NPR CEO Vivian Schiller resigned this morning, one day after release of an undercover video showing two NPR development officers having lunch with a pair of men posing as members of a Muslim organization offering to give NPR $5 million. (You can see the video for yourself here; take note that the subtitles have a bias of their own and don't always accurately reflect what the participants are saying.) The video is the latest sally by conservative film maker James O'Keefe, whose past targets for journalistic sting operations include ACORN and Planned Parenthood.
On the liberal side, Buffalo Beast journalist Ian Murphy "prank-called" Wisconsin governor Scott Walker pretending to be billionaire donor David Koch to discuss union-busting strategies. Walker talks about tricking Democratic state senators into coming back to town to make up a quorum, and he rejects "Koch's" suggestion of planting troublemakers among the protesters on tactical, not ethical, grounds.
I have no intention of commenting on the substance of these tapes. I just want to reflect on how the landscape has changed. In 1991, the Rodney King video highlighted the power of citizens with cameras to hold the police accountable for their actions. Police and others who interact with the public were put on notice that their behavior better follow accepted guidelines, because it might be recorded. But now we've entered a new world of citizen journalist sting operations. Even people who don't think of themselves as public figures have to consider the possibility that "private" conversations may really be set-ups meant to expose their folly, their rashness, their prejudices, or their less-than-honorable motives.
I'm left wondering how many of us would come off looking good if the most careless or mean-spirited or even politically incorrect thing we said all week played over and over again on air. Our worst moment would be construed to show what we really think and who we really are.
It's a daunting thought. And what if we were held responsible not only for what we ourselves said, but for what anyone who worked for us said, like ACORN being labeled practically a criminal enterprise, Planned Parenthood facing a sudden new assault, and Vivian Schiller taking the hit for the ill-considered words of her fundraisers?
One last comment. Whatever you think of government funding for NPR, if you value your local station or a particular program, now would be a great time to make a contribution. That's what I'm going to do as soon as I sign off.