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O'Keefe vs. NPR: Round One Goes to the Kid

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A few of days ago I fired up iTunes on my computer while paying bills. I clicked on the NPR stream to distract me from the acute pain this task causes me.

I wound up at the top of the Diane Rehm Show, which was doing a segment on the latest scandal in public radio land: NPR chief fundraiser Ron Schiller's alleged disparagement of Christian evangelicals and tea partiers, caught on video by two conservative activists posing as representatives of a Muslim Brotherhood- affiliated group. Even before the pixels had cooled on the rightwing website where the video was posted, Schiller was booted and NPR's president and CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) had resigned. Schiller apologized for "saying some of those stupid things," according to Shepard, but he added that the videos were heavily edited.

Rehm's guests were conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, CEO of the Association of Public Television Station's Pat Butler, the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post, NPR's own Brooke Gladstone, and David Edwards, chair of NPR's board. They took the video at face value and set about judging Schiller with varying degrees of severity, with Carlson in the lead.

"[Schiller] was essentially doing what all fundraisers do, sucking up to a prospective donor," said Carlson. "In this case, two men posing as representatives of a Muslim group related to the Muslim Brotherhood ... he spoke dismissively of evangelical Christians and of conservatives and Republicans saying that they are stupid and racist and uneducated, and basically repeating the kind of familiar Liberal catechism about the right."

"Well, they apparently were not altered," Carlson added. "I mean, according to NPR, they weren't."

Heavy charges dipped in contemptuous hyperbole.

"I thought it was indefensible, inexcusable, reprehensible," Butler said. "I mean, it goes against the ethic of everything we try to do in public broadcasting. What we try to do is to be as civil, as balanced, as fair, as comprehensive as we can be in the coverage of news and everything else that we do. And what Mr. Schiller was saying is exactly the opposite of that."

One person did address the provenance of the video--a caller named Erin: "[I]n light of Mr. O'Keefe's track record with editing videos, anybody who would take a video that he made on faith as being complete without vetting it and checking it out and making sure that it was actually valid, that would just be foolish in light of his track record of editing things out that don't accord with the viewpoint that he's trying to push." Foolish indeed. Erin is referring to James O'Keefe, the source of the video.

But what did Schiller say?

From the edited version, we get bits like this:

SCHILLER: The current Republican Party, particularly the Tea Party is fanatically involved in people's personal lives. And very fundamental Christian and I wouldn't even call it Christians. It's this weird Evangelical kind of move--

INTERVIEWER: The radical, racist, Islamaphobic Tea - Tea Party people?

SCHILLER: And not just Islamaphobic, but really xenophobic, I mean, basically they are, they are--they believe in sort of white, middle-America, gun-toting--I mean, it's scary."

Even in this version we hear the interviewers prompting Schiller. But now we are in Phase 2 of the Schiller scandal: The stingers themselves released the almost-raw video with one section omitted "to ensure the safety of an NPR overseas correspondent."

Russ Baker discusses the video at whowhatwhy.com, and notes that a sharp analysis of the raw video was conducted by The Blaze, a Glenn Beck-backed operation. Turns out Schiller's comments were not only taken out of context, but his statements were spliced together with unrelated questions.

Here's a snippet from the site's analysis:

"Schiller's negative comments about Republicans and conservatives have gotten a great deal of attention.

"He clearly says some offensive things, while being very direct that he is giving his own opinion and not that of NPR. Still -- a wildly stupid move!

"But you may be surprised to learn, that in the raw video, Schiller also speaks positively about the GOP. He expresses pride in his own Republican heritage and his belief in fiscal conservatism."

Why, why, why didn't the Rehm show guests--and so many other major media outlets and journalists--question the authenticity or the source of the video (to be fair, other NPR shows like Talk of the Nation with Neal Conan and David Folkenflik, did)? Granted, NPR was in a tough spot. It got hammered just a few months ago by conservatives (and not-so-conservatives) for its summary firing of Juan Williams after he confessed on Fox News to getting freaked out when he spots anyone in "Muslim garb" on a plane. But the right has been gunning for NPR as well as its TV cousin PBS for years for their perceived liberal bias, which might explain the immediate cave-in by senior execs in this case.

If caller Erin had been given more time, or perhaps a position on the pundit panel, she might have shared some O'Keefe history with us. He's the guy who invited CNN journalist Abbie Boudreau to a meeting aboard a yacht to entrap her in a compromising situation.

"James has staged the boat to be a palace of pleasure with all sorts of props, wants to have a bizarre sexual conversation with her," an accomplice, Izzy Santa, wrote in an email to an O'Keefe supporter that she turned over to CNN. "He wants to gag CNN."

"Among the props listed were a 'condom jar, dildos, posters and paintings of naked women, fuzzy handcuffs' and a blindfold."

It was Santa who dropped a dime on O'Keefe before he could snare the reporter in his ersatz love den.

James O'Keefe is also the guy who was arrested for allegedly trying to bug the phones in Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's Washington, D.C., office. O'Keefe's partners in crime claimed to be telephone repairmen, according to a statement issued by the United States Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Louisiana. The charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor, "entering real property of the United States under false pretenses." O'Keefe and the others pled guilty and received a $1,500 fine, two years probation, and 75 hours of community service.

