t. He was talking to Ian Murphy, editor of liberal online newspaper Buffalo Beast. The audio of Walker admitting that he thought about sending “troublemakers” into the crowd of protestors served to undercut his tough anti-union position.
The Walker audio and the NPR video is the kind of entrapment journalism that would never be tolerated by the mainstream TV networks. CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and Fox all have strict rules against news people misrepresenting themselves to get a story.
Then why did all of those news outlets happily air the Walker and NPR tapes, thus condoning the same behavior they would find reprehensible from their own reporters? It’s as if they are outsourcing their ambushes and hiring journo-mercenaries to do their dirty work.
This exposes not only a bold hypocrisy by the networks, but the problem with news on the Internet. It is the Wild West of journalism. Anyone with a camera and a website can post stories with no editors, no fact-checking and no rules. Many times baseless and unethical reports from shady Internet sources slime their way into the mainstream. The sensational nature of the material is irresistible to most newsrooms.
Remember Shirley Sherrod? She was forced to resign from her job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and nationally embarrassed after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart made her look like a racist by posting video clips from a speech she made to the NAACP. The clips were purposely taken out of context from the speech about personal growth and healing the wounds of racism. Every network eagerly aired those clips without the due diligence of watching the entire speech.
President Obama still has to deal with the nagging accusation that he is not a U.S. Citizen, and there are still people who believe that Sarah Palin did not give birth to her youngest son Trig. Both stories were begot by anonymous bloggers in the underbelly of the Internet and rose to public consciousness with the help of the mainstream media.
Networks need to step off the 24-hour news treadmill for a moment and deal with this problem. Their highly competitive, knee-jerk propensity to air these stories, videos and audio clips without their own investigation is unethical and in direct conflict with their own canon. Most of these Internet stories that the networks find so irresistible are fueled by someone’s prejudice or political agenda. The stories are crafted to manipulate network coverage and the public’s perception.
I would suggest that we all remember a simple rule when looking to the Internet for news: Consider the source. The network news bosses should heed that rule too. If an Internet journalist breaks rules of ethics, then networks are guilty of breaking their own rules by re-airing that journalist’s work.