James O'Keefe Is Capitalizing on the Cult of Journalistic Objectivity

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His latest sting is yet more evidence that pretending reporters have no opinions or biases is no longer tenable

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Here's how Brooke Gladstone, host of the NPR show On the Media, summed up one obligation of professional journalists: "Checking your life at the door is -- at least for now -- a condition for working at traditional media news outlets. When I interviewed Lianne Hanson as she retired from her host job, she said she was looking forward to being able to express herself freely and publicly in the world." Is this a smart norm? It isn't, I argued in a recent post, and I want to return to it, because subsequent events have only reinforced the point.

"It may seem like a good idea to avoid the 'perception of bias' by insisting that media employees hide who they are from the audience. Perhaps it was once even tenable," I wrote. "It no longer is. To build your credibility on viewlessness is to concede, every time an employee of yours is shown to be a sentient, opinionated person, that your credibility has taken a hit. To tout and enforce your viewlessness is to hold your own reputation hostage to reality; it makes your credibility, the most valuable thing you have, vulnerable to every staffer's Tweet, or incriminating Facebook photograph, or inane James O'Keefe hidden video sting operation. She claims to be neutral, but look, while out at a dinner with friends we caught her on camera saying that she thinks Obama is a better president than was Bush. See! She was hiding her liberal views from us all along!"

And lo and behold, here is James O'Keefe Thursday with almost the exact inane hidden video sting I predicted. Using a hidden camera, one of his colleagues approaches a Pulitzer Prize winning New Jersey Star-Ledger reporter, who thinks she is having a private conversation with "a cub reporter." It appears from the exchange that the reporter in question wants President Obama to be re-elected, and thinks poorly of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, as a person if not as a pol:
 

Under a different system of norms, this reporter or her editors could say, "Look, I regret that my private remarks were made public, and I shouldn't have called the governor a profane name. But the only way to judge me as a journalist is to examine my work. If you find something you regard as objectionable, point it out. I am eager to defend it from scrutiny. And if I've erred in some way, I am glad to acknowledge it. My personal opinions are beside the point. Of course I develop judgments about the people I spend my life intensely observing. But I don't let them affect the fairness of my reporting. And you haven't even tried to prove otherwise."

Instead, much of the traditional media is on record conceding O'Keefe's premise -- that he has captured video that sheds legitimate doubt on the work of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, showing her to be in violation of a longstanding ethical code some in her profession regard as sacrosanct.

This is an era of diminished privacy. Anyone can have a hidden camera or tape recorder. Anyone can thoughtlessly reveal an opinion in a Tweet. For the younger generation of reporters, their whole social media history is archived in various databases. The day isn't far away that someone like James O'Keefe "proves" the ethical depravity of some rising star by digging back through the Facebook status updates he published during college that prove he has political opinions. It hardly matters that he is using unethical means to acquire some of his scoops. By the logic of tradition-minded editors, the problem with expressing an opinion isn't that the act is inherently unseemly, but that mere audience knowledge of one's views creates a corrosive impression of bias. 

Does Gladstone think that the New Jersey Star-Ledger is now obligated to take their reporter off of any politics-related beat? After all, the effect on the audience is no different than if she'd made those remarks knowing they were being recorded. I trust the vast majority of people, inside journalism and outside of it, will view the video above, recognize it's absurd to judge a reporter's worth by it, and react as Columbia Dean Sree Sreenavasan did in my favorite part of the video -- they'll laugh at O'Keefe's humorously inane efforts at "gotcha" stings and maybe use their smart phone to share the fun. But it's much harder to dismiss O'Keefe with the rapidity he deserves if the ethical norms you embrace are also the foundational basis of his critique.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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