But O'Keefe's greatest star turn to date came in 2009. This is the "sting" worth recalling and reexamining.

He was the catalyst for a full-on assault that brought down ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, in 2009, also with hidden video. Black and brown staffers in ACORN offices across the country are heard suggesting ways to hide assets that O'Keefe earned from a child-prostitution business. The video appeared on websites run by rightwing activist/news aggregator Andrew Breitbart. Major news media took the videos at face value back then, too, and broadcast, published, posted, and all-around trumpeted this "courageous" and--added bonus--salacious "reporting." O'Keefe appeared on the panoply of Fox News shows describing how he rolled into ACORN offices in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Washington, and other cities in full pimp finery with his ho' in tow.

UNTIL ... the integrity of the video was demolished by a series of investigations, including ones by California's attorney general, Brooklyn's district attorney, and one commissioned by ACORN conducted by former Massachusetts AG Scott Harshbarger. The reports they issued found that ACORN broke no laws. Still, all, including California's AG, noted that ACORN staffers "exhibited terrible judgment and highly inappropriate behavior."

Now that's hardly a full exoneration, since "inappropriate" can also be unethical. But what was said in the videos doesn't square with what appears in the full transcripts, which Breitbart and O'Keefe turned over after intense pressure to come clean. (They still refuse to release unedited footage.)

This from the California AG's post-investigation press release:

"One ACORN worker in San Diego called the cops. Another ACORN worker in San Bernardino caught on to the scheme and played along with it, claiming among other things that she had murdered her abusive husband. Her two former husbands are alive and well, the Attorney General's report noted. At the beginning and end of the Internet videos, O'Keefe was dressed as a 1970s Superfly pimp, but in his actual taped sessions with ACORN workers, he was dressed in a shirt and tie, presented himself as a law student, and said he planned to use the prostitution proceeds to run for Congress. He never claimed he was a pimp."

In the words of a law enforcement source quoted by the New York Daily News, "They edited the tape to meet their agenda."

But the truth didn't matter, because the frenzy was on. There were a few notable exceptions--the indefatigable Brad Friedman comes to mind--but only a few. Journalism's standard operating procedures were tossed. As a result, the Senate tripped over itself to pass the Defund ACORN Act. ACORN had received federal grants for such successful programs as fair-housing education (HUD), fire prevention and safety (DHS/FEMA), and food-access counseling (US Department of Agriculture).

The House passed the act 345-75--but then federal judge Nina Gershon ruled the legislation unconstitutional and barred Congress from enforcing the funding ban. Too late: ACORN was dead, killed by attackers on the right who had been trying to bring it down for years.

"O'Keefe and Giles targeted ACORN not to expose any bad advice being doled out by ACORN staffers," writes John Atlas in Seeds of Change, a comprehensive history of the group, "but for the same reason the political right did it: to put an end to its massive voter-registration that brought out poor African Americans and Latinos to vote against Republicans."

This is subjective statement to be sure, but it's one supported by evidence, including evidence of O'Keefe's malfeasance and mendacity--and Breitbart's abetting of it. And it also explains their attacks on NPR, that bastion of liberalism and alleged big-government love.

Over its 40 years of community organizing and direct service to low-income people, ACORN staffers did commit genuine transgressions; some folks broke the law. The embezzlement of $1 million by the brother of founder and chief organizer Wade Rathke comes to mind. ACORN's leadership covered it up, but it also forced the Rathke family to sign an "enforceable restitution agreement" to recover the money. Atlas and many others noted that after the scandal, ACORN instituted internal controls to prevent embezzlement and began commissioning independent investigations into incidents of apparent misconduct immediately.

Moreover, bigger fish have been fined and censured for fraud, misconduct, and malfeasance, and have escaped, not so surprisingly, withering far-right attacks like the ones that killed ACORN.

In 2009, Pfizer paid a $2.3 billion fine "to resolve criminal and civil liability arising from the illegal promotion of certain pharmaceutical products."

"Some of the largest service contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan have checkered histories of misconduct, including instances of shooting civilians, false claims against the government, violations of the Anti-Kickback Act, fraud, retaliation against workers' complaints, and environmental violations," the general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight told the Congressional Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan last month. "Dyncorp has 6 instances, 2 of which involved alleged sex trafficking in Bosnia-Herzegovina ($173,000 judgment)" and "KBR has 23 instances, including 6 government contract fraud cases and 8 guilty pleas," the POGO GC testified.

"Dyncorp currently provides many security services in sensitive areas around the world," the State Department's website says. With Dyncorp and Fluor, another contractor--"25 instances, including 3 government contract fraud cases ($21.5 million in penalties)," notes POGO--KBR holds the $2.4 billion contract with the US Army to feed, transport, house, and perform countless other tasks for US troops in Iraq until the end of this year.

There is no Defund KBR or Dyncorp Act before Congress, nor have O'Keefe and Breitbart launched hidden-camera stings on any of these companies, many of which have squandered American money and human lives.

"In assessing Breitbart and O'Keefe's claims, media should keep in mind their record of dishonest and illegal practices and their failed attempt to show that ACORN was engaging in criminal behavior," the folks at Media Matters reminded us last year.

Something for us all to keep in mind before the next Breitbart-O'Keefe hidden-camera exposé surfaces.