The Rest of ... The Story | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Rest of ... The Story

Back in 2005, a Canadian TV producer asked me if he could film Mississippians working for the Jackson Free Press investigating a civil-rights cold case in Franklin County for a documentary. 


The project went great at first: We all helped each other with initial research and were very excited when the inspiring brother of one of the victims agreed to go with us to his hometown to look for evidence and justice.

It wasn't until we all got down there that the plan went awry. Turns out that public TV in Canada had different ideas about how to approach and interview journalistic subjects than JFP photographer Kate Medley and I did.

Kate and I were stunned to learn that the filmmaker was determined to lure one of the elderly suspects out of his home in order to "doorstep" him with his camera--essentially meaning getting footage of him being put on the spot and probably yelling at us to get off his property (you know, like Diane Sawyer).

This wasn't the kind of story Kate and I were there to do. We wanted to do, and within a couple weeks, did a long-form story with her amazing photographs that would later be used in The New York Times and circulated by the Associated Press. Then we did more stories, which involved a long interview we did with a former Klansman while we were there on that original trip. Without a video camera.

But there was more. The filmmaker wanted to use Kate, young and cute, as bait. He wanted her to go up to the former Klansman's door, say she'd had a flat so that he'd come outside, and then one of us would walk up to him wearing ... get this ... a pair of wire-rim glasses imbedded with a secret video camera.

We were flummoxed. We explained that, as journalists, we could not ethically, or probably legally under recent U.S. case law, tape someone under false pretenses. Beyond that, we had no desire to do "gotcha" journalism; she and I both are perfectly capable of convincing a wide array of surprising people to talk to us--including a long list of white supremacists, as well as the distrusting Frank Melton, with no false pretense at all.

Let's just say that the disagreement over journalistic ethics and practices hurt team spirit. We continued the work, and former Klansman James Ford Seale is in jail, largely thanks to the team's work, jointly and separately.

This ethical disconnect--which no doubt had a shared desire for justice at its heart--came to mind when I heard that James O'Keefe's undercover hit squad set up a meeting with NPR fundraisers under false pretenses with a hidden camera. My first response when I heard? Journalists can't do that. We can't ethically pretend to be someone we're not; we can't entrap and then secretly videotape people saying what we want; and we sure as hell can't edit together different pieces of video out of context to make them look bad.

I remember sitting in journalism classes at Columbia's graduate school being drilled with the fact that courts have squelched even the ability of journalists to take hidden cameras into dangerous settings to expose them. I also remember the chief legal counsel of CNN and ABC News--my journalism law professors--pounding into us that we could not, and must not, pursue journalism under false pretenses.

What is especially outrageous about O'Keefe and that Andrew Breitbart dude who unwisely edited Shirley Sherrod to make her look bad is not just that they are fools who think Americans are stupid. It is that corporate media and even presidential administrations (in the case of Sherrod) are so bizarrely afraid of these trash-"journalists" (and the blogs that push their garbage as gospel) that they over-react immediately without waiting for what Paul Harvey might have called "the rest ... of the story." As news outlets across the country went nuts over the initial edited sound bites that NPR's Ron Schiller supposedly said, NPR immediately ousted its CEO, for instance. (Not to say they can't do better, but different topic.)

But, wait. You might have heard by now (or not) that the entire unedited NPR video reveals shocking edits by O'Keefe that even take Schiller's laugh and move it to a more offensive place. The best part is that it is Glenn Beck of FOX News who is their chief critic.

Beck's Blaze blog debunked the scam with an analysis of the tapes, and his guy Scott Baker stated, "[E]ven if you are of the opinion, as I am, that undercover reporting is acceptable and ethical in very defined situations, it is another thing to approve of editing tactics that seem designed to intentionally lie or mislead about the material being presented."

