Hatchet Job: The Video Hit Piece that Made Both NPR and Its Critics Look Bad

A video hit piece by conservative provocateur James O'Keefe makes both NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller and O'Keefe, an enemy of public radio, look bad

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Illustration by Paul Sahre for TIME

On March 9, the list of radio jobs lost to video got a little longer. NPR, under siege by conservatives who want to zero out public-media funding, ousted its CEO after a video sting by a group run by conservative provocateur James O'Keefe.

In the video, NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller and a colleague met with two members of a fictional Muslim group dangling a $5 million donation. Prodded by the "donors," Schiller said liberals "might be more educated" than conservatives, described Republicans as "anti-intellectual" and said the GOP had been "hijacked" by the "racist" Tea Party.

Or did he? After the tape became national news, and after NPR hastily sacrificed its CEO to appease critics, a video editor at the Blaze — a website founded by Fox News host Glenn Beck — compared the edited sting video and the two-hour original, also posted online.

Schiller did say some bad things, the Blaze found. But the short video took them out of context, like a bad reality show, and made them sound worse. It transposed remarks from a different part of the meeting to make it seem as if Schiller were amused by the group's "goal" of spreading Shari'a law. It left examples of his complimenting Republicans on the cutting-room floor.

And that Tea Party quote? Schiller was, for at least part of it, describing the views of some Republican friends. Somehow — oops! — O'Keefe left that bit out.

The full video hardly clears Schiller. His opining about liberals' education and conservatives' anti-intellectualism, for instance, still comes off as smug and would have hurt NPR regardless. (The network was still feeling backlash from firing Juan Williams last fall after he said on Fox that some Muslims on planes made him nervous.) But the full picture shows O'Keefe's partisan hit job — trying to link NPR to liberal elitism and scary Muslims — was manipulative too.

And it shows how sadly easy it is to take advantage of the attention span and metabolism of media today. O'Keefe's sound bites got picked up everywhere, not least on public radio. (On my blog, I posted about the short video and NPR's response when the story broke; I eventually watched and wrote about the full video but wish I had sooner.)

O'Keefe did post the full video, though his checkered history almost required it. His video scam on community organizer ACORN was shown to be deceptively edited (he didn't volunteer the full source then), he pleaded guilty to attempting to enter a U.S. Senator's office in disguise, and another failed scam involved trying to sexually humiliate a CNN reporter.

By the time anyone scrutinized his NPR video, O'Keefe had already claimed a scalp and framed the narrative (snooty liberals insult you on your dime!). While his manipulations would have been a firing offense at a news outlet with integrity, they only made O'Keefe more of a hero to his fans: he was making a bigger point, and, hey, the libs and the MSM do it too!

But shamelessness is not the same as honesty. Any narrative has to be edited: a film, a book, this column. You can do it in good faith to concisely tell a story (as NPR generally does, whatever its leanings). Or you can enlist your scissors for a sweetened "larger truth" while feeding the cynical idea that everyone does it.

There are plenty of valid arguments you could make against public-media funding without being misleading: that donors can pick up the slack, that there are far more media options today, that NPR and PBS are boutique products we can't afford. There are plenty of valid counterarguments: that it's a tiny sliver of the budget, that private markets don't always pay for important news coverage, that cuts will hit rural red-state audiences far harder than urban elites.

But we should have that argument on honest terms. And O'Keefe's tactics undercut his case. If he wants to be rid of public media, is this what he wants to replace them with? I don't mean ideological media; the fact that Glenn Beck's website exposed the sleight of hand shows that you can be opinionated yet fair. I mean media used as a weapon. To the James O'Keefes of the world, the news is a war in which mainstream journalists must cautiously wield X-Acto knives and he gets to bring an axe.