Entrapment as Journalism

02/22/2011 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In September 2009 conservative activists Hannah Giles and James O'Keefe released a video of ACORN employees allegedly giving the pair advice on how to run a prostitution ring and avoid taxes, among other activities. This led to a massive backlash against ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a network of organizations that focused on voter registration and housing issues for those in low- and middle-income neighborhoods. This "scoop" led to a move to defund ACORN at both the federal and state level. A Republican legislator in Florida said, "The gig is up for ACORN." He was right.

ACORN is now defunct, thanks to the effort following the release of Giles and O'Keefe's tapes. Those on the right held this up as a victory as ACORN was defunded and eventually disbanded while the left bemoaned the tactics used by Giles and O'Keefe, namely the heavy editing employed by the two. Numerous investigations discovered no criminal wrongdoing by the ACORN employees.

Fast forward to Wednesday, when Buffalo Beast blogger Ian Murphy called Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, posing as billionaire conservative David Koch. In a 20 minute conversation, Walker said some damning things, most notably admitting that he and his staff had considered sending "trouble makers" into the crowds of protesters in Madison. Walker's fate, unlike ACORN's, has yet to be decided.

But the one thing that sticks out about all of this is the inanity of it. The ACORN video was stupid, as was the reactionary backlash that followed. Calling someone up and pretending to be a conservative billionaire in order to try to entrap a governor into saying something stupid is, for lack of a better word, stupid. For it to become the major news story about Wisconsin for the week is even more nonsensical.

This is not journalism; it is simply taking shortcuts. If Giles and O'Keefe truly believed that ACORN was in the business of prostitution and tax evasion (or of advising these kinds of enterprises), they should have done some real investigative reporting that went beyond heavily editing otherwise vanilla videos. If Murphy thinks that Walker is involved in shady dealings, then he should have tried to uncover them without pretending to be somebody he is not. Real investigative reporting may not be easy and may not bring you massive amounts of page hits all of the time, but it is journalism; not something you would see on Crank Yankers.

While it may be nostalgic and a bit naive to pine for the days of Woodward and Bernstein, individuals of my generation have only been exposed to mostly mediocre news media. We've seen the rise of cable news that, while giving us unprecedented access to major world events, has also given us unprecedented access to misinformation. We have seen an uproar about presidential fellatio but little resistance during the lead-up to an invasion of a country under false pretenses. We have news stations masquerading as objective when they are anything but, on both the left and right. We have seen the erosion of context, with outlets preferring a short sound bite over important contextual background. Reliable, trustworthy sources are dwindling as the media atmosphere simply becomes more noisy, rather than newsy.

And now we have "journalists" entrapping subjects by lying to them. There is a reason for the rules regarding on the record and off the record comments. If pseudo-journalists begin abusing these rules, the trust between journalists and subjects will begin to erode, making subjects less willing to speak with journalists-either on or off the record. While Murphy's prank may have gotten the desired results -- a sound bite from Walker that makes him sound bad and enough pageviews to crash his blog -- the long-term implications far outweigh the short-term "benefits."