The ethics of the sting that stung NPR last week have been much discussed in the blogosphere. Ira Stoll thinks it’s flat-out wrong, calling it the equivalent of the liberal blogger who impersonated David Koch in hopes of entrapping Governor Scott Walker. James Taranto sees a clear distinction:
… we’d draw two distinctions between the Walker prank and the NPR one: First, the guy who prank-called Walker claimed to be an actual person, so that there was a second victim of his prank. Second and more important, as far as we are aware, the governor did not actually say anything that was worse than slightly embarrassing. You can’t fool an honest man.
Both Stoll and Taranto admit that James O’Keefe’s tactics violate journalistic ethics. But while O’Keefe calls himself a “citizen journalist,” he is not any such thing. Journalists gather and disseminate news. O’Keefe is an agent provocateur. He was trying to make news. And unlike the blogger who called Governor Walker and found an honest man, he did so. Of course, there’s a very slippery slope between giving someone an opportunity to prove himself a fool or a hypocrite and entrapping him into doing so.
In this day and age, when TV cameras can be as small as a fountain pen, security cameras are everywhere, and anyone can be wired simply by turning his iPhone to voice notes, it is plain common sense to assume that every mike is hot, every conversation on the record. Then if you’re an honest man (“I always tell the truth when I can, it’s easier to remember”), there is little to fear.
About 15 years ago, as a referendum on Quebec independence was about to be held, a Montreal disk jockey called Queen Elizabeth while on the air. He had a remarkable ability to sound like the Canadian prime minister of the day, Jean Chrétien, who talked out of the side of his mouth, à la W. C. Fields. Astonishingly, the DJ actually got the Queen on live radio (one imagines heads rolled at the Palace shortly thereafter). By far the most interesting thing about the whole episode was that the Queen, summoned to the telephone from whatever she had been doing, was fully on top of the matter at hand, clearly understood the subtleties of Canadian politics, and gave the man she thought was her prime minister very sensible advice. It was, to put it mildly, an impressive performance.
So sometimes the “victim” of the prank can turn out to be the big winner.