This was a telling exchange from last night when CNN host Piers Morgan asked Andrew Breitbart about the tactics of setting up a phony Muslim front group in order to secretly tape a NPR fundraising executive at lunch [emphasis added]:
BREITBART: I know, but this is done all the time. NBC and Dateline dressed up as muslims and walked through NASCAR to try to get the American people, the tea party extremists that ron schiller and NPR, you know, allude to, to try and get them to say intemperate things about Muslims. This is done on To Catch A Predator, this has been done in the media forever. This is because of James [O'Keefe]-- as I said, the reason people are talking about the tactics and whether or not they're correct is because an avowed conservative is using the tactics that the left-of-center media has used for years.
Breitbart is correct in the sense that undercover, hidden camera gotcha's have been used for many years by the mainstream media, although I'd argue the technique is not used very often. In fact, it's quite rare. And yes, NBC's To Catch A Predator is probably the most famous example of the hidden camera premise, as the show famously invites adult men to meet who they think are underage girls at their homes only to discover the cameras, and the cops, are waiting for them.
Another memorable instance of the technique was when ABC News went undercover, with cameras, at the Food Lion groceries chain to investigate whether it was selling unhealthy meat. (Food Lion sued ABC News for fraud and won, but was awarded a settlement of just $2.)
The point is, mainstream news organizations have usually opted for hidden camera gotcha's, complete with elaborate schemes and phony identities, in order to try to prove, for instance, that consumers were being sold tainted meat, or that sexual predators are arranging illicit encounters with underage girls. Yet to that list Breitbart wants to add taping an NPR fundraiser in order to catch him making critical statements about conservative activists?
One of those things just doesn't belong.
And that's where Breitbart, who clung to the notion on CNN that he's a journalist, plays a dangerous game in his attempt to present O'Keefe's partisan stings as legitimate fact-finding endeavors. Setting up a phony religious organization and arranging meetings with broadcasting executives and taping their conversations doesn't represent journalism in any way, shape or form. Journalism, especially investigative journalism, is practiced for the public good.
Here's what newsroom ethicist Bob Steele wrote in the wake of the Food Lion lawsuit, which prompted debate about the use of undercover cameras [emphasis added]:
To justify deception we must be pursuing exceptionally important information. It must be of vital public interest, such as preventing profound harm to individuals or revealing great system failure.
Sorry, but surreptitiously recording someone (with no connection to the NPR newsroom and who has no input into its editorial content) making lunchtime comments that offend conservatives doesn't represent journalism in the pursuit of important or profound information. It simply represents surreptitiously recording someone making lunchtime comments that offend conservatives.