I am no Glenn Beck fan, but when anti-NPR reporting practices are so unethical that even that dude takes it apart, we have a problem. The bigger question, of course, is why media organizations (or presidential administrations) jump so quickly to give credence to such trash "journalism." There are fine journalists on all levels at places like NPR and the cable-news organizations that immediately go nuts when these edited videos come out.

Why not take a breath and say: "Let's check it out and see what is actually true."

As a journalist who believes deeply in in-depth reporting and (ethical) muckraking, it worries me that the 24-hour news cycle is allowing people, and organizations, to be destroyed by bad reporting practices. Maybe it's one reason that a new Pew "State of the Media 2011" report found that for the first time in more than a decade, all three cable news channels saw their media audiences shrink.

In our saga, one former Klansman that we would have lured out under false pretenses ultimately testified against the one that we discovered was still alive. He also apologized to the victims' families from the witness stand. This in no way excuses his past or makes him a hero, but it does show that luring him outside his home to stick a camera in his face for a juicy or angry response was perhaps not the best way to communicate with him.

To give CNN journalists credit, though, Kate and I went back down there with their film crew to retrace our investigation's steps the day that the feds indicted Seale. When we mentioned the "doorstepping" controversy, they seemed as shocked as we had been. "We just don't/can't do it that way in the U.S." was the response we all agreed on.

Still, others are hiding cameras on their bodies right here in the U.S. and pretending to do journalism with no interest in either justice or fairness, and then editing it into whatever they want it to be. This should anger us all.

Previous Comments

ID
162563
Comment

For once I agree with you Donna. After purposely taking a vacation from all news sources for a couple of years I was shocked at how far downhill it had gone in even that short of a period of time. I don't know but I would think that the core problem is competeing for ratings which has slowly but obviously overtaken ethics in the media. When there was a 30 minute world news program on 3 channels it was alot different. I assume their reporting was somewhat accurate but now I know of no media outlet, video or written, that isn't biased to the left or right. Sadly enough very few of them even make attempts to hide it. What was once reliable news sources are now closer to "shock" tv and in a country so hard to shock they're willing to take any thing they can get their hands on to get ratings or sell newspapers without regard to tomorrow. In so many cases like those you listed above it's a little like accusing a man of rape who was innocent. Even when the facts are in everyone doesn't see them so the damage is already done.

Author
Alex0393
Date
2011-03-16T17:48:29-06:00
ID
162571
Comment

NPR's Ron Schiller supposedly said Perhaps, Vivian Schiller?

Author
golden eagle
Date
2011-03-17T11:35:10-06:00
ID
162572
Comment

Nevermind, there is/was a Ron Schiller at NPR.

Author
golden eagle
Date
2011-03-17T11:50:06-06:00
ID
162573
Comment

For once I agree with you Donna. It always happens eventually, Alex. ;-) Common ground is always there if we look for it. Thanks for your great comments.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-03-17T12:54:23-06:00
ID
162584
Comment

They've done the same dishonest editing with Planned Parenthood. It seems to be a growing tactic on the right. O'Keefe should be in prison for the felonies he committed in Louisiana. Given their track records, I don't know why anyone would pay the least bit of attention to anything O'Keefe or Breitbart have to say. They are shameless liars who have no credibility.

Author
Brian C Johnson
Date
2011-03-17T15:50:14-06:00
ID
162585
Comment

Brian- Ah according to the judge at his trial, O'Keefe didn't commit or nor was there any evidence he was going to commit a felony,when he was convicted of a misdemoanor, entering a federal building under false pretenses.

