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Don't give in to 'gotcha' stunts

By Scott Rosenberg, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Scott Rosenberg says NPR's Schiller lost her job after James O'Keefe set up an employee
  • He says O'Keefe has well-known history of tricking others into embarrassing mistakes
  • He says bosses cower, fire when faced with such stunts; it puts liars in charge of discourse
  • Rosenberg: We can't stop this race to the gutter, but we can step out of its way

Editor's note: Scott Rosenberg is a co-founder of Salon.com. He is director of MediaBugs.org, blogs at Wordyard and author of "Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters."

(CNN) -- On Tuesday, National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller lost her job, thanks to the antics of conservative trickster James O'Keefe. O'Keefe, you may remember, is the guy who tried (unsuccessfully) to lure a CNN reporter onto a boat under false pretenses, so he could record a seduction scene.

Last year, he was arrested while dressed up as a telephone worker to gain entry to Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans office. He pleaded guilty to entering federal property on false pretenses.

O'Keefe's most famous exploit was to dress in a pimp costume and attempt to coax representatives of ACORN, the progressive community organization, to offer tips on getting away with child prostitution.

Only it turned out he didn't actually wear his outrageous duds while talking to, and recording, the ACORN employees. Like so much of O'Keefe's work, that was a trick of the editing. Even his false pretenses have false pretenses.

In the NPR affair, O'Keefe's confederates posed as representatives of a phony Muslim organization, offered a bogus $5 million donation, and recorded some ill-considered lunchtime chitchat with Ron Schiller, NPR's top fundraiser. Schiller called Tea Party supporters "racist" and suggested that NPR might be better off in the long run without federal money.

Once the Web lit up with an excerpted video of the lunch (later supplemented by an ostensibly complete two-hour version), Schiller got fired -- and, in less than 24 hours, his boss Vivian Schiller (no relation) joined him out the door.

Schiller's fall puts NPR funding at risk

Ron Schiller behaved recklessly and stupidly, no question. Shouldn't he have smelled a rat? How could his sniffer fail him so spectacularly? Why would he talk so unguardedly? As NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard put it in a post mortem, "We live in public. The mic is always on."

O'Keefe's success at toppling NPR's brass has put us on notice: Deceit is now an acceptable tactic in the culture wars. Liars rule our discourse.

I use that word consciously and deliberately to describe O'Keefe. His organization is named, ludicrously, Project Veritas, and his fans view him as a truth-teller, but he's the inverse of a trustworthy narrator.

Deception is the very core of his act.

This kind of deception is becoming depressingly common, and you'd think we'd be learning to react more cautiously. Instead, just as the Obama administration dumped Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod the moment Andrew Breitbart framed her with a deceitfully edited video, NPR's board caved at lightning speed.

Opinion: Set public broadcasting free.

Given O'Keefe's record, you'd think the organization might have waited to assess whether this video was, like its predecessors, edited with ill intent. But the NPR board went straight to the crisis playbook: Act fast, cut your losses, try to move past a fiasco. In doing so, NPR empowered O'Keefe's brand of charlatanry and opened the door for others who might feel like deceiving and surreptitiously recording anyone who presents a target.

The meltdown at NPR: What happens now?
Meet the man behind the NPR sting

This isn't a simple partisan concern. Similar tactics caused major headaches for Wisconsin's embattled Republican governor recently, when he got duped by a caller impersonating conservative billionaire David Koch. Liberals are capable of stunts and stings, too. Exploiting the dysfunction of our media system is a game anyone can play.

We can't stop this race to the gutter, but we can step out of its way.

For one thing, we'd all better get much more adept at the art of what cultural and social critic Howard Rheingold calls "crap detection." To defend ourselves, we're going to have to get good at sensing ruses and foiling hoaxes.

We'd better start vetting the people who approach us the way a skeptical editor checks out the copy submitted by a first-time freelancer. (I recommend Dan Gillmor's book and project Mediactive as a great primer in digital-age media smarts.)

In the long run O'Keefe is likely to flame out in some embarrassing overreach. But he'll leave a long trail of suspicion and distrust. And in the short run a lot of us are going to be stuck in his mendacious world. The next time he springs some tawdry gotcha trap, we can only hope our employers take a little more care and time to consider the source than NPR did.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Scott Rosenberg.

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