O’Keefe Teaches Media A Lesson (Again)

Edited NPR video shows why we need to slow down

How quickly things seem to fall apart when James O’Keefe is the person who put them together.

O’Keefe’s incriminating ACORN video was shown to have been heavily edited—neither he nor Hannah Giles were actually in pimp and prostitute get-up when they spoke to ACORN employees, for example—and no criminal prosecutions of ACORN followed. While not letting ACORN off the hook for showing “terrible judgment” in the video, California’s then-attorney general Jerry Brown noted after an investigation into the tapes and the organization that “sometimes a fuller truth is found on the cutting room floor.”

Those same words now seem applicable to the latest O’Keefe sting, which further tarnished NPR’s reputation and took down its CEO. As we noted last week, Glenn Beck’s conservative website, The Blaze, was first to report on discrepancies between the first edited eleven-and-a-half minute video released on the Project Veritas website and a later, unedited two-hour version.

Ron Schiller, one of the fundraisers who lunched with two people from Veritas’s fictional Muslim Education Action Center (MEAC), is hardly saved by The Blaze’s reporting. He still said what he said and he still comes across as a right fool in some ways. But crucial context was left on that cutting room floor (or at least in some Final Cut folders).

In the report, as noted last week, The Blaze addresses “whether the donors-in-disguise had made their fake Muslim Brotherhood connections clear to Schiller and Liley, contextualizes Schiller’s ‘attacks’ on Republicans (he actually ‘expresses pride in his Republican heritage’), and shows that Schiller was echoing the opinion of two top Republicans he had spoken to when describing the Tea Party as ‘racist people.’” Here’s an excerpt:

NPR exec Ron Schiller does describe Tea Party members as “xenophobic…seriously racist people.”

This is one of the reasons why he no longer has a job!

But the clip in the edited video implies Schiller is giving simply his own analysis of the Tea Party. He does do that in part, but the raw video reveals that he is largely recounting the views expressed to him by two top Republicans, one a former ambassador, who admitted to him that they voted for Obama.

At the end, he signals his agreement. The larger context does not excuse his comments, or his judgment in sharing the account, but would a full context edit have been more fair?

There is a video accompaniment on The Blaze’s site.

Yesterday, NPR media reporter David Folkenflik addressed the dubious editing on Morning Edition and in a written report for NPR’s website. Folkenflik reviewed the two tapes himself, along with some NPR colleagues and outsiders like The Blaze’s editor-in-chief Scott Baker and Poynter’s Al Tompkins. They home in on many of the same problems The Blaze pointed out. And they basically come to the same conclusion: the tape is still a problem, but the impression it leaves is different.

Tompkins, initially outraged by the first video, had a change of heart after examining the second, longer version.

“I tell my children there are two ways to lie,” Tompkins said. “One is to tell me something that didn’t happen, and the other is not to tell me something that did happen. I think they employed both techniques in this.”

Sacramento, Calif.-based digital forensic consultant Mark Menz also reviewed both tapes at my request. He has done extensive video analyses for federal agencies and corporations.

“From my personal opinion, the short one is definitely edited in a form and fashion to lead you to a certain conclusion—you might say it’s looking only at the dirty laundry,” Menz said. He drew a distinction between that and a compressed news story.

Folkenflik’s report is worth a full read and listen, and his early reporting on the subject was equally measured and unflinching.

What does O’Keefe say? On CNN’s Reliable Sources, O’Keefe defended himself by claiming he’s in the company of your Sinclairs and your Blys. “Journalists have been doing this for a long time,” he argued. “It’s a form of investigative reporting that you use to seek and find the truth.”

In this case: Seek. Find. And then mold.

When the NPR story broke last Tuesday, before anyone had been fired and the hubbub had became yet another quick, hot battle in the protracted culture wars, we suggested that journalists and commentators pause, slow down, and take a breather.

From where might we have learned such a lesson? From video scandals past. Think ACORN and think Shirley Sherrod: job- and organization-crippling scandals in which the media blindly aided and abetted. Note too that O’Keefe is a political point-scorer, and here he is scoring from a soft-target.

We knew all of this, and yet few of us slowed down. Including the NPR brass.

It is telling that The Blaze was the first to point out O’Keefe’s context-stripping editing and that its report came out two days after O’Keefe’s video release. (And, yes, we at CJR should have been doing just as The Blaze did, searching for the discrepancies they found.) It’s telling because, as The Blaze showed, it takes time to vet a source.

We can only hope that, next time, the order in which this scandal and others like it have unfolded—headlines and drama first; reporting and vetting later—is reversed. Given the pattern that just repeated itself, we’re not optimistic.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , , ,