NPR scandal and the rush to judgment

    So what was the most troubling thing former NPR executive Ron Schiller said on tape to two men from that fictitious Muslim organization?
    Maybe that the Republican party had been hijacked by xenophobic tea partiers?

    Imagine how events might have been different if we’d known immediately that Schiller hadn’t actually expressed that opinion. A careful review of the full two hour video of Schiller’s now-famous lunch meeting shows that when Schiller said that, he was attributing those views to two prominent Republicans he knew.

    Indeed, several analyses of the video from conservative activist James O’Keefe show that the 11-minute version he used to torpedo NPR misrepresented Schiller’s remarks in several important ways.

    It’s beyond ironic that the first thorough analysis of the O’Keefe video was done by The Blaze, the website founded by conservative yakker Glenn Beck. That was two days after the 11-minute version had done its damage.

    But the lesson that really hits me is how sloppy and superficial the endless news cycle has made us journalists and bloggers. Everyone has to react so quickly to a breaking story like this that no one could possibly take the time to study the raw video before offering up an edgy, know-it-all analysis. The full two-hour video was posted the same day as the edited, 11-minute version.

    When the story broke, NPR was of course besieged with requests for comment from people who’d seen only the damning 11-minute video. NPR condemned Schiller’s comments as appalling before anybody at the network had even seen the raw tape. The video was posted at 6:30 a.m. on March 8th.. NPR first got wind of it at 7:45. The statement was issued before 11.

    Once NPR came out with its hands up, every news organization had the network’s surrender on the record, and a narrative was established: A senior NPR executive said horrible things on tape, confirming conservative stereotypes of the network at the worst possible time, forcing NPR into frantic damage control.

    Suppose NPR had taken a few more hours before offering a substantive comment, then said something different: that while this fundraiser, who is leaving the company and who has no role in producing NPR content expressed some troubling opinions, the video was edited to misrepresent the conversation in significant ways; that remarks Schiller made about the Republican party that appear to be his own were actually his re-telling of the views of others; that in the lunch meeting Schiller said positive things about the Republican party and the intelligence of conservatives; that he told the make-believe Muslims a half dozen times that no donation would get them influence over network content; that the video depicts Schiller laughing agreeably to a statement that the phony group promoted Sharia law, while in fact he was reacting to a trivial comment about the lunch reservation.

    The narrative might then have been different – a debate between O’Keefe, claiming to have exposed bias in NPR, and the network arguing it had been slimed by an ideological cheap shot artist. Other news organizations would have then been compelled to go to the full two-hour video, make their own judgments and talk to both sides.

    Remember the video excerpt that appeared to show U.S. Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod expressing racist views in a speech to the NAACP? The Obama administration forced her to resign without ever looking at the whole speech, even though Sherrod was telling journalists who bothered to call that the video didn’t just misrepresent her remarks, but got her views on race exactly backwards.

    When I spoke to folks at NPR, I could see what a fix they were in when this thing broke. While O’Keefe’s 11-minute hit piece was on the internet at 6:30, the full two-hour piece didn’t appear until mid-day. So the network, which was blindsided by this, had to figure out how to react while the short version of the video spun around the blogosphere and whipped every critic of NPR into a frenzy.

    Spokeswoman Anna Christopher said NPR spoke to Ron Schiller, who admitted speaking too expansively about politics and saying embarrassing things. He didn’t have the advantage of the full tape to review either. A growing horde of media were demanding comment, and I’m sure the NPR board was getting an earful from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, members of Congress, who knows who else. So they decided to fall on their collective sword, and by the time people began taking a closer look at the full video in the following days, it was too late the shift the narrative.

    I know the Old Media days are gone forever, but I’ve thought of how any seasoned newspaper reporter would have handled the NPR story, in the days before reporters had to blog all day.

    He or she would have made sure to look at the unedited video, look into O’Keefe’s history, talk to a variety of sources on and off the record, and actually think about it before writing.

    You can do that when you have a day to cover a story, not when you’re in a frantic rush to get something up on the website as fast as you possibly can. I wonder how many bloggers and online journalists even tried to contact O’Keefe to ask for the unedited video that morning before they joined the hype.

    In retrospect, O’Keefe was clever to post the 11-minute stink bomb and let it do its work for several hours before putting up the unedited version. He got the benefit of establishing the story with the short version, and the credibility of saying he gave you the full two-hour tape on the same day.

    Maybe if you’re NPR and you’re in the vortex of a horrific news storm like this, you have no choice but to react as quickly as the network did. But I’d like to think a placeholder “we’re concerned and we’re looking into it” statement and a day of thoughtful review might have yielded a more honest public debate about the incident.

    In short, it’s not a bad idea to remember that doing something right is almost always better than doing it fast.

    David Folkenflik of NPR news, whose thorough and fair coverage of this has been a reminder of what the network really stands for, did two thoughtful pieces that are worth another listen.

    This one on Morning Edition a week ago looked at the manipulation of the original video by O’Keefe. And this piece on All Things Considered looked at how the frenzied news cycle generated ill-informed coverage. Folkenflik quotes two respected online journalists who express some regret about their initial coverage of the controversy.

    Also, If you haven’t heard it, in this week’s On The Media Bob Garfield has a really interesting interview with O’Keefe about the Schiller video and O’Keefe’s methods. On the website you can also hear Garfield’s unedited, 45 minute exchange O’Keefe.

    It’s often contentious, and O’Keefe’s makes some interesting points in his defense, including the assertion that mainstream journalists routinely select and showcase the most damning quotes and video excerpts interviews in their reporting.

    Garfield counters that when ethical journalists do that, they take care not to misrepresent the views of an interview subject as a whole. In my experience, some journalists do that better than others.

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