Author
BubbaT
Date
2011-03-17T19:17:05-06:00
ID
162591
Comment

Thanks, Tyler. ;-) To be clear, everyone on that trip to Franklin County wanted the same outcome: justice. But the chosen methods stood in stark contrast.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-03-18T09:21:58-06:00
ID
162593
Comment

Bubba, do you have a link? O'Keefe made a plea deal, so prosecutors never even attempted to try him on a felony. He was "convicted" because he plead guilty. Moreover, the judge who authorized the plea deal did not have kind words for O'Keefe. U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. said Wednesday he isn't exercising his right to hear the case even though the four defendants are charged with an "extremely serious" crime involving a security breach at a federal building. "Deception is alleged to have been used by the defendants to achieve their purposes which in and of itself is unconscionable," Duval wrote. "Perceived righteousness of a cause does not justify nefarious and potentially dangerous actions." O'Keefe is a bottom feeder who has no regard for the truth or common decency. I am sure it is only a matter of time before he goes to prison.

Author
Brian C Johnson
Date
2011-03-18T13:40:56-06:00
ID
162600
Comment

Brian- Google is your friend,use it. The prosecutors did orginally originally charge them with entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, but entering under false pretenses to "fake test the phones" isn't a felony, that is why they reduced the charges and they pled out. Can't be tried for a felony when one wasn't committed. Judge Duval did have a few harsh words for O'Keefe, but Magistrate Knowles the judge who handle the case,had a few kind and harsh words too. "Magistrate Daniel Knowles III, who described Mr. O'Keefe as "extremely talented," though he was critical of the incident, sentenced him to three years of probation, 100 hours of community service and a $1,500 fine."

Author
BubbaT
Date
2011-03-18T15:43:13-06:00
ID
162601
Comment

Teehee, Bubba. Brian is one of the best researchers I know, and that has ever worked with me. And he knows how to use a heckuva lot more than Google!

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-03-18T17:22:11-06:00
ID
162603
Comment

Donna, Then he should easily be able to find that no felony committed, stupidity, yes but felony, no. :)

Author
BubbaT
Date
2011-03-18T18:53:37-06:00
ID
162604
Comment

Bubba, considering your loving friendship with Google, I am surprised that you still haven't provided a link. I have not seen any admission from prosecutors that they incorrectly charged O'Keefe and his colleagues. If such an admission exists, I am sure you will be able to furnish a link to it. Please don't waste our time with a link to Breitbart's site. All the news reports I have seen discuss a plea deal. Wiretapping is a felony. It appears that O'Keefe et al. so bungled their operation that they were detained before they could complete their work. That may have made it difficult to prove the charges in court, but that doesn't mean the original charges were inappropriate. Whether Bush-appointee Daniel Knowles III regards O'Keefe as "talented" is immaterial. He still sentenced O'Keefe to three years of probation, 100 hours of community service, and a $1,500 fine. These are not negligible sanctions for a misdemeanor. I wonder if we would have seen the same outcome had an African-American ACORN activist entered Sen. Jim Demint's office under false pretenses and begun to tamper with the phones? Or rather, I don't wonder. I'm not going to do your research for you, Bubba. Let's see that link.

Author
Brian C Johnson
Date
2011-03-19T13:53:59-06:00
ID
162605
Comment

Oh and thanks, Donna!

Author
Brian C Johnson
Date
2011-03-19T13:54:59-06:00
ID
162606
Comment

Just to be clear, I understand that O'Keefe et al. claim they were only testing the phones, but there is no reason for the rest of us to believe them. That was their defense against the felony charge. The question is whether a jury would have believed that story had it come to trial. I certainly don't find it plausible. It would not have made for one of their gotcha "news" stories had they merely gone into her office and pretended to test the phones. Instead, they would need to "catch" her or her staff somehow colluding with unsavory characters. That is, they would need to gather audio that they could then edit and splice to create a fake scandal, per their usual methods.

