Pod people: Forgiveness & ethics

In this week's Crossroads podcast we discuss media coverage of Newt Gingrich's comments on the importance of forgiveness to him. We also discussed the ethics of James O'Keefe's NPR sting. I thought it might be worth sharing two other discussions of the latter topic. Pete Wehner at the conservative site Commentary writes about some of what made the NPR sting so interesting and newsworthy:

That said, the technique that James O'Keefe used to snag Schiller does, on reflection, leave me a bit queasy. I understand that sting operations can serve a useful role. But surreptitiously recording conversations of either NPR executives or governors (see the liberal blogger, pretending to be conservative donor David Koch, who taped a phone conversation with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) can easily cross into dangerous terrain. Human nature is weak and can be easily exploited. I and virtually every person I know have said things in private conversations that we would not want recorded and broadcast publicly. And when you add to the mix people who are play-acting and goading their interlocutors, concerns about how the tape was subsequently edited, not to mention the offer of a multimillion-dollar donation, and you are in questionable ethical territory.

I don't pretend to know where the line should be drawn between responsible investigative journalism on the one hand and irresponsible entrapment on the other. Deceit in the cause of some other aim and some other good is sometimes morally justifiable; sometimes it's not. But I do know that the tendency we all have to battle is to take delight in watching our ideological opponents trip up in a sting operation but squawk when our allies step into a similar trap, to react one way when James O'Keefe does the recording and another if a liberal blogger or 60 Minutes does it. In thinking through what’s fair, it's probably worth taking into account this question among others: how would I feel if I were on the receiving end of the sting operation?

And at the Baltimore Sun, television critic David Zurawik writes of his changing views on sting operations. He began by condemning them but now thinks they might have value. He writes:

After listening to a week of discussion and watching the Sunday morning shows today, it astounds how some members of the mainstream media can overlook certain facts that challenge their belief systems.

In discussing the ethics of the bombshell video that conservative filmmaker James O'Keefe made of Ron Schiller, the former head of fund raising at NPR, the conventional wisdom heard again Sunday morning is that mainstream TV news organizations used to use hidden cameras, but, by and large, they don't any more.

Not true, and the evidence is staring everyone in the face -- even as they ignore it.

He shows examples from CBS News and NBC News from the last couple of weeks. He acknowledges it's a complicated issue, then writes:

In trying to re-formulate my thinking on this, I am starting to believe that such techniques of hidden cameras and microphones might be one of the only ways to get at the lies some people in the media tell us. I am not yet saying they are ethically acceptable, but rather that they are one of the only techniques that have proven effective with media and political liars.

In my view, there's no doubt that these stings are an effective way to get at the lies. Lying to obtain information is always a possibility. That doesn't make it ethically defensible, however. What do you think?

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