Friday, March 18, 2011

Would The St. Louis Media Report Responsibly On An O'Keefe/Breitbart Smear Job?

A couple years ago, James O'Keefe worked with a small group of students at Washington University to set up a mock "gulag" that warned about the "dangers of Communism" while blasting loud music across campus. O'Keefe created a video claiming that "University Political Officials Shut Down a Gulag Memorial" and his partner John Burns claimed the university shut down the display because it was "too offensive." These claims turned out to be blatantly false, as even members of the student group who co-sponsored the display, Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), admitted that the group only got permits for passing out fliers and never mentioned that they would be building a display in the middle of campus. Also noted by the YAL members, the university is quite accommodating to different viewpoints, as long as the rules are followed, which they were not in this case.

Despite the blatantly misleading spin of O'Keefe, Burns, and the Breitbart websites, the local St. Louis media never pointed out the facts. Both KMOX and the Post-Dispatch covered the story, but neither bothered to fact-check the blatantly misleading claims from the O'Keefe/Breitbart crew, which could easily have been verified by asking the university for the specific policies. The Post-Dispatch does mention the university perspective, but presents it as a "one side says this, the other side says this" story rather than bothering to get the actual facts. Readers were not given an opportunity to come to an informed opinion about the incident, because they were not provided with the facts needed to do so.

But that was a while ago, at the beginning of the new era of right-wing smear jobs posing as "citizen journalism." Since that time, a number of things have happened that should discredit Breitbart's websites and James O'Keefe in the eyes of anyone who has the slightest concern for the truth. For example:
  • James O'Keefe entered a Senator's attempting to illegally record phone conversations. They were arrested under suspicion of wiretapping, and later plea bargained down to a charge of entering a federal building under false pretenses.
  • James' O'Keefe's videos on ACORN for Breitbart's site were said to be severely and misleadingly edited by the Attorney General of California and many other public officials.
  • O'Keefe was caught trying to sexually humiliate a CNN reporter by luring her onto a boat full of sex toys and trying to "seduce" her under false pretenses.
  • Breitbart released misleadingly-edited videos suggesting that USDA employee Shirley Sherrod was "racist" when in fact she was telling a story about how race doesn't matter.
  • O'Keefe misleadingly edited a video to suggest that NPR executive Ron Schiller called the tea party "racist" when in fact Schiller was recounting what someone else said.

  • So given this clear track record of blatant dishonesty from the Breitbart and O'Keefe school of smearing, would any credible journalistic institution still take their word on videos without first fact-checking? Unfortunately, given recent statements from Steve Parker at the Post-Dispatch and the overall pathetic media performance around the NPR video, I'm not very hopeful about the answer to that question. Nevertheless, I have some things to say about how a media institution that was motivated by the ideals of responsible journalism and a pursuit of the truth might react to material from Breitbart and O'Keefe in the future.

    First, it should be obvious that a credible media institution shouldn't take the word of anyone at Breitbart's websites at face value without fact-checking. This should be true of taking the word of anyone for journalists, but is especially the case for institutions that have a proven track record of distorting the truth. Passing on information from a Breitbart web site without fact checking given what we now know about them exhibits a blatant disregard for the truth and for honest journalism.

    Second, video stories from Breitbart web sites should not be reported on unless the full videos are released.
    This should be standard practice, but again is especially crucial in cases where you're dealing with people with proven track records of twisting the truth. This applies to O'Keefe, to Breitbart, and to local folks like Adam Sharp and Bill Hennessy who have been caught lying and engaging in disingenous tactics. Posting information before getting the full facts has resulted in a number of innocent people being fired, and our modern media shares some of the blame for this fact.

    Third, and finally, these outlets should not blast out a "BREAKING!" story without speaking to the people highlighted in the smear videos and giving them an opportunity to look into the issue and produce a thoughtful response.
    Of course, the pressure of the modern news cycle makes this difficult, but journalistic institutions need to be about having their audience's trust first, and focus on the "OMG BREAKING" stuff second. In particular, O'Keefe and Breibart often link their stories to grand conspiracy theories that implicate their political enemies, and news organizations should be particularly careful to resist guilt-by-flimsy-association allegations.

    And this, ultimately, is the most important point. If you call yourself a "new organization," you should engage in careful, thoughtful pursuit of the real facts. If you lazily or sensationalistically pass on information from Breitbart, O'Keefe, or their local lackeys, you are betraying your audiences trust. And while you may think it's worth it to push for those short-term ratings boosts, in the long run this approach to news will lead to the demise of organizations who practice it.

    1 comment:

    1. There is no integrity at all left in a main stream media operation that accepts hacked-up and doctored video as news or investigative reporting. Any bored teenager could chop together videos just like Breitbart, O'Keefe, Sharp or Hennessy. It doesn't take brains, but it does take some time and money. I wonder who funds their activities?