Everyone — the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto, the American Spectator, even National Public Radio's chief executive Vivian Schiller — is pronouncing themselves appalled at the comments made by two NPR executives in a video put out by James O'Keefe's Project Veritas. That's understandable, because the comments are troubling.
As fascinating as it is to see what NPR executives are saying privately about Tea Party members, Zionists, and Jewish owners of newspapers, though, it seems to me that the techniques used to obtain the video are also troubling. The self-described "citizen journalists" lied. They intentionally falsified their own identities. They claimed to be representatives of a Muslim organization wanting to give $5 million to NPR, when in fact they had made up the organization and had no intention of giving $5 million to NPR. For a group called "Project Veritas" to go around lying about who it is for the purpose of catching people saying silly things or getting reaction shots of the people sitting there laughing or eating while the Project Veritas members said silly things obscures the purpose of the organization, whose name, after all, means "truth." What is Project Veritas about, anyway? Lying? Or truth-telling?
It'd be one thing if NPR were actually taking money from Muslim Brotherhood members announcing they wanted to get more of the Hamas and Hezbollah perspective on American airwaves. And it'd be one thing if journalists were exposing that reality. But that's not what's happened here. It's just as problematic when a conservative journalist does this to the left-wingers at NPR as when a leftist journalist calls up Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin pretending to be David Koch. Journalists are supposed to be in the business of truth-telling, not lying.
When I was managing editor of The New York Sun, we had a policy about this sort of thing, and we took it seriously. The policy was very simple: reporters couldn't lie to get information. They didn't always have to identify themselves as reporters, but they couldn't identify themselves as something or someone they were not.
The Project Veritas Web site has a whole page devoted to whether phone conversations can be lawfully recorded. It's a separate question whether the group's own actions in this NPR affair — particularly if they included emails or phone calls designed to lure the NPR officials to the lunch at which they were secretly taped for the purpose of creating a video then used to fundraise for Project Veritas — amount to wire fraud. Regardless of the legality of it, as a moral matter, the right-wing journalists posing as Muslims wasted the time of the NPR officials just as the left-wing journalist posing as David Koch wasted the time of Governor Walker. Without getting too sanctimonious about it, anyone who believes as a general rule in treating others the way they'd like to be treated themselves would probably want to hold their applause for these sorts of operations, no matter how grating they find NPR or, for that matter, Governor Walker.