Why Sting Operations Cheapen Public Policy Discourse

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Editor’s Note: In this intensely polarized political environment, it is no surprise that nonprofits – particularly those operating in politically charged fields – would feel at risk. Traditionally that risk includes a lot of overheated rhetoric leading to vulnerability in both public policy decisions and public funding.

Unfortunately these risks are not new. But now those traditional lines of attack are being supplemented by the growing popularity of the video “sting.” Sometimes masquerading as journalism, these well-publicized stings are a penny ante theater in search of a venue. The plots are thinly constructed, and the precepts ridiculous, but somehow they are playing to full houses.

The scenario entails showing up at the organization in question (sometimes repeatedly, if they can’t at first find a patsy) and posing a situation that is unusual enough to throw the subject off base and then luring them into misbehavior. Granted, sometimes it does not take much. The misbehavior of the individual stung then becomes a proxy for the behavior of the whole organization – the small story becomes the bigger meaning and the die is cast.alt

The problem is that these kinds of stings have been infecting public policy conversations. The images and edited statements remain in people’s minds eyes, obscuring the real substance of the policy debates.

What’s a politically contentious nonprofit to do in the face of such stuff? Rick Cohen suggests that we scrutinize our own organizational cultures and practices to ensure as much integrity as possible. I agree with that, but it also behooves us to speak out against the absurdity of the tool being used to batter important organizations among us into a weakened state. We tend not to speak out on such stuff as a sector. When a “scandal” surfaces at a colleague nonprofit, many of us just keep our heads down, hoping we can stay out of the fray but what would happen if this sector took to loudly mocking the practice of the video sting – creating our own counter narrative about the practice?

Nonprofits need to take more control over the “story” we want heard by our public. Part of that is in loudly and often declaring these kinds of vacuous stings illegitimate and unworthy of the intelligence of the residents of this country.–Ruth McCambridge, Editor in Chief

On a recent late winter day, National Public Radio fundraising specialist Ron Schiller was having a great meal at the hip and expensive Milano’s in the posh Georgetown neighborhood in Washington D.C.  He was meeting with representatives of the “Muslim Education Action Center,” interested in donating $5 million to NPR – or so he thought.  Members of the group allegedly told Schiller that they were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Over the course of the meal, the conversation covered the Jewish control of the media and Zionist bias in news reporting and other topics of interest.

Schiller told the two men he was meeting with, “The Tea Party is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives and very fundamental Christian – I wouldn’t even call it Christian. It’s this weird evangelical kind of move.” And later added, “Tea Party people” aren’t “just Islamaphobic, but really xenophobic, I mean basically they are, they believe in sort of white, middle-America gun-toting. I mean, it’s scary. They’re seriously racist, racist people.”

It was only later that Schiller – and the rest of the world – learned that he’d been stung. Political activist James O’Keefe and his self-styled muckraking group, Project Veritas, had managed to get the whole thing on tape. Schiller, along with NPR CEO, Vivian Schiller (no relation), was fired.

And NPR is not alone. Other groups, many nonprofit, and many – but not all – considered liberal, have all been stung – and caught on tape. ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, have all had embarrassing, incriminating, or inappropriate remarks made public.

Each has been stung by people masquerading as potential donors, clients – even as telephone repairmen – aiming at generating some embarrassing news revelations. Is this investigative journalism?  Is the public being served?  Or is this noise that distracts from important issues? We think it’s the latter. These stings sidetrack the public into focusing on the miscues of individual nonprofit and government officials and staff, and rarely the quality of public discourse.

In the case of ACORN, the sting generated enough public outrage on conservative cable TV shows to lead to an external management review.  ACORN never recovered, in part because it didn’t make the corrective actions the external reviewers recommended.  In the end, ACORN’s problems were hardly the acts seen in the videos of its undertrained and inadequately managed staff.  The group’s undoing was its inability to come to grips with its managerial problems tracing back to the embezzlement of a seven-figure sum by the brother of ACORN’s founder and chief organizer.

The videos didn’t elucidate issues about how ACORN or any community-based organizing and advocacy effort might be better structured and managed. The video sting didn’t elevate the debate, but rather cheapened it. It muddied the issues, and left the public confused about the legitimacy of ACORN’s core functions versus its politicized image.

