In defense of secret recordings — and ethics
I’m writing in defense, I guess, of secret recordings and incognito reporters.
Let me explain: I am not secretly recording interviews or dressing like a pimp, a Muslim or anything other than who I am, and I am not defending James O’Keefe III or others practicing ideological gotcha journalism that bends facts and ignores context. I am suggesting that some journalism ethics and even state laws on recording conversations should be up for debate on whether they’re serving the purpose (and the people) they’re supposed to.
If you listen really hard, you can hear the other shoe dropping from the scandal that hit National Public Radio last week — the fundraising executives secretly recorded saying exactly the horrible things conservatives want to hear NPR execs saying.
With far less volume and attention than what made the fundraisers look so guilty, once again O’Keefe’s squad of conservative “citizen journalists” have edited tape to get the results they wanted, boiling down two hours to less than a dozen minutes to portray Answer B as though it resulted from Question A. To the credit of O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, the full video is posted online so you can “judge for yourself,” and NPR’s David Folkenflik has, finding that fundraiser Ron Schiller’s “most provocative remarks were presented in a misleading way.”
He draws the conclusion based not just on comparing the tapes but from sources such as a journalism ethics teacher and from The Blaze, the conservative website founded by conspiracy theorist and no-friend-to-the-libs Glenn Beck.
“If you look at two hours in total, you largely get an impression that these are pretty — they seem to be fairly balanced people, trying to do a fairly good job,” said The Blaze’s Scott Baker, as quoted by Folkenflik.
This comes after the damage is done, though, with two executives out and one on suspension just as federal funding for National Public Radio was being discussed in Congress. The institution’s name has been smeared and, what’s worse is that O’Keefe is being called a journalist (albeit “a new kind of journalist — Johnny Knoxville meets Glenn Beck in Michael Cera’s body,” in the somewhat nauseating words of entertainment and media site thewrap.com). Mashing together sheer ideology with shoddy practices doesn’t make for real journalism any more than seeking only outcomes that match a thesis makes for real science.
Ethics that serve the bad guys
Notice, though, that I have not mentioned the use of hidden cameras or audio. While critics such as Eric Deggans at tampabay.com don’t like O’Keefe being called a journalist because of “his use of tactics most journalists would find unethical,” which seems to be as much about secret recordings as about manipulative editing, I would argue journalists (real ones) have gone too far in the direction of observing ethics that serve the bad guys rather than the public good. Most notorious among these ethics is the need for “balance” that puts, for instance, outright climate change deniers with weak credentials on the same level as legitimate climatologists. Talk to a scientist warning of the long-term results of inaction on climate change and it seems as though you’re required to bring on some yahoo who thinks it’s clever to note that it snowed last week.
And then there’s the bit about always representing yourself as a reporter, the logic of which escapes me for situations that should be experienced as an average person. Certainly the food critics among us haven’t brushed aside the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the logic that announcing a critic is present will warp results expected by those who aren’t critics. There have been many times I’ve stumbled into a situation as a consumer that simply must be written about; there was no reason to have gone into it announcing my profession and it would be crazy to discard my experience once pen goes to paper. One of my long-standing complaints about corporate and institutional public and media relations offices, in fact, is that they have created two truths, one for “the public” and one for “the media,” rather than the single truth I should get whether I call as me or a representative of people like me. Classic journalistic ethics calls for me to always ask for the experience of a reporter rather than of a person.
The ethical ban against secret recordings is also a little odd, if you look at it as an invitation for reluctant sources or hostile interviews to deny their own words. Traditionally journalists are supposed to hold fiercely to their notes as the truth of the matter — Stephen Glass certainly did — but increasingly people living in a world where everything is recorded will start to wonder why notes, written in scrawls and scribbles while in the midst of war or a torrent of debate, are more trustworthy than digital audio.
On the other hand, people react very strangely to the presence of an audio recorder. One reporter covering a scandal (at a college newspaper, no less) was accused of taping without permission because she had been hiding her recorder, the students complained, in the hand holding the notepad on which she was taking notes of their interview. The device was indeed under the notepad; I can’t wait to hear how well these students do at taking notes with their recorders atop the notepads they’re writing on. I also just had a meeting about an overdue Freedom of Information request with two lawyers who turned down my request to record the meeting, but we all sat there taking our own notes while clarifying, over and over, exactly what it was I wanted from the city’s files — and this was after two typed requests and a number of e-mails. Communication is hard, apparently.
Retention of deniability
A final example comes from the customer service desk at Sprint, where I swear the executive overseeing customer service and retention must be working for Verizon. Calls I made about Sprint’s disappointing and frustrating Mi-Fi device went on for hours, almost all of which I recorded. (As you probably know, customer service calls at Sprint and other companies say “your call may be monitored or recorded” or similar phrases, and I took them up on their offer.) Let me tell you: Customer service reps don’t like it when you record them.
“Are you recording me now? We do not consent to be recorded,” said Kevin, of the Escalation Management Team, who kept me on the phone for nearly 14 minutes one day before abruptly ending the call as soon as I told him he was on tape. I suspect the call could have gone on forever had I not told him.
What seems to be at play in all these situations is the retention of deniability, although I’m sure any or all of these people would deny that. Usually when I press the point I hear back a rightful but nonsensical “I just don’t want to be recorded,” and noting that having a recording is safer for both sides in an interview and virtually a guarantee of accurate quotes goes nowhere. While it’s clear secret recording can feel like a violation, a sensation you’d think would be diminished in an aboveboard interview situation, it’s also clear that people are far more comfortable being recorded when they’re not asked. When they call corporate customer service. When they call the police. When they walk into an office building. When they use an automated teller. When they speak at a public meeting.
Reporters in general are in favor of accountability, and I assume many gnash their teeth as much as I do when following traditional reporter ethics that seem designed to allow the truth to slip away, or to greatly complicate the pursuit of it. It’s those times when you envy the gonzo journalist at the Buffalo Beast who called claiming to be rich conservative David Koch and tricked Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker into showing his hand in the fight against collective bargaining and Democratic state senators. It’s those times you even envy O’Keefe and his crowd, although it’s vital to note the different outcomes: The Beast’s reports about Walker are confirmed, while the sting of NPR is shown to have been cooked.
Stephen Glass can fake his notes, and James O’Keefe can edit his video into a con. Fox News can show the wrong video clips. Ed Bradley and “60 Minutes” can rig a car to fake an unintended acceleration problem. (And ABC can lose the Food Lion case, despite film from hidden cameras, on tangential details instead of journalistic substance.)
Ultimately, it’s really not about what tools are ethical. It’s about using tools ethically. It’s time to have a conversation about what what that means in a new millennium, and you can record me when we hold it.