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The Ethics of Surreptitious Tapings

One of the reasons the secretly recorded video of National Public Radio’s Ron Schiller was so damaging is that he confirmed the impression many people have of those who work at NPR — that they are not simply liberal but also contemptuous of conservatives, of Christians, of Israel. The Tea Party, according to Schiller, is Islamophobic, xenophobic, and racist. Zionists are in control of American newspapers — but thankfully, not NPR. Mr. Schiller’s views may not reflect the attitude of everyone associated with NPR, but he obviously fit right in with its culture and ethos (who can forget Nina Totenberg saying she hoped that Jesse Helms or one of his grandchildren would get AIDS from a blood transfusion). And given how disgracefully NPR treated its former employee Juan Williams, conservatives could be forgiven for a touch of schadenfreude.

That said, the technique that James O’Keefe used to snag Schiller does, on reflection, leave me a bit queasy. I understand that sting operations can serve a useful role. But surreptitiously recording conversations of either NPR executives or governors (see the liberal blogger, pretending to be conservative donor David Koch, who taped a phone conversation with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) can easily cross into dangerous terrain. Human nature is weak and can be easily exploited. I and virtually every person I know have said things in private conversations that we would not want recorded and broadcast publicly. And when you add to the mix people who are play-acting and goading their interlocutors, concerns about how the tape was subsequently edited, not to mention the offer of a multimillion-dollar donation, and you are in questionable ethical territory.

I don’t pretend to know where the line should be drawn between responsible investigative journalism on the one hand and irresponsible entrapment on the other. Deceit in the cause of some other aim and some other good is sometimes morally justifiable; sometimes it’s not. But I do know that the tendency we all have to battle is to take delight in watching our ideological opponents trip up in a sting operation but squawk when our allies step into a similar trap, to react one way when James O’Keefe does the recording and another if a liberal blogger or 60 Minutes does it. In thinking through what’s fair, it’s probably worth taking into account this question among others: how would I feel if I were on the receiving end of the sting operation?


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