For Planned Parenthood, the sting involved people masquerading as pimps looking for abortions for underage prostitutes. It took visits to several Planned Parenthood centers until they found one where they could trap a less-than-attentive clerk. Even though Planned Parenthood fired the staff person in question and the staff person in the videos actually called the police, the sting has been used by opponents to call for defunding the organization.  But what did the events say about Planned Parenthood, as an organization?

The caught-on-tape phone call of Governor Scott Walker may well have weakened the Wisconsin conservative’s ability to carry out his agenda to make deep cuts in the state budget and simultaneously eviscerate the rights of public sector unions, but it isn’t clear that the sting helped public understanding.  The argument is that the sting, a blogger masquerading as right wing mega-donor David Koch, was able to get through to the Walker to talk political turkey when the governor was purportedly unwilling to make himself similarly accessible to Democratic state senators who had decamped for Illinois.

While the Governor let his guard down with Pseudo-Koch and embarrassed himself, the issue isn’t whether he was willing to chat up a storm with a conservative donor. Like any pol, Walker probably answered the call because of money and said things about what he’d like to do to his former colleagues across the border that he perhaps regrets having become public.  But Walker’s willingness to attack his opponents isn’t really new.  Much of what he and his Republican colleagues did to fast-track the anti-union legislation was reprehensible on its own accord – and the governor’s negotiating intransigence is turning off voters in his state.

But Wisconsin is emblematic of how communities, nonprofits, and labor are going to organize to stand up for government playing the role it has to play going forward regarding public funding for critical public services.  That’s the issue, that’s what needs to be discussed, that’s what should propel organizing around Wisconsin as the bellwether state for the kinds of cuts in programs and services that, if Walker succeeds, will devastate communities there and, by virtue of emulation, around the nation. The sting did not elevate that discussion.

And now with the latest sting aimed at NPR, the underlying issues are obscured by a “gotcha” mentality that only seeks to destroy an organization, rather than understand, change, or challenge it.

To his credit, the fatuous NPR executive never accepted the phony money offer, but he decided to talk big about the Tea Party movement, calling them anti-Islamicist, racist, and xenophobic, and suggested some less than complimentary things about the Republican Party overall.  He also said that he thought that NPR would be better off not accepting any government money.

All of the comments he made were his own, not NPR’s, certainly not endorsed by NPR.  NPR for its part made it clear that it wanted to get documents attesting to the legitimacy of the proposed donor organization, 990s or their equivalent, but none were forthcoming and no money or checks ever changed hands.

After the fact, as in the ACORN situation, there is evidence that the sting videos were significantly edited to present Schiller in the worst possible light. For example, the unedited video shows that Schiller’s “xenophobic” statement was actually a quote of a Republican ambassador.

Congressional leaders have called for defunding NPR and denying support to Planned Parenthood, as though the stings were sudden revelations to them. Of course the Republicans have been aiming at zeroing out NPR forever.

The stings and subsequent resignations and firings didn’t mollify Republicans’ positions on public radio or Planned Parenthood for that matter. The sudden faux outrage of the likes of Republican Congressman Eric Cantor and others taking to the House floor (or cable TV microphones) was hardly news.

So what does a nonprofit do when the caller on the phone or the prospective client is of unverifiable provenance?  What’s the regimen for functioning in an environment where we’ve dumbed down accountability to gotcha traps and stings?

First, a general principle:  Don’t fall prey to the fear of stings and go all secret and silent.  The nonprofit sector needs more openness, more transparency, more public discussion, not less.  If you want to be a perfect candidate for a sting, you will be doing the stingers a great service by trying to keep issues under wraps.  You might as well raise semaphores over your organization announcing that you have something to hide.  As Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Second, stand up for what you believe.  NPR’s rapid collapse in the wake of the sting has been truly disheartening.  While the sting caught an NPR fundraiser or two making eyes at the possibility of a multi-million dollar donation, it didn’t raise a scintilla of information about the journalism and community function of National Public Radio or its thousands of local affiliates.

Are there issues to debate about NPR?  Sure.  How about the core issue of whether NPR actually needs federal funding?  What is the significance of federal funding for NPR versus federal funding for NPR affiliates?  Given that all of the NPR affiliates are hardly as resource-rich as WETA or WGBH, how does federal funding affect the operations of public radio stations that aren’t quite as well-heeled?

There are also questions that could be raised about the need for NPR to expand its audience demographics beyond the 32 percent that hold graduate degrees (compared to 8 percent in the U.S. population), the 69 percent with Bachelor’s degrees (compared to 26 percent in the population), the median household income of NPR listeners of $90,100 (compared to $53,593 overall), and the 86 percent white (and 5 percent black) proportion of listeners (PDF).

But a sting of a fundraiser bloviating to impress potential donors doesn’t get to the root questions of explaining, justifying, or altering NPR’s federal subsidy – and no, killing federal funding for NPR has virtually zero impact on the federal deficit, it doesn’t even add up to a microblip.  But should a National Public Radio be considered a national organization for public subsidy purposes when its audience is so distinctly white and upper class?  This is an issue that could be debated productively – but won’t be, as stings become the way public policy is debated.

A third way to function in the sting era is to keep egos in check.  Like the Pew program officer who famously pronounced that Pew was funding campaign finance groups to appear like a mass movement, the NPR fundraiser sounded like his ego was working much faster than his brain.  Some people have suggested that his behavior was, unfortunately, typical of some fundraisers who throw caution, ethics, and intelligence to the curb in their pursuit of the big donation. If there is a solid lesson in the NPR sting for every single nonprofit employee, it is to remember the importance of humility and service.

A fourth way is to correct misguided staff, improve management oversight, and bolster training. In the cases of ACORN and Planned Parenthood, the sting was aimed at line staff, in many cases, line staff way down the food chain.  In some cases, the staff mishandled the traps and fell through manholes. As awful as the sting scenarios might have been, these line staff were likely responding the way most nonprofit service staff respond, with the default “how can I help” thought process. Planned Parenthood appears to have taken corrective steps, ACORN resisted them until an outside audit was conducted, and by then, ACORN had unraveled.

Targeting a sitting governor rather than a low-level staff person, pseudo-Koch didn’t elevate the debate about the Wisconsin state budget and the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions, but he revealed the highest officer of the state playing fast and loose with ethics, the campaign finance law, and the public trust.

But nonprofits – and legitimate journalism – should be concerned with elevating the quality of the public dialogue.

Catching the governor in a compromising position doesn’t make us know more or less about public sector unions – why they have been growing while private sector unions have been declining, how public sector officials negotiate with public unions when there is only one public sector compared to multiple private corporations competing to provide the unionized product, and whether the union issue is or isn’t at the heart of Wisconsin’s budget crisis.

Similarly, the verbal faux pas of NPR fundraiser Schiller and NPR CEO Schiller mean just about nothing for the content and quality of the 900 or so stations that carry NPR programming or the 764 radio stations operated by NPR’s official 268 members.  It is grossly unfair to trap a Washington-based NPR executive waxing thoughtlessly over drinks and assume that that tells anything about NPR stations serving Brownsville, Texas, Lafayette, La., or Fargo and Bismarck, N.D.

Don’t confuse the Planned Parenthood and NPR stings with the efforts of law enforcement.  Recently, authorities in California conducted a sting to capture unlicensed contractors. And authorities recently rounded up crooked politicians in Hudson County, N.J. Although law enforcement stings have the danger of sliding into entrapment, these and others are conducted for a legitimate public purpose and are checked and monitored by the court system.

The stings of either low-level staff or fundraisers with puffed up egos at ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and NPR are, in the end, fraudulent journalism.  They are stunts, pranks, punks. Remember, the videographer behind the ACORN and NPR stunts is the same guy who got himself and his colleagues arrested for clownishly trying to bamboozle their way into Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s office for an incoherent sting purpose. These stings tell us little more than the desire of ideological partisans to “get” their opponents.  They are efforts to smear rather than report, embarrass rather than educate and elucidate.

By misrepresenting who they were to these nonprofits, for journalistic purposes, the video stingers behaved unethically.  Is it fair to measure these people as journalists?  Yes.  Acting as citizen journalists, they feed their information to ideologically supportive media outlets.  The line between professional and citizen journalist has blurred in recent years.  That doesn’t mean that the advent of citizen journalism with an infusion of pranks trying to sting their opponents is immune from ethical considerations.  It does mean that efforts to make ethics a part of everyone’s understanding of journalism must be redoubled, because we are all now potentially journalists.

These stings have reduced public discourse to the level of “Candid Camera.”  Allen Funt would know better than to portray his gags as having anything to do with journalism, much less journalism of the investigative sort.  If nonprofits want to protect themselves, they—and the videographers and others that come to trap them—should stick to the facts, hew to transparency, be willing to correct errors, and always try to find the highest plane for discourse and debate.

  • Christine Sculati

    Rick: Thanks so much for writing this thought-provoking article. I completely agree that nonprofits and high quality journalism are critical for elevating the quality of the public dialogue.

  • Mike S.

    I agree that these sting operations are terrible journalism…but what are we going to do about it? This practice is not going to go away just because we think it’s unfair. It’s an undesirable byproduct of the democratization of media. I think it will probably pass as people learn to ignore it – just as they learned to ignore government propaganda that once held such sway.
    In the meantime, though, we have to stop caving to this crap. The fact that NPR lost execs over this – during a public funding battle – is infuriating to me. It only encourages this nonsense. Have some courage and stand by your people. And when someone attacks you, RESPOND. Don’t ‘launch an investigation’. Don’t be cool and detached and reasonable and apologetic. These people are openly declaring war on public media and the response is to run away saying “that’s not fair”.

  • Jsn Schumacher

    Although stings can be pretty shady, I do think they can serve a valuable service in exposing the reality of an organization’s operation vs their public face. And they can serve as a reminder for nonprofits to reinforce their mission and values to all their employees.

  • Michael Wyland

    It’s not clear to me whether the anger is directed at stings of nonprofit organizations, stings of perceived “liberal” organizations, or stings in general. The criticism of the sting of Gov. Scott Walker is, at best, muted in comparison to that of the other stings Mr. Cohen cites.

    What Mr. Cohen says about the questionable value of stings could also be said, with varying degrees of correlation, of stings against corporations and individuals. Mr. Cohen’s case would be helped if he could cite a couple such cases and give them equally condemnatory treatment.

    The democratization of the media as well as shrinking media budgets in most sectors (conglomerates like Fox, Vivendi, and CNN are, increasingly, outliers in their resources) means there are less trained and experienced journalists doing investigative reporting, especially at the local level. This is a vacuum into which bloggers, activists, gadflies, and just plain folks can enter, armed with readily available, inexpensive audio and video equipment. Results can then be shared at little or no charge with anyone in the world who accesses the Internet.

    We can rage against the dying of the light, yearn for the halcyon days of objective journalism (while forgetting all the unobjective journalism that also flourished alongside it), and hope against hope for better days.

    I would argue that true journalists seeking objectivity, ethics, standards, and earned credibility have a real opportunity to lead by example, using the same venues used by everyone else. The value proposition that will support such enterprises is the quality of the product.

    Both liberals and conservatives mistakenly believe there is too much evil in the world, centered in their political rivals. Like a malpractice attorney once told me, there is such a thing as malpractice, but it happens fgar less often than most people believe. Similarly, most people are motivated by their perceptions of good and desirable ends, both for themselves and for others. It requires some empathetic listening – listening with the intent to be influenced – to get past the vitriol and bias to find the real story. True journalists have an immense opportunity to work in this area, because it has been left fallow by the media identified as both left-wing and right-wing.

    Do we condemn, or do we investigate with the intent to learn and explain from a viewpoint other than our own?

  • carl1974

    Let’s not shoot the messenger. Ever watch the show “Bait Car”?…cops leave a car with hidden cameras in a bad neighborhood and eventually someone’s character reveals itself. We may not like what we saw on the video, but like the cops all they did was set the environment, get the cameras rolling and people’s character revealed itself.

    If I were a Board member at NPR, ACORN or Planned Parenthood I wouldn’t be wasting my energy on complaining about the pranksters. Instead I’d be having LONG discussions with the CEO and other Board members about staff recruitment, supervision and organizational culture.

  • Karol

    I wouldn’t be complaining I’d be suing.

  • BubbaLou

    I listen to NPR, I’m African-American, and I’m working poor. NPR works for me too! Not everybody who listens to npr is white, rich, and has a master’s degree. Keep it real!