Author
Brian C Johnson
Date
2011-03-19T15:16:23-06:00
ID
162608
Comment

Brian- Telling you to use Google, was just a polite way saying look it up your own self,your the grand researcher,I don't have to provide you with a link to anything. I don't want you to do any research for me, don't need any, he was convicted of a misdemeanor not a felony, no matter what you or I think it isn't going to change. It's a done deal. Oh since you're the grand reseacher. Where is your link O'Keefe committed wiretapping? Where is a link that O'Keefe had any wiretapping equipment? Never seen a word that they did, have you? Can't plant a bug when you don't have one. Why would Clinton appointee Duval let a right wing kook like O'Keefe off the hook if he had him dead to right on a felony? He should have been wanting to have him drawn and quartered. If Bush-appointte Judge Knowles regards for O'Keefe immaterial aren't Clinton-appointtee Duval's harsh words for him even more immaterial? ;) I agreed with you that O'Keefe was a wack job in my earlier post but Donna edited it out, I guess I offended her, with my low opinion of all journalist and newspeople.

Author
BubbaT
Date
2011-03-19T20:43:50-06:00
ID
162628
Comment

I didn't edit out that you said O'Keefe was a whack job, Bubba. (I agree.) But if you had a post that cast a blanket stereotype over any group, it likely did not get through. What gets me is how much time you'll spend defending said "whack jobs" if you perceive that they are anti-those folks you disdain: Democrats, liberals, whatever y'all call them these days.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-03-21T12:49:15-06:00
ID
162637
Comment

Donna- I'm not defending O'Keefe, just disagreeing with Brian that he committed a felony. O'Keefe is a whack job, but his doesn't seem stupid enough to do something that would put him in prison. Just my 2 cents.

Author
BubbaT
Date
2011-03-21T14:28:54-06:00
ID
162638
Comment

Bubba, you only have to provide a link if you want me to take you seriously. I wasn't asking for evidence as some kind of rhetorical double-dare. I thought you might actually have some light to shed on these matters instead of simply squirting ink like some kind of right-wing cephalopod. No insult intended, either to you or to cephalopods. I don't know what kinds of recording devices they had. The FBI press release on this matter makes it sound as if they only had hidden video recorders. But why did they repeatedly ask for access to the building's central telephone box? How would that have made for gotcha video, even if edited? Were they going to stand in front of the box and giggle like teenagers? Basel then told a staff member that he and Flanagan needed to perform repair work on the main phone system, and he asked that they be taken to the “central box.” The staff member directed them to the office of the General Services Administration (GSA), and Basel and Flanagan followed the staff member to GSA’s office inside the Hale Boggs Federal Building. Upon meeting a GSA employee, Basel and Flanagan again said they were telephone repairmen, and Basel again asked to be taken to the phone system’s “central box.” The buffoons in question were arrested before they ever made it to the central box. Maybe I'm giving them too much credit for assuming that there is a method to their mendacity, but it still seems to me that prosecutors could have pursued felony charges even if they had a weak case. Remember that the charge involved intent rather than success. By the way, the difference between the comments of Duval and Knowles is that the former concern the seriousness and nature of the crime. They are not an evaluation of O'Keefe's journalistic skills, which Knowles has no special expertise to evaluate. Regardless, O'Keefe seems more than stupid enough to get himself put in prison, and I'll keep my fingers crossed that his next misadventure gets him some serious time. He has repeatedly shown extremely poor judgment. I assume you're familiar with his farcical, misogynist plot to seduce a CNN reporter on hidden camera? Whack job, indeed.

Author
Brian C Johnson
Date
2011-03-21T15:57:48-06:00
ID
162640
Comment

The best part of that link you just shared, Brian, is this factual statement: O'Keefe is best known for making a series of undercover videos inside ACORN offices around the country in 2009. The 40-year-old liberal group was crippled by scandal after O'Keefe and fellow activist Hannah Giles allegedly solicited advice from ACORN workers on setting up a brothel and evading taxes. The videos led to some of the employees being fired and contributed to the disbanding of ACORN, which advocated for low- and middle-income and worked to register voters. But prosecutors in New York and California eventually found no evidence of wrongdoing by the group, and the California probe found the videos had been heavily and selectively edited. Wonder how many people even understand this?

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-03-21T16:34:18-